Why Do People Leave Church?

My wife was listening to a podcast that claimed 3,500 people leave the church every month.  I was really intrigued by that, so yesterday I sent out the following tweet/Facebook post to see what people would say:




I have to admit, I was really surprised at the passion this simple question stirred up.  Some people were pretty hard on the church, while others felt church-goers just weren’t very committed these days.  Some believed that the spiritual experience was lifeless, others that the Bible wasn’t being preached properly, and others that the church had lost cultural relevance.

One thing that really stood out to me was the pain that many people endured from the church.  People felt judged, didn’t experience genuine community, felt misunderstood, were gossiped about, felt condemned, oppressed, and unappreciated.  One person even claimed they felt some of these things from the church that I pastor.  Ouch!

In this post I’m going to try to answer the question myself, but I feel the need to clarify a few things about the church.

First, no two churches are alike.  I’ve been to many and, just like people are amazingly different, so are churches.  It just doesn’t seem right to make statements like “The church is a bunch of hypocrites”.  It makes about as much sense as saying “all white people are rich snobs” or “all Packer fans are one pizza away from a heart attack.”  You can’t use a giant, broad brush to paint the church.

Second, the church is people.  We tend to de-humanize churches, thinking of them as buildings, institutions, and TV preacher caricatures.  I think that’s what makes it so easy to criticize them.  But the church is me.  The church is you.  WE are the church.  We should understand that, when we accuse the church of falling short, we indict ourselves in the process.  In Matthew 7, when Jesus said to remove the plank from your own eye before pointing out fault with someone else, he wasn’t excluding our faultfinding with “the church”.  I can’t say that I’m perfect with this, but maybe 2014 will be the year when God helps me to be more gracious.

Third, the church is people.  No, that’s not a typo.  People are messed up!  People are broken, ugly, petty, smelly, and critical.  To quote Dr. Cox (from Scrubs) “People are bastard covered bastards with bastard filling.”  Broken, ugly people do broken ugly things.  And churches are led by the the most broken, ugly bastards of all.  Pastors.  I should know.  I am one.  I don’t know why, but God chooses to hide His glory in people like us.  He loves us as we are and calls us His children.  When Jesus established the church, He chose a violent, temperamental, smelly fisherman who denied even knowing Jesus during His most desperate hour.  There’s just something incredible when ugly people get together to worship God and expand His Kingdom together.  It may not always be pretty, but it’s amazing none the less.

Lastly, the church is loved.  Regardless of your feelings about the church, Jesus is crazy about her.  That’s right, I said “her”.  He calls us His bride and wants to live with us for eternity.  Jesus loves the church and, if you truly want to love the things Jesus loves, you’ll love the church too.  You might find it difficult to like her at times, but love isn’t all about warm fuzzy feelings.

OK, now that I’ve got that out of the way, I think I’m going to take a crack at answering my own question.  It’s not a terribly deep answer, and it’s pretty broad, but here goes:

Two words.  The reason most people leave the church is because of unmet expectations.

When I think about the season in my life where I decided to leave, if I’m honest with myself, it was over unmet expectations.  I was a young teenager from a broken home.  I didn’t have many friends, and I expected a level of inclusion from my church that I didn’t receive.  It seemed like everyone in the youth group were old pals and I wasn’t invited to be a part.  When my expectations (that I communicated to NO ONE) weren’t met, I was hurt and didn’t come back for about two years.

Since we started our own church two years ago, I have seen people leave over unmet expectations.  Some, because they expected a level of influence that wasn’t granted to them.  Some, because they expected people to “be there for them” 24/7 and it just wasn’t possible.  And others, because they had relationship expectations that weren’t being met.  Still others expected the amenities of a large church and, as a young church plant, we just couldn’t provide them.

There is something about this issue of unmet expectations that is really puzzling to me though.  It’s as if the expectations we carry in everyday life become super-sized, steroid fueled monsters when we carry them into the church.  Here’s what I mean.  Let’s say I’m at a family reunion and a cousin offends me (they don’t meet my expectations).  I might say, “You’re a crusty turd.  Let’s play some football.”  After all, we’re family.  And no matter how badly our family rubs us the wrong way, we understand that no one is perfect and we forgive and love each other anyway.

Now take the same situation into a church setting, with our church family.  Someone offends us (God forbid it’s the pastor).  Suddenly, we’re devastated.   Not only do we have no interest in forgiving, but we immediately want to leave the family, trash talk the family, give up on church all together, and and abandon the very thing that Christ is coming back for.  I understand it’s hard.  Especially when we feel judged.  But feeling judged and actually being judged are not the same thing.  I’m pretty sure we feel judged far more often that we are judged.  Unless you’re a contestant on American Idol, you’re probably not being judged as often as you think.

Ironically, the act of accusing others of being judgemental requires us to pass judgement on them.  When we accuse them, we claim to know what’s in their heart.  That’s judging them!

