Thoughts on why people leave the church

A couple of weeks ago, a friend wrote this blog post and it got me thinking. I have a somewhat different take on why people ‘deviate from the truth they once knew’ as she puts it. Let me preface this with a little bit of my journey. Over two years ago, I found something new happening to me as I would sit in church. As I would listen to the sermon, this question kept coming back to me: ‘What is the message of the cross?’ I found myself listening to the words spoken and wondering if this truly was the message of the cross. Or were so many other things being added to the message that the true message had been lost?

You may wonder what I’m talking about. Here’s one example: we say the message of the cross is that Jesus died for our sins so we could be free; we don’t have to strive to be ‘good enough’ to be a part of God’s kingdom. Yet how do we measure whether or not someone is a faithful Christian? They need to read their Bible every day, attend church regularly (meaning Sunday morning service), pray, tell others about Jesus, volunteer in a church program… the list could go on and on. Although we say there is freedom in Christ, the relationship we have with Him can become a bunch of rules to follow. Where is the freedom in that?

People may argue that there is a part the individual has to play in this relationship. God does not do everything. While I agree that a relationship takes two, so much of what I see does not really focus on the relationship but rather on the ‘list’ of things we should do to be a ‘good’ Christian. The relationship part seems to take a back seat to everything else.

I believe the church has ‘tacked on’ so many other things to the message of the cross that the true essence of the Gospel has been lost.

So here’s my question concerning those people who walk away from the truth: did they ever really know the Truth in the first place?… Did they experience the reality of the message of grace? Or were they promised one thing, but received something quite different?

This leads to my theory of why people leave the church (meaning they stop attending church on Sunday morning). I see two reasons:

1. They believe there is more to life in Christ than what they’ve experienced in ‘regular’ church and they leave seeking more depth in their relationship with God and with others. These people don’t necessarily stop meeting with other followers of Christ; they just don’t do it in the Sunday morning church context.

2. They are disillusioned by the disconnect between what Christianity promises and their own church experience. They cannot reconcile the two and so give up on the whole thing. They abandon Christianity (or at least their understanding of it).

In this last case, I’m not saying these people were never Christians. I consider myself a Christian and yet I admit that I don’t have a clear understanding of God’s grace, which I believe is key to the message of the cross. But this also begs the question, “Why don’t I understand? What have I been taught to hinder my understanding of this fundamental truth? If my life does not reflect the belief that I am truly saved by God’s grace (which is what we as Christians say we are), why is that?” I can see why people would become disillusioned. Being saved by grace sounds appealing, but its not the reality I see in the lives of a lot of Christians. Is there something horribly wrong with the salvation message we speak of?

In her blog post, my friend said she didn’t suppose it was up to her to decipher the whys and whats behind people’s reasons to leave. I disagree. I believe it is very important to examine the reasons behind the exodus from the church. If the reason has to do with a skewed presentation of the Gospel, then the church is at least partially responsible for the reason why so many are leaving. This should be a warning for us to re-examine what we believe and ask God to reveal whether what we say we believe – is the Truth or an altered version of the Truth (which in reality is no truth at all).

17 Replies to “Thoughts on why people leave the church

  1. I’ve been in galatians for a while.

    the whole book has changed alot of what you’re talking about. I’ve now renamed my new phrase….

    the BMT

    The behavior modification train.
    Basically that means living under the law.

    But we are no longer under the law. But reconize that we need Jesus to carry out His purposes through us.

    I think that if people are feeling like they need to “measure up” than it’s the battle we all face as believers. It’s not a matter of whether the church promotes this or not….

    We all need to walk this process out of realizing who we ALREADY ARE, and the we ALREADY ARE FREE.
    To me, the church helps me in this journey. the word church of course being the body, not the sunday morning, but that’s what most families choose to do is meet on sun am. But it doesn’t stop there….it’s a part….

    You have changed…..

  2. Carol, thanks for your thoughts on this. When I wrote my post it wasn’t so much about why they were leaving “THE CHURCH” per-say, but rather, their faith. I totally agree with you about point #1. I don’t believe that just because someone has “stopped attending church” that they are no longer living out their faith. Many people, for various reasons, choose to worship alone or with only one or two other believers. My post wasn’t so much about “leaving the church” as it was about “abandoning the faith” and rejecting it to the point where they are almost proud of the fact that they no longer follow Christ”. I guess I am just saddened and disappointed when I hear about former friends and acquaintances that have chosen a different way.

  3. Sarah,
    You said “I think that if people are feeling like they need to ‘measure up’, than it’s the battle we all face as believers. It’s not a matter of whether the church promotes this or not…”. My question would be WHY would we all face this as believers if the Gospel message we believed taught us otherwise. Where are we getting the mixed messages from? I believe very strongly that the church DOES have something to do with this. And if it does, wouldn’t we want to change that so we would not continue to perpetuate the same mixed message to new believers?

