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 the shape of leadership

Church Dropouts, Part 2: Disrupting the Patterns

Three ways to stop the flow of people leaving the church

Elizabeth D Rios on June 15, 2017

For 28 years, I’ve been a part of the Church. I’ve served various leadership roles, including executive pastor, co-pastor, and church planter. I love the Church. So why did I almost give up and leave it?

When you’re the leader, your insider’s view is often less attractive than the view from the outside. The closer you get to something, the more you see all the small imperfections — or, worse, the huge problems. At some point, leaders must decide either to throw in the towel or become a part of the solution.

My crossroads moment came a few years ago. I was tired of hearing from friends and family members whose church experiences had left them feeling used and manipulated. I had grown weary of seeing ministry colleagues put on masks just to keep their jobs.

Instead of leaving, however, I started working toward change and pursuing new church models, because I believe the mobilization of His disciples through the local church is God’s Plan A — and that there is no Plan B — for the world.

The Impact of Church Dropouts

In my previous article of this series, I talked about the church dropouts in America who are leaving because they have found the church to be irrelevant, too political, untrustworthy and sexist. They are the people pastors used to count on to do the core of the work in their churches. And now they’re leaving at an alarming rate.

With their decisions come detrimental impact. While we may not want to admit it, Christianity in America is experiencing a crisis of churchlessness. Consider the evidence.

• Churches are closing. A 2015 Christian Post article reported that 10,000 churches in the United States were expected to close that year alone.

• Young people are leaving. According to Barna Group, 59 percent of U.S. Millennials who have grown up in church are now walking away from it.

A year earlier, Barna reported that 156 million Americans who are churchless are really dechurched, not purely unchurched. In other words, most were once part of a church.

Christianity in America is experiencing a crisis of churchlessness.

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so we could make disciples to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The numbers tell us we have a lot of work ahead of us right here in America.

The majority of U.S. churches are too small to survive church dropouts. Hartford Institute for Religion Research reports that the median church size in America is 75 people.

According to church consultant Bill Easum, 85 percent of churches are declining or plateauing. The majority of the churches in the United States can’t afford to get any smaller.

This should bother you at some level.

How Do We Disrupt the Current Patterns?

People are eyeing your back door. Though they’re ready to walk out, they’re still there, desperately looking for connection, wanting to know that your church cares about them — not just their tithes or volunteer capacity.

Caring for others looks like intentional attention. Over the years, I’ve seen how three significant ways of caring can disrupt the patterns of people leaving churches.

1. Prioritize emotionally healthy leadership. People leave the church when pastors or church leaders are controlling or spiritually abusive or exhibit other toxic behavior. Author and leadership expert John Maxwell says that everything rises and falls on leadership. Be aware of your own emotional health, as well as the leaders you hire to represent not only your church but also our Jesus.

2. Make community building a principle your church values, celebrates and teaches. People leave the church when they can’t find community. Christ never intended for His followers to live out their faith in isolation. People want deeper connections that go beyond surface conversations.

In his book, Life in Community: Joining Together to Display the Gospel, Dustin Willis says, “We yearn to be part of a community that discovers and clings to identity, worth and value.”

When was the last time you talked with your leadership team about creating community that gives people worth? Do your small group leaders understand how true community forms? How long has it been since you’ve preached a message on the dangers of isolation?

3. Make your local community the first place you serve before you go global. Yes, the Church should care for the poor in other areas of the world. Jesus is clear that we are to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). However, if your church is caring for a village overseas and doing little to care for and elevate the poor in your own backyard, you are stunting your impact.

People want to be part of a church that not only connects to their personal needs, but also focuses on the needs of the community where they work and live. They want to see the church be the Church, and they want to be part of that impact.

The bottom line is this: We’re falling short of Christ’s vision and calling for His Church. As leaders, we must be willing to ask the tough questions and adapt our methods. We must care enough to change what is no longer working without changing the message. What will you do to foster deep, soul-nurturing connections?

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