the shape of leadership

Church Dropouts

Four reasons why we’re losing devoted churchgoers

Elizabeth D Rios on May 11, 2017

Nothing on earth has greater potential to change lives and carry out His kingdom work in your community than your local church. There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited."


That statement from Willow Creek Pastor Bill Hybels envelops everything I love about the local church. My concern, however, is that too many churches are simply not “working right” anymore. Something is happening in the life of the traditional church, and we should be paying attention. We have documentaries, books and studies that show us major changes in the pattern of church attendance over the last few years. The confidence in the Church has continually decreased as well. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that only 44 percent of Americans have confidence in the church or organized religion. In 2016, that number went down to 41 percent. Less than half of Americans hold the church in high esteem, when more than 68 percent of them did in the 1970s.


An Epidemic on Our Heels

There is a new epidemic in our society called “churchlessness.” People are leaving the church in increasing numbers. The April 2017 issue of The Atlantic features an article by Peter Beinart, titled “Breaking Faith,” that describes the growing number of people who are rejecting any religious affiliation, also known as religious “nones.” In 1992, only 6 percent of the U.S. population self-identified as “none”; by 2014, the number rose to 22 percent. Among Millennials, 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated.


Another group is leaving as well — those people pastors used to count on to do a large share of the work in churches. A 2014 Barna study reported on the growing phenomenon of churchlessness in America, which rose from 30 percent in the 1990s to 43 percent by 2014. The study found that 33 percent of once-active churchgoers are no longer choosing to be part of a local church.


While some church leaders might dismiss this group as people who were never really committed, further research shows that many who have left were formerly dedicated attendees, and most were involved volunteers. For many of these now “dechurched” people, the decision to leave was difficult. In their book, Church Refugees, co-authors Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope call them “refugees.” They found that most these “refugees” are not leaving out of a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of church.


We should be paying attention to what’s making these once-devoted churchgoers check out on the church.


Four Key Issues for Church Dropouts

While those who have left the church offer numerous reasons for their departure, four pain points should be of particular concern to us all.


1. Politics. An April 2017 Washington Post article, “How Fights over Trump Have Led Evangelicals to Leave Their Churches,” noted that people who disagreed with their pastors over Donald Trump as president were the most likely to leave their churches. It seems that less political posturing in pulpits might keep more people in the pews.


2. Loss of relevance. In her book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life, sociologist Nancy Ammerman points out that while some church dropouts still care about religion and believe it plays a role in their daily lives, they don’t see a direct benefit from being in church. Not only do they not see church attendance as relevant to their lives, but they also feel that the local church is not concerned with their daily lives.


3. Loss of trust. People don’t trust the clergy as much as they once did. Over the years, Gallup has periodically asked Americans to rate honesty and ethics in a variety of professions. The most recent results revealed the lowest score ever for clergy — at 44 percent in 2016, compared to the 1985 peak score of 67 percent.


4. The role of women. It’s 2017, and we still have Twitter wars regarding the role of women in the local church. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that as attendance at religious services decline, women are increasingly the ones dropping out. This is a significant development since women have led the way in church involvement for generations. No longer content being relegated to children’s ministry or hospitality duty, women today are finding more value, acceptance and celebration of their voices outside the church.


Pay Attention, Leaders

Proverbs 27:23 says, “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.” As long as people are showing up on Sundays, it’s easy to assume all is well. But that is an illusion. There are always fringe people who are on their way out. We evaluate salvations, baptisms and giving. Perhaps we should start evaluating our congregational care methods and our back-door numbers.


How can the local church hope to thrive as a relevant and meaningful social institution if it keeps losing people, especially those who were once committed to church attendance? If longtime churchgoers are losing interest, what does that say about the church and its future? As leaders, it’s our job to pay attention to the flock. There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working right! Let’s be intentional about evaluating the things that matter.

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