What causes people to stay or leave their church? It’s a question that’s spawned hundreds of articles, books and arguments, but it’s also a question that—for many—is personal. I grew up in a Christian high school and college and have at least a dozen friends who no longer consider themselves Christian.
According to new Gallup research, the answer is simple: They stopped seeing the church as a relevant source of spiritual truth. When adults who attended church growing up were asked why they stopped, the top three answers were because they “prefer to worship on their own,” “don’t like organized religion” and “aren’t very religious.”
On one hand, these results can’t simply be described as a failure of the church. We all know people who were raised in Christian families, taught the Bible, encouraged to live it out in a real way and yet still walked away. The mystery of how God draws people to himself and how they respond involves more than just a “well the church needs to do ______.”
However, Gallup also asked regular church attenders what the most important aspect of a church is. What it found is that while many leave the church seeking spiritual relevance, it’s also the primary reason why people are staying, and they’re looking for it in the sermons. Respondents said their biggest felt need is to hear sermons that teach them about Scripture (83 percent) and help them connect religion to their own life (80 percent). If people left the church because they stopped sensing its relevance to their daily life, those who are attending are desperately in search of it.
The encouraging part of this for pastors is this: Despite how it might feel some Sundays, people are listening. Our sermons matter to people and every week they are showing up hoping to hear the good news of the Bible explained in a way they can bring into their work, families and internal worlds.
This also means that the “expositional vs. topical” preaching debate is missing the point. In some way, on some level, people need both. Whether it’s couched topically or expositionally, in every sermon attendees are hoping to understand the Bible in a way they can immediately put into action the following day.
Because at the end of the day in an increasingly “spiritual but not religious” world, what people need to hear is that God’s kingdom is coming right here, right now, and transforming everything. People need to know, through the sermons and the community of our church, that the spirituality they’re searching for finds its fulfillment in Jesus.