    Kim,
    I recognize that you were focusing on people walking away from their faith. Your previous post triggered a response in me and I took the discussion in another direction. However, I do feel it’s important to examine WHY people walk away from their ‘faith’. That’s what I attempted to address in my second point. I wonder whether people experience a true representation of the Gospel of God’s love and grace. If they have never received that, if they have never ‘known’ Christ, then why would it be a surprise if they walked away from that? I believe some people can say all the right words and have an appearance of having a strong faith when in reality they don’t really know Jesus at all.

  4. Where is the battle? You know this….
    the battle is against our human sinful nature that we battle everyday, and also the devil. Not Sunday morning service. If there are battles (which there is at all times in the spirit) it would be against those things, not the service. Whether you meet in the evenings with a few friends, or at a building as a greater BODY, it doesn’t matter, we all come in the name of the Lord and where two or more are…there the Lord will be. I witness wonderful things every sunday that God is doing in our midst. It’s always a blessing to meet with family! There are blessings in the big gatherings and in the small. If people are being led astray, I don’t see to shoot the body in the foot is really the answer, but rather join together in unity and pray for the church pray for the leaders (hebrews 13) So that we can fight against who the real enemy is!
    Love you carol. I know you’ve been on this journey for a while, may god’s spirit of wisdom and discernment lead you.

  5. I think the neatest thing about the “body” is that it’s jam packed full of HUMANS. Humans who sin, who lie, who fall and fumble and stumble….. Making it ABSOLUTELY NECASSARY for us to learn and grow in what the love of Jesus really looks like.
    Because we’re humans though, born of human parents, who were also born of human parents, surrounded by human co-workers, a society of humans, and yes, fellow human believers, there’s NO WAY we can really have this whole gospel thing all figured out.
    But that’s ok, because right in the word it says that we are to “grow up in our salvation” (1 Peter 2:2), meaning, it’s a process. It compares it to a baby, who need milk to grow, so if it’s comparing it to a baby, it must be comparing it to the whole life, as we grow from a baby, into a child, into an adolescent, into an adult, into an elderly, until we die right? Meaning….it’s never finished, we will never GET IT FULLY, I think if we could, we’d be God.
    But I’m blessed to know that we ALL fall short, but He loves us and is patient with us despite our short comings, despite our human nature to want it all figured out, to find some kind of formula. It’s makes it necessary to find the uncontional love we all need in Christ, because the “church” will always let us down, and always be imperfect.
    I love that He’s loving me anyway, He’s loving you anyway, He’s loving His church anyway, walking in our weakness, sharing in our shame.
    Let’s not lose sight of the power of praying for these prodical sons, by focussing too much on figuring things out…. “but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” It is our OWN flesh, and the ENEMY who tempt us and drag us away, let’s not forget that either.
    Love you

  6. Great post Carol. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (and by lately, I mean the last four years or so) and often find myself sitting through church the same way you did… Wondering how what is going on is in any way a reflection of LIFE in Christ. For myself, I have to confess, I don’t get much out of church. And this makes me wonder why I do it? And why do I bring my boys? I want them to know my Savior. I want their faith to be alive and real, but how does what they see Sunday mornings in any way contribute to that. Sometimes I think it may actually hurt it, but I’m not sure… So we go.

    I guess the key is that church, in and of itself, does not a relationship with Christ make. What I need to figure out is why and if I should still go.

  7. When you go to church thinking of what you can get out of it, you usually don’t get much, but since our lives in Christ are bonded to servanthood, we need to go to church looking at what we can GIVE…not recieve. I struggle with that too: just sitting in church trying to “take something away with me” but when I change my heart attitude, I find I am doubly blessed!

  8. By saying “I don’t get anything out of going to church” I am not saying I “just sit there” waiting to be ministered to. Trust me, I don’t. I don’t expect others to fix my problem. This is not an attitude problem, this is a problem with the regular Sunday morning church context. Endless programs to be involved in, strictly timed services, scrubbed faces smiling back at me hiding inner struggles and pain because they would be too ugly for church… Sorry. I don’t “get anything” out of that AND I can’t see how it reflects what my life in Christ really is or even what I want it to be. Church in it’s traditional context just doesn’t work well for me. It does not feel real or honest. And yet… Still I go. My question was/is: Why?

    I can be a servant without going to church. I can find Christian fellowship without going to church. I can teach my children about Jesus without bringing them to church. I can worship without going to church. I can grow in the Word of God without going to church. I can give without going to church. I can pray for others and be prayed for without going to church. I can testify to Christ’s goodness without going to church. And frequently… I can do all of those things BETTER in other places than I do at church. So what place does church really hold in my life that can’t be filled somewhere else? AND, to me more importantly, am I actually damaging my own walk and jeopardizing my boys’ walks by subjecting all of us to something that seems like nothing more than a show to me.

    I know all people don’t feel this way. I know there are many people whose lives are enriched by church. BUT as one of the people whose life is not enriched by church, is it right for me to continue going anyways? Which is more important? Being faithful? Or being authentic?

  9. Thanks for your comments, Beck. I would agree with you especially about wondering whether you’re actually harming your boys’ growth by going to church. I was asking the same questions a couple of years ago. David believes that he will not be able to see his real dad in heaven because he feels he is not good enough. He might have taken this from my example of a lack of understanding of grace, but his church experience definitely did not teach him otherwise. You can find two of my posts with thoughts on this here (http://songofjoy.ca/?p=143) and here (http://songofjoy.ca/?p=146).

