1. People leave church because of unresolved conflict.
As mentioned above, any community is going to have conflict. However, a healthy and life-giving community is one that practices healthy conflict resolution in order to keep relationships safe and whole.
Some churches do a fantastic job at helping individuals reconcile their differences in loving ways which deescalate and restore, while others have skewed ideas of what reconciliation looks like.
Too often, wounded people are told, or are caused to feel, as if their emotional response to being wounded is somehow wrong or sinful.
We can be encouraged to “forgive and forget”, “get over it”, or even told we have “no right to feel that way”. We fail to realize that wounded people need to have their feelings validated, and need to have a place to air their hurts in a way that causes them to feel heard.
If we want people to stop leaving church, we need to develop radical humility and become the peacemakers that Jesus claimed would be blessed.
2. People leave church because of controlling leaders and unskilled teachers.
Leaders make or break an organization, and church is no different. When the pastor or church leader(s) come across as controlling (whether it is real or perceived) it creates an environment that doesn’t feel safe to people.
No one wants to be controlled or dominated in church– not even the people who assimilate and eventually tolerate such environments. Instead, people want to feel heard and included in issues of decision making and long-term vision.
Too often, it seems like the kids who are picked on in high school either become cops or pastors so that they can control other people- and they become increasingly intoxicated with their own perceived power. When people like me smell this, we bolt.
Likewise, you can have a church with a great community and a loving pastor– but a pastor who happens to be differently gifted outside the realm of preaching, and lose people. Bad preaching is miserable.
If people feel like the preaching sucks, they’ll leave in search of something else. We need to make sure we place people in positions to serve in accordance with their abilities AND passions, not just their passions.
3. People leave church because they get turned off by social climbing, cliques, and nepotism.
Social climbing is simply how I would describe the phenomena where people have to acquire a certain amount of “social credit” with the people of influence before they can serve and be included.
As a result, the popular folks at church amass followers, and power. Such a system requires you to play the “game” with people of influence if you want to be a fully included member of the group (leading to the formation of cliques).
Some people, like me, refuse to do this in silent protest… instead believing that all people should be able to come together to experience God, equally. Nepotism goes along the same lines– we don’t want to see people elevated to their positions because they were of the right bloodline, or played the game with the right people– we want to see people elevated to positions simply on the basis of their skills, abilities, and calling.
4. People leave church when they feel like they need to become a carbon copy of an individual or ideal in order to be fully included and appreciated.
People want to be who God made them– they don’t want to be a carbon copy of who God made you. When we feel forced to fit into a predetermined mold as to what a member of this community must look like, we leave (or in my case, I don’t ever go to begin with).
Most people don’t want to be like everyone else, and when a certain culture tells them they must become a clone as a condition of acceptance, many will leave instead of submitting to such a dehumanizing experience.
5. People leave church because they feel lonely.
As you look through items 10-3, imagine how it feels to experience the losing end of one of these issues (sadly, I don’t think many of you will have to imagine that). The feeling of being excluded, by definition, creates an intense loneliness. Being one of the only people living raw and authentically in a quest for community, is a lonely feeling.
Being the one person who can’t, in good conscience, sign onto the same statement of faith that the group has, is a lonely feeling. Watching cliques form as an outsider, and watching people who rise to esteemed positions by way of church politics, is a lonely feeling.
People leave church because they start to feel like an outsider, and that makes them lonely. It is an emotion that is painful, powerful, and given enough time, unbearable. If leaving church is what’s needed to stop feeling so lonely and to stop feeling like an outsider– they’ll do it (and it would be the right decision).
6. People leave church when they don’t find Jesus.
This sounds silly on the surface, but it’s not. Church of all places should look like Jesus! Church should be a place where people are busy loving the unlovable, embracing the outcast, serving the widow, immigrant and fatherless. It should be a place where power is rejected, gender and race is irrelevant, and where the most coveted position is the position of servant.
I think we need to just start being honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of people reject our churches because they’re too interested in Jesus to accept a counterfeit version.
When I look at the story of Jesus, I am consistently moved by the way people were attracted to his personality. With the exception of religious conservatives, everyone longed to be around Jesus and went to great lengths and great risk to spend time with him. I am convinced that if we built loving communities of faith that were raw and authentic, that embraced the excluded, and were known by how well they loved others, there wouldn’t be an empty chair in the sanctuary.
Because if a church were really to look like Jesus, people wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.