Recently I was invited to speak at a church in our town where a friend of mine is the senior pastor.
While I was speaking, I experienced something incredibly distracting. I kept recognizing people.
“Hey! They used to attend my church!”
They were everywhere! This of course led to all sorts of questions, the biggest of which was: Why did they leave?
Ever been there?
One of the hardest parts of church leadership is watching people walk away. I want to take some time in this post to talk about reasons that people are leaving churches. All of these reasons are from real life examples, drawn from people who either left our church or came to our church and described why they left their old church.
My hope is that this post would encourage you because sometimes people just leave and there isn’t much you can or should do about it. But also, I hope this post challenges you because sometimes people leave because of weakness or unhealthiness in our churches.
1. I Am Lonely
I recently conducted an exit interview with someone from our church who was leaving. She was a deeply invested attender — both giving financially and volunteering her time — not the kind of person we wanted to lose!
Why was she leaving? She told me that attending our church was lonely. Ouch. Upon asking a few more questions, what I learned is that she didn’t feel connected and cared for. I believe that her story represents many who leave our churches.
How do people get connected and cared for in your church? How do you know about they and what they need? There has to be some avenue.
For us, it is through small groups and volunteering. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this line:
“I never felt connected until I started serving.”
“I never really felt like church was home until I joined a small group.”
It is mission critical for us to get people plugged into a group and into serving. The bigger your church becomes, the more important this is.
So, what are your avenues for connection and care? When you discover them, leverage them like crazy!
2. This Doesn’t Feel Authentic
I’m guessing you’ve heard this one. It is the mantra of the millennial.
I’ve conducted a bunch of exit-interviews with millennials who are leaving our church, trying to understand what they mean by authenticity and why exactly they are leaving. What I’ve come to understand is that authenticity feels like being invited into the life of the worship leader or preacher and permitted to see a bit of the mess.
Moments where I have seen millennials moved by authenticity include:
- When the person on stage talks about a rough spot in his marriage
- Humor, especially the occasional self-deprecating joke
- When the service doesn’t go perfectly and the people on stage make a joke about it
- When a non-staff member is invited to share, even if it is through video
- When the worship leader takes a moment to share about their life
- When the teacher uses “us” and “we” instead of “you”
Essentially, a person begging for authenticity wants to know if you are real because they desperately want to be real. This is something that we are working hard at improving because it is still a top reason for why people leave our church.
In my opinion, the bigger your church is and the more polished and professional your services are, the harder authenticity is to believe.
3. You Didn’t Do What I Wanted
People don’t like to be told no. Have you noticed this?
There have been quite a few people who’ve left our church because we either didn’t implement their idea or we shut down a program or event that was their “thing.” Often it feels a bit like a hostage situation.
What I’ve learned is that you basically have two options as a church leader. You either let your vision drive or you let other people drive. Only one of these options takes you somewhere that you want to go. Vision.
I was once part of a church that described themselves as a “menu-driven” church. In other words, they accommodated everyone and their 100 million different programs and ideas. That church hasn’t grown in years. Vision drives growth and vision comes from leadership.
Not everyone will love your vision and yes, some people will leave when you don’t do what they want you to do. We have to be ok with this. We have to learn to say no and accept the consequences.
4. Poor Teaching
By far the number one reason that people abandon their former churches and start attending our church is the preaching they experience from our teaching pastor when they visit our church. It’s almost every weekend that someone in our atrium tells me about the first time they came to our church and how the Bible came alive.
“I started understanding the Bible for the first time.”
“I’ve never heard the Bible explained like that before.”
“It felt like he was talking directly to me!”
Here’s what may surprise you: Our sermons are 45 minute exegetical sermons.
What I take away from this is that how we teach the Bible is critically important. Is it accessible? Is it relevant? I believe that people, even non-Christians are intrigued by the Bible and want to know what it says.
If there is one thing that you can focus on to draw people to your church and keep the people you already have it is the excellence of your preaching. How? A few ideas…
- Invite feedback.
- Listen to great preachers and try to understand what they are doing and how.
- Film yourself and watch it. You’ll quickly see some things you want to change.
- Start or join a group of preachers in your area who want to improve.
5. Poor Kids and Student Ministries
One of the top reasons I hear for people leaving their old church and coming to our church has everything to do with kids. It comes from parents who reluctantly left their church because it didn’t have a strong enough ministry for their children or teenagers.
“They didn’t really have much of a youth group.”
I’m not saying that an appropriate outreach strategy is to steal all the families from the churches around you with your dynamite kid’s ministry. I’m just telling you what I hear from people. A thriving ministry to kids and teens is an incredibly important to families.
I would argue that the second most important aspect of your church, behind a fantastic weekend service experience is how you serve kids.
So there you go, 5 reasons people are leaving your church. I know there are many others but these are the five narratives I hear most often.
Sometimes we simply need to let people go and sometimes we need to work hard to correct weaknesses.
What have you learned from people leaving your church? Feel free to leave us some ideas in the comments below