    Sarah and Nin,
    Let me clarify that I’m not trying to ‘shoot the church in the foot’. I recognize that we all sin and that nobody’s perfect. My goal is not to condemn ‘the church’. This is not my point.
    What I’m trying to do is get people to think about what we say we believe and whether that is REALLY what is being communicated. There is a spiritual battle going on. However, the Bible warns us against false doctrines (that would be a strategy of the Enemy). If a person’s church experience is NOT one of grace but instead one of following lists to be a ‘good Christian’, doesn’t that negate the point of Christ’s death and resurrection? Wouldn’t that be considered a false doctrine?

    Sarah, you also talk about ‘getting something out of church’. Have you ever considered that perhaps the structure of the Sunday morning service might not be the best format for ‘giving’ into each other’s lives? You have 10 minutes at the coffee break to connect with others and for most of the service you’re staring at the back of someone’s head either singing or listening to one person speak.

    My biggest concern is that we not automatically peg someone’s loss of faith as being strictly a spiritual battle or strictly a result of man’s fallen nature. I want to dig deeper. I want to examine whether the church plays any part in this by the mixed messages it gives. If we are honest, open, and willing to examine ourselves and our message, what harm is there in that? We may find that things need to change, that we might actually be HINDERING others in their faith. Wouldn’t you want to know if your message was doing damage? And conversely, if after examining the message you found that the message was NOT doing harm, than at the very least you would know that. I don’t understand why this seems so threatening.

  10. If your sunday morning was your only time to put on your “jesus hat” and your life didn’t reflect the love of God all the time, then, you would have to re-examine your heart. So just as we need to give our all in the larger gathering,….carol….you know that it isn’t my heart to go home and not reach out to my neighbours and community….
    Of course, I want to be forever challenged and changed everyday of the week to all that God has placed in my path.

  11. wow interesting discussion you guys!! This is an issue that my husband has been tackling and thinking about for years. Carol you bring up some interesting points…..10 minutes to connect with people….the rest of the service is more so listening to a few token people. I think that’s why we’ve been challenged to start leading a lifegroup and build into people’s lives, and disciple people. Which is what Jesus spent his time doing, just focusing on those 12 people. Terry said the other day, that we really want to move from the Sunday focus to …say, Wednesday or whenever your small group meets.
    Anyways, that’s my 2 cents. I think all of you have valid points and have made me think about all of these things a bit more!!!!!!!

  12. Here’s a strange idea, how about asking someone who has left the faith what made them leave?

    I suppose I’m really tired of the same-old judgements that my faith must not have valid (or complete) the first time around, which HAS to be the reason why I no longer have it.

    That’s not the case, and if you ever want to hear my reasons (from, gasp!, an atheist), all you ever have to do is ask. I suppose getting the answer directly “from the horse’s mouth” may be more surprising and enlightening than you’d think.

  13. Our generation are the future leaders of the church. The generation behind us got tremendous value in meeting together Sundays and we shouldn’t poo poo on that. It is where a lot of people get fed. As future leaders in the church we need to pave the way. The time will come where house churches will be our place of fellowship. (The problem we are facing is that the church is not ready for this place, plus we are not in the place in our time where house churches are seen as needed). the time is coming though where there will be a shift and house churches will be seen as a positive thing, not a threat to the local church. This is a conversation that we need to be having but not in a way that is coming against the current leadership of the church. Perhaps the way we walk or the path we pave may cause our leaders to be uncomfortable, but it is all a part of the journey. I think Carols heart is to look at why people are leaving the traditional church model. Our generations seek relationship, something tangible. We want to experience our faith. See Jesus, experience him. What we need to do is come along side church leaders and walk this journey together. I have personally enjoyed Sunday mornings when I connect with those who I am in relationship with. Those relationships come in small groups. We all need to realize that God knew us and formed us…..does that mean that he made us to desire different things? …To view things differently?…I personally think so. We need the Sarah’s , Nin’s, Becky’s, Carol’s, Camille’s and the such to be voicing their thoughts on this topic. In summary if we are reading the word of God, searching his word for answers, we will be ok. His heart and vision for the church is in his book. As long as we give way to the spirit of God to lead us as we read….Good stuff.

  14. I think some people are really missing the crux of Carol’s point. The heart of what she is speaking about is the gospel and it has less to do with church methods and meetings but how we communicate our understanding of our faith. Do we sell people something that doesn’t live up to the hype? Is what we communicate the true gospel?

    I personally think our understanding of God and how we can relate to him is often very skewed. Because of this imperfect understanding people come of faith in the concept of God without ever actually knowing God, His Love, His Grace or His Holiness.

  15. Oh the discussions between two worlds:) I like to not touch it. I also understand both sides a bit better. I attended a house church last weekend for my nephew’s dedication. It was so fun to worship with believers in a back yard and to see children and adults blessing my nephew. I love what I have learned about how God made the church. He made it to be imperfect so that we could practice our reconciliation, communication and forgiveness skills.

    Let’s do coffee in July:)

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