Leaving Churches: Three Unstoppable Forces

Leaving churches is a common part of church life today. In fact, most people who have been in the church long enough (say, ten years) have likely left a church for some reason and started going to another one in town. (Even I have what I would call a regretful leaving of a church I was a part of years back. )

Now that I am over a decade into pastoral ministry, I can think back on the different situations and scenarios that have come about as to why people leave churches. The upcoming series on this blog will be tackling those ideas in a little more detail. It is my ultimate hope to get people to stay at their current church, but if they don’t, to at least get them to seriously reconsider their approach to leaving.

I wanted to start with this idea: the three unstoppable forces that seem to make leaving a church almost inevitable.

Real or Perceived Hurts

Church life is a highly-delicate endeavor. You join up with a group of people who commit to love and care for you, with pastors who want to do the same. In a perfect world, you live life with these people in a way that is incredibly vulnerable and, at times, even uncomfortable. Unfortunately, though, those pastors and church members inevitably disappoint you.

  • You have a family member in the hospital and you don’t feel as if your church was attentive enough to your needs during that time.
  • Your favorite minister/pastor/staff person is no longer at your church.
  • Something was said during a sermon that caused significant frustration and you can’t get past it.
  • You have a business deal with another church member’s company and it goes sideways.
  • You need help navigating a life issue in your church and find yourself unable to get the help you need or think you need.
  • The carpet color got changed and your grandmother was part of the carpet committee that picked the original color.

When I say “real or perceived,” I mean just that. There are legitimate hurts that we *will* experience in our churches. We will be disappointed, not cared for as we ought, and seek out help that we cannot seem to find. Churches are full of broken people with their own baggage, insecurities, frustrations, and concerns, changed by the grace of God. There will be times when you have a legitimate issue that doesn’t get addressed appropriately and you’ll consider leaving. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”

When I say “perceived” I mean that you might’ve simply taken something the wrong way and you are bent out of shape about nothing. You assume the pastor was talking about you when he wasn’t. You are angry no one cared about your crisis but you didn’t tell anyone. You thought someone had said something about you but he or she didn’t. These perceived hurts fester, and before long you feel the need to amputate.

Hurt becomes an unstoppable force in church life, which is a curious thing. The one person who should recognize that his or her hurt isn’t the end of the story is the Christian. Still, we often cannot get past those hurts.

Real or Perceived Needs

In the same way we might have hurts, we also have real or perceived needs. This one gets tricky. Church leaders or members will always say that you don’t approach church as a consumer. However, the dirty little secret is that leaders know that people won’t stay if they don’t feel like their needs are met, so they try and find ways to accommodate.

But needs are a funny thing because they shift. Often we don’t mean our truest needs must be met—a place to belong, people who love us, leadership who will seek out the best for us and point us to Jesus. No, we often focus on surface needs.

  • Do I like the music?
  • Do I look like the people around me?
  • Are there sufficient and specific ministry opportunities that I like?
  • Is the building comfortable?
  • Are there enough people here that I can feel anonymous but not so many that I feel lost in the crowd?
  • Does this church align with how I view the world?

Let’s be honest for a moment: at least anecdotally, we know that many people will consider staying at a church where numerous conditions like these are met. When these conditions change, we start to wonder, “Can this church still meet my needs?”

The funny problem with all of this is that our needs change, our reasoning is often faulty, and we don’t realize that we are trying to address deep issues (contending with our own flesh, our longing for community, etc.) with surface solutions (appearance, comfort, familiarity). It doesn’t work. At least not in an enduring fashion.

What the Kids Want

This one might be at the top of the list. If parents don’t think their kids have friends, are connected, have leaders they like, etc., then you can usually start the clock on leaving.

Is your church largely public school families? Then you, with your homeschooling convictions, might not feel comfortable. Are many of your kid’s current friends at the larger church down the road? Then it might not be long before you think that you should be there. Are there sufficient, age-specific structures for every stage of life that might exist and 13 others that might not? Good! Then maybe you will stay. Maybe.

Is it important that a family feels like they can sync up at a church? Yes. Should parents look for a church where people will care for, mentor, and disciple their children and youth? I think so. Is it important that churches consider how they disciple their children and youth as part of a broader disciple-making strategy? Yes again.

However, if you stay at any church long enough, you will find out that something will change. There will be drama. Kids will get mad at each other. A school district will adjust zoning and the composition of your school changes. You’ll feel like the leaders aren’t showing enough interest in your kid. Some families will leave. Some families will move. The ministry approach might change. Those moves can be like tectonic plates—they leave parents scrambling to figure out what to do.

Often, the response to “What should I do?” becomes “I guess it is time to find a new church.”

And it will work. At least for a little while.

Two Out of Three Gives You a Fighting Chance

When I look at these unstoppable forces, I tell my pastor friends that most church leaders need to regularly be addressing two out of three of these items to have a chance at keeping people. Unfortunately, all three of these categories are moving targets. Even if we cause the hurt, we can’t control another person’s response to it. Even if we try and meet the need, we don’t know when the need will change. Even if we structure to care for children and youth with all of our energy, the child or youth still might not feel connected.

And that’s why church membership is such a delicate thing. I’m not talking about whether or not it should be. It simply is. Many people, unbeknownst to us, are dancing on the razor’s edge of being bought in and it isn’t until they sit down to tell us that they haven’t felt connected for a long time that we realize what has been going on—and by that point, it is too late.

As I continue in this series, I’ll argue for reasons to stay and reasons to leave and finish up with some questions to process regarding leaving (if it comes to that). I hope you stick with me on it, and that you stick with your church.

I'd love to hear your thoughts