Why Do People Leave Church?

If  one could look into the heart of a pastor after receiving a member’s resignation, you would see a number of emotions: hurt, disappointment, sadness,  anger, frustration, guilt, betrayal, rejection and maybe, in a rare case, relief.  The bottom line is that when somebody leaves, it hurts! Sadly, the painful emotions reach way beyond just the pastor. They are often experienced by the church family too.

I have found there are two types of people who leave a church:

Those you don’t want to lose
These can be people who have had a life changing experience in the church. They got saved and baptised and are growing spiritually but, for some reason, have a spiritual “speed wobble”.  In this case, the pastor needs to invest some time in their lives, to keep them in the fold. Generally they will respond positively to guidance, love and assistance.
The other group you don’t want to lose are those members, where the call of God on their lives has been recognised and who have been sponsored by the leadership, to attend Theological College for future full-time ministry.

Those who should probably leave
Sometimes, there are Christians who possess a critical spirit, or who perhaps have an issue with the church leadership. No matter what the pastor does, he is not considered good enough. Usually full of gossip, they are a hindrance to what God wants to do in the church. Some in this category also feel that, by virtue of their financial contribution or long standing membership, they ‘own’ the church.

Potential reasons people leave:
•  A poor fit
There are people who come to a church who can definitely be helped in their faith journey. However, sometimes it is evident that they do not fit the ‘culture’ of the church. Every church has its own a specific flavour or culture.  These people normally have completely different expectations to what is being offered. This ranges from areas like the music, theology, the way the church is governed, to congregational or pastoral style. 
The Gospel cuts across sociological demographics, but the truth is that people are more likely to fit in and grow when they do not have to cross significant homogenous barriers in a church. It’s soothing to claim that one’s church can be a church for anybody, but in reality your church will not be a church for everybody.

• Blatant or hidden sin
Sin can be blatant or camouflaged. Blatant sin falls into the category of public sin, like an affair, stealing, bad business practice, etc. In spite of being willing to help a member and walk the road of reconciliation, this aid is often rejected and these people leave the church, backsliding and growing cold in their relationship with God. Prodigal sons and daughters are in all churches. Sadly some people find it easier to change their beliefs, than change their behaviour.
Camouflaged sin refers to cases when the true reasons for leaving are not given to the pastor. Other reasons (usually not related to the truth) are offered, such as, “The Lord has led me to another church” or,  “I feel my season is over in this church”.
In such a case, the previous and the present congregation would not be aware of the true reasons for the resignations, which is unfair to both the congregation and their pastors. It could give the impression that the previous church or pastor was the problem, by not revealing the true motives behind the departure.
• Life interruptions
Sometimes, things happen that interrupt the normal routine of life, for example, a marriage where spouses attending separate fellowships must choose whose church to attend. A new baby also brings huge life changes in the home. Perhaps life is interrupted by moving to another suburb, causing a family to get out of church routine. Dealing with the death of a spouse may mean the surviving marriage partner feels unable to return to the church where the funeral was held. The memory is too painful so they move to another church.
• A bad experience at church
Perhaps somebody got into a serious argument with another member and they disagree so strongly that, in their eyes, leaving the church is the only answer. Business deals between members can also go sour or people take offense because they were ignored or not given enough attention. Feelings are also hurt through unfulfilled expectations concerning ministry appointments in the church.
Feeling unloved or uncared for when going through storms in life, also causes people to make a decision to leave. Others are wounded by a lack of gratitude expressed for their service in the church environment.

• Isolation
Generally people who do not build any friendships at a church within the first few weeks of attending, move on. Sometimes people are affected because their friends leave. If they don’t make new friends in the church within a short space of time, they too will leave. 
It has been found that if people have friends in the congregation, they will endure almost anything.  Even if there are changes in style, structure, service times, location or leadership, these will not affect them.  Christian fellowship has been found to be the glue that holds a local church together.
If one wants to assimilate people in the church, you have to offer them either relationships with others and/or responsibilities. A person that has a relationship with someone else in the church or a responsibility there, never feels isolated.  If people have someone who cares about them and something to do, they feel connected. 

• Boredom
Sometimes people leave because they are simply bored. Church can become routine for many. If there are three songs, the offering, and the sermon which always ends in exactly the same way, members can become frustrated.  There is nothing wrong, however, with routine. Many draw comfort from it, yet others find it boring.
For the pastor, it like walking a tightrope between consistency and variety. On one hand, you want to be consistent, but on the other you don’t want to become boring.
I feel the sound advice and the testimony found in the book ,“The Bait of Satan”, by John Bevere, will assist those who are considering leaving their church. Men and women leave churches far too readily nowadays. Rather than face difficulties and maintain hope, they run to where the grass seems greener, or where they believe there are no conflicts.  We need to face any conflicts head on, lest we leave a church offended or critical. 

Putting down roots
The Bible says in Psalm 92:13, “Those who are planted in the House of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God”.
Notice that those who flourish are “planted” in the house of the Lord. What happens to a plant if you transplant it every few months? Most know that its root system will diminish, and it will not blossom or prosper. If you keep transplanting it, the plant will die of shock! Many people go from church to church, ministry team to ministry team, trying to develop their own ministry. If God puts them in a place where they are not recognised and encouraged, they are easily offended. If they don’t agree with the way something is done, they are offended. They then leave, blaming the leadership. They are blind to any of their own character flaws and do not realise God wanted to refine and mature them through the pressure they were experiencing.
My personal encouragement to pastors, when faced with the inner hurt of losing members is this:
The call of God on your life is of more value than any disappointment.
Jesus, the greatest Pastor of all, had some of His own disciples desert him.
Unwise decisions taken by people say more about them than it does about you.
It is best to value and concentrate on the faithful members who have been with you through all the seasons of the church; apply the 80/20 principle.
When in Heaven one day, true perspective of all situations will be given us.
Jesus, the Head of the Church, has the words waiting for you, “Well done,  good and faithful servant”.

David Gernetzky has been in ministry for 32 years and is Senior Pastor of City Life Church, East London; www.elcitylife.co.za