We expect from the church (a bunch of ugly, petty, broken people) a standard of behavior that we ourselves aren’t willing to live out.  We refuse to give the benefit of the doubt or extend grace when our expectations aren’t met and we go home.  We leave the family.  That’s so sad.  A broken family is always painful, whether it’s a biological family or  a church family.

My overly-simplistic answer is to adjust our expectations.  The gracious saying “Nobody’s perfect” applies to our pastors and those in our church as well.  We’re all messed up.  We all have baggage.  We’re all works in progress so let’s show some grace (even when it hasn’t been shown to us).  Let’s be generous with forgiveness (even when it hasn’t been extended to us).  Instead of pointing the finger saying, “You haven’t been loving”, let’s just love.  Let’s have each others’ backs the way we would with our biological families.  As Saint Augustine once said, “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”  Let’s give the church 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances.

What a beautiful thing that would be.

Lastly, I wanted to write a note to all of my own church family at Mercy Vineyard.  Writing this post has me thinking deeply about how much I love all of you and how honored I am to be your pastor.  I’m literally typing this with tears in my eyes, feeling immensely blessed by you, my church family.  We’re a junk drawer, a chum bucket, a dysfunctional family, and a beautiful bride to our soon returning Jesus.

Stick a Fork In Me

It’s been two years since we planted a new church.  It’s not the first church my wife and I have planted but it’s the first one that has survived the first year and grown.  The ironic thing I’ve found is that a successful church plant is much more difficult to live through than one that dies in the first year.  The weight of responsibility, the burden of keeping roles filled by volunteers (probably the single greatest challenge), the wondering if we’ll stay afloat financially, the wearing of so many hats that I’ve lost track, dealing with critics and pharisees, doing 500 pounds worth of work for an ounce of return, and the inability to switch it all off.  I know that last part is probably my fault, but working from home because there’s no office space in our building blurs a lot of lines and makes it difficult to get unstuck from “pastor mode”.  You want to know the crazy part?  I LOVE IT!!

I love carrying the church’s burdens to Jesus in prayer.  I love investing in the lives of others and dreaming about where God is leading us.  I love being a spiritual director, leader, and (as Brennan Manning would say) “prophet and professional lover”.  But…

I’m tired.  More tired than I’ve ever been.  Exhausted well beyond capacity.  Running on fumes would be an upgrade for me.  In fact, I deeply fear burnout.  Many of the things I really enjoy doing, I don’t want to do any more.  The smallest task feels like a huge burden.  And the people nearest and dearest to me often feel like a drain instead of the blessing the truly are.

I know that this is not the way it’s supposed to be.  I recognize this is not a healthy place.  I have not done a good job honoring the sabbath or pacing myself.  So, before I go off and do something stupid to medicate this feeling of exhaustion, depression, and burnout I’m going to take some action.  Here it is…

My family and I will be taking a total media fast for the month of July.  No television, no movies, no social media, no video games.  In fact, no screen time at all unless it’s work related.  Tim Ferris wrote, “a glut of information creates a deficit of attention.”  I am definitely feeling that and I’ve grown weary from a constant state of distraction.  I won’t even be carrying my phone on me.  It will stay in the car when I’m out and in my office when I’m home.  For my close friends and family members that might be reading this, you know how to reach me (hint: it’s not on Facebook).

I’ll be taking a 5 day silent retreat.  Ecclesiastes 5:3 says, “Too much activity gives you restless dreams; too many words make you a fool.”  That’s me right now, restless and foolish.  It’s time to be quiet, sit still, and listen for the still small voice of God.  Henri Nouwen writes that words have a way of causing our passion to leak from us.  The more we talk, the more passion that escapes.  I can testify that he is absolutely right!  It’s time to shut up and listen up!

I’ll be disciplining myself to do something I enjoy that has nothing to do with anything I consider productive.  You might be thinking “WHAT???”  But, if you’ve ever planted a church or started a business, you know that there are tremendous feelings of guilt when a few precious hours become available and you don’t lay those hours on the altar of productivity.  I might pick up my guitar (it’s been over a year) or go out with friends or even write a bit of fiction.  I might even take a nap!!

So that’s it.  Stick a fork in me.  I’m done.  Hopefully when I come back in August I’ll have more energy, be clearer headed, experienced God’s refreshing, and be living with a bit more balance.  If you’re feeling anything like me, let me encourage you to get to a quiet place soon.  Don’t wait until you’re on the verge of burnout.  Your family and ministry will thank you (and so will your soul).

You Me Us We

I have the privilege of  working with Bethany Neumeyer as the Prayer Team Leader at our church.  She’s also a great spoken word poet and wrote this as an illustration during our “Living a Passionate Mission” series.  It’s pretty much an amazing piece.  Enjoy!


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