The Main Reason People Leave Church (and What You Can Do about It)

Numbers of gifted persons and organizations have studied the phenomenon of the church “back door,” the metaphorical way we describe people leaving the church. And there will always be the anticipated themes of relocation or personal crises. We should recognize those issues, though we can respond to the latter more than the former.

But all the research studies of which I am aware, including my own, return to one major theme to explain the exodus of church members: a sense of some need not being filled. In other words, these members have ideas of what a local congregation should provide for them, and they leave because those provisions have not been met.

Certainly, we recognize there are many legitimate claims by church members of unfulfilled expectations. It can undoubtedly be the fault of the local congregation and its leaders.

But many times, probably more than we would like to believe, a church member leaves a local body because he or she has a sense of entitlement. I would therefore suggest that the main reason people leave a church is because they have an entitlement mentality rather than a servant mentality.

Look at some of the direct quotes from exit interviews of people who left local congregations:

  • “The worship leader refused to listen to me about the songs and music I wanted.”
  • “The pastor did not feed me.”
  • “No one from my church visited me.”
  • “I was not about to support the building program they wanted.”
  • “I was out two weeks and no one called me.”
  • “They moved the times of the worship services and it messed up my schedule.”
  • “I told my pastor to go visit my cousin and he never did.”

Please hear me clearly. Church members should expect some level of ministry and concern. But, for a myriad of reasons beyond the scope of this one blogpost, we have turned church membership into country club membership. You pay your dues and you are entitled to certain benefits.

The biblical basis of church membership is clear in Scripture. The Apostle Paul even uses the “member” metaphor to describe what every believer should be like in a local congregation. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul describes church members not by what they should receive in a local church, but by the ministry they should give.

The solution to closing the back door, at least a major part of the solution, is therefore to move members from an entitlement mentality to a servant mentality. Of course, it is easy for me to write about it, but it is a greater challenge to effect it.

May I then offer a few steps of a more practical nature to help close the back door by changing the membership mentality? Here are five:

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Thom Rainer
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.