Easy Church Membership Leads to Unengaged Audiences
When You Should Leave Your Church

People Will Leave Your Church - And It Hurts Every Time

Pastor, regardless the size of your church, eventually people will leave.

There are many reasons people leave the local church and you need to be ready.

After over twenty years serving in the same local church, I likely know more former members than current ones. 

For the first decade I served as a pastoral staff member. I was the student pastor, then collegiate pastor, single adult pastor, young married adult pastor, pastor of the thermostat, pastor of mowing the yard, pastor of setting up chairs (that develops one's servant heart), and pastor of miscellaneous.

In 2005, I was called to be the Lead Pastor at the church (the same church) and continue to serve in this role.

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Photo credit: hernanpba via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

People have been leaving local churches since God birthed local churches. Some left by choice. Others have been escorted out for various reasons (see Acts 5:1-10). Over these last couple of decades (plus all the years prior to my role as pastor) in the local church, these are some of the reasons given as to why people leave. 

  • TRANSFERS - We live in a military city. In addition to the US Navy continually transferring families here and elsewhere. Corporations do the same. Therefore, new members join when they move the area. They end up leaving when their boss moves them. 
  • A NEW PASTOR - When a church calls a new leader, people will leave. New people will join as well. New leadership brings new organization. Things that were emphasized under previous leadership will not be emphasized under the new. 
  • A NEW MINISTRY - Church ministries change over time. In some cases, a new ministry or program is developed that focuses on a certain task or people group. Regardless how biblical the new ministry is, some won't like it. 
  • THE ENDING OF A MINISTRY - Some feel slighted when "their" ministry is no longer supported or promoted by the church. Unfortunately, many people gain their sense of identity and purpose in the ministry role they serve and cannot see that their identity is in Christ, not in the ministry. 
  • NEW STAFF MEMBERS - Personalities don't always mesh and a new staff member (especially if replacing another) may or may not connect well with current members serving in their area of ministry. People follow people, even when they declare they follow God.
  • HURT FEELINGS AND INJURY - This happens in every church. People get their feelings hurt. Inevitably a pastor, leader, or other church member will say or do (or not say or do) something that hurts others.
  • MEAN LEADERS - This goes hand-in-hand with the hurt feelings. There's enough blame to go around. Unfortunately, there often appears to be a shortage of grace.
  • FOR THE KIDS - Whether young children or teenagers, families often shift churches because of how their children are faring in the ministry focused on their age-group. This may be a shift to a para-church youth ministry, or another church. I've been on both sides of this argument. At one point, I was the youth pastor leading the ministry others would move churches to have their students attend. (This was wrong, by the way.) And, I've seen my fair share of families leave for the very same reason. While parents are attempting to do what is best for their children, they unwittingly allow their children to become the spiritual heads of the home by driving where the family worships.
  • NEW IS "BETTER" - Just as many people flock to the Apple Store when a new iPhone is released, there are some who change churches in the same manner. The new church or plant that is younger, more exciting, and features way cooler social media posts is very attractive. Sometimes people leave, but because membership is not valued, you may only discover they left when they start posting about their pastor and new church (and you discover the guy they're talking about is not you.)
  • CHANGING DIVERSITY OF MEMBERSHIP - Unfortunately, this remains true. A wise pastor will lead his church to engage the actual people living in the community and over time, this may shift the racial and economic demographic of church members and attenders. So, yes, racism still exists and while some may never verbalize that as reasoning for leaving, it clearly plays a role. 
  • POLITICS - The local and national political spectrum impacts church membership. This is especially true if church members are politicians. Politics divides. It divides families, communities, workplaces, and churches. 

There are numerous other reasons why people leave. Regardless why, even if legitimate, it hurts. It hurts to see friends move away to other cities. It hurts more to see friends leave hurt, angry, or disillusioned. 

Thom Rainer shares this regarding the ultimate reason people leave...

But all the research studies of which I am aware, including my own, return to one major theme to explain the exodus of church members: a sense of some need not being filled. In other words, these members have ideas of what a local congregation should provide for them, and they leave because those provisions have not been met. (Full Article)

Everybody has ideas of how things ought to be in the church. Most find no issue with letting the pastor know. Yet, when church membership feels like country club membership, pastoral leadership is viewed less as a biblical role by members and more as a temporary director.

Pastors are at times complicit in the erroneous exodus of members. This too must be noted. 

Sometimes God does move members to new places of service in different churches. While God is blamed most often for the move - I've heard many say "I prayed about it and God called us to this other church. In most cases, the reasoning was far from spiritual. Yet in those cases where God truly led, each church was blessed and God was glorified. 

Imperfect people make mistakes and your church is full of those types of people. In fact, pastor, your church is led by one. However, the perfect God we serve continues to use us in his Kingdom work in ways that not only are amazing, but eternally beneficial. 

A backdoor revival may need to occur in your church, but those are rare. Rather, to avoid an unholy exodus, consider these as elements of your leadership not to be left undone:

  • Raise the bar for membership 
  • Communicate clearly your vision for the church
  • Confront dissension quickly and graciously
  • Inform members of the "what" and the "why" regarding change
  • Mentor men
  • Equip families strategically
  • Pray together
  • Celebrate publicly what God is doing in the life of church members
  • Listen well
  • Retire the knee-jerk reactions
  • Pray for your church members
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