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Why Are People Leaving?

 by john o'keefe


Why are people leaving the church?  Given the fact that, according to George Barna, over the past 15 years we have spent over $500 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”), and for the most part the church in the USAmerica has not grown at all; it has not even kept up with the population growth.  form the period of 1991 to today the population has grown about 15%, while the unchurched population has grown 92% and in average the church has declined over 47%.   the average attendance in church has declined over a ten-year period; but the question still remains, why?  Why are people leaving churches today?


Many church people and “church experts” blame the decline on the culture, and a cultural shift - we have become a "postmodern" people (where the word "postmodern" is some kind of curse word).  To some degree they may be right, but not in the way they think.  You see, they think people are leaving because culture is pulling them out.  but that is not true.  people are leaving, not because the culture it dragging in, it is because the church is pushing them out.  the reality is that church has not kept-up with the culture and is simply being left behind in the minds of many people – church has become irrelevant.  I have a theory, which does not sit well with some of my evangelical pastor friends, but one I firmly believe.  You see, they believe that if they blame the “culture” then the finger cannot be pointed at the church; it’s the other guy’s fault.   I believe people are leaving the church because they are disillusioned and disenfranchised by the church and those who claim to be “church leaders.”



With the Leaders:  I believe many people are hearing what the church leadership is saying, then seeing what the church leadership is doing, and seeing that they do not mix they run the other way.  Leaders who say, “do not cheat on your wife” only to get caught in an affair with a church member.  Church accountants who are caught stealing funds from the church, after giving a huge speech on “accountability.”  People leave the church because the words don’t equal the actions.  Church leaders do not practice what they preach.


With Worship:  I have talked to people who have walked out of their church because the worship was boring, meaningless and judgmental; one person told me, “it’s the same old, same old every week.  You’re evil, you sin, get it together and all will be prefect.”  Most of the people I spoke with left, because they did not feel close to God.  People are looking to get closer to God, not out-dated concepts, theology or music.  If God is present in worship, nothing else matters, right?  Right!  What people are saying is this, “if God is boring, meaningless and judgmental then you are right on the money.  But if God is exciting, relevant and grace, then change needs to occur.”


With Finger Pointing:  People have moved past the blame game.  You know, the one where church leaders blame the pastor, the elders, the other churches, culture, mtv, and a whole-host of others for all the churches problems, never looking in the mirror.  People are tired of hearing how crappy they are, how “evil” they are, how “fallen” they are, people know all that.  People don’t want to be reminded of how far they are down, they desire to know how to get up and walk again; and to be honest the evangelical answer has always been “accept Jesus” – well, they have and life still hurts.  People are looking for real solutions to real life problems, not quick fixes and empty theology.  People seek a relevant message, from relevant scripture for a relevant life, because of a relevant God.



With “friendly” churches:  Ask any church and they will tell you they are “friendly.”  But what they really mean is that they are a church that is friendly to those inside the church, and not to those outside the church.  There have been times in my life where as I visit church, people just do not talk with me, at all.  People are not looking for a “friendly” church; they are looking for a church where they can make friends.  I always like this to the neighborhood bar; or as I like to call it – the cheers factor.  People are looking for a place where people know you, want to know you and are willing to go out of their was to know you – and unfortunately that is not the church.  Church should be THE place where people want to get to know each other, and break the stranger line.  But the people I talk with about church say that that is not what has been happening.  I know of one guy who visited a different church every Sunday for over four months (19 weeks).  When I asked why so many, he said, “I was looking for that one church where when I visited for the fist time they would treat me as if I was a long lost brother.”  You see, churches tell people, “You need to give us time to get to know you.”  While people are saying, “You are not even trying to get to know me.”


With trying to get connected:  Too many church are closed when it comes to getting people involved in ministry.  One guy, and 30 years old, I spoke with, tried to get connected with the music, tech and drama ministry at a church he had started to attend.  In order for him to “get connected” (something the church plugged on a regular basis) he needed to fill in an application, go on an interview and then “try-out” for the position.  He had no experience, and was told by the “music, tech and drama” pastor that he would most likely not get “on the team.”  He started to think, how could he ever get “on the team” if they only take people with experience and they have no way of offering experience to people in the church?  He was stumped, so he left the church.  People are looking for a way to get hooked in, for real, and the church is not giving them an honest way of doing so – they give lip service, but no action at all.


With no Voice:  People want to be heard, and the church is not listening.  People have told me many times that what they experience in church is a small group of people who make all the decisions and ask for no outside opinions.  Now, interestingly enough people are not asking to “be in charge” nor are they asking for a “congregational” form of governance.  Most people I have spoken to understand that too many people making a decision simply make bad decisions.  People simply want to feel as if they are being listened too, and not ignored.  One person told me that for him to even speak with his senior pastor takes an appointment made three months in advance, and even then the senior pastor tries to get an associate pastor to meet with him.  I know of a church in Las Vegas that only has an voice mail system, no one answers the phone at all – you call, direct your call and leave a message for the pastor, and the pastor will call you back when they get the time. 



Churches need to open-up and let people in; they need to become relevant and meaningful in the lives of the people in the community.  They need a new look, and a new life.  They need to stop looking for excuses for why people are leaving and find ways to close their back door, and they need to do it soon.  I remember talking with one young lady who said, “I had attended the same church for over five years.  I had not been to the church for about six months before anyone ever called.  Then when they did call it was to arrange for a time when one of the ‘Elders’ could visit and discuss my stewardship to the church.  When I explained that I was not attending their church, and in fact had left the church, the caller just thanked me for my time and I never heard from another person from the church again, and it’s been three years.”


about the author

 john o'keefe is the founder of ginkworld and the lead pastor at 247connection


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