'Unchurched' studies seek to understand why people leave - Word&Way

‘Unchurched’ studies seek to understand why people leave

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP)—Seeking to develop strategies to prevent formerly active members from leaving through the so-called “back door,” LifeWay Research has conducted surveys to better understand why people leave.

“I think we have a lot of strategies for getting people into the front door but not necessarily (for closing) the back door,” Brad Waggoner, currently vice president of the Broadman and Holman Publishing Group, said in a podcast.

In the summer of 2006, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, conducted a survey of “formerly churched adults” who regularly attended a Protestant church as an adult in the past but stopped attending somewhere along the way.

Most (59 percent) cited “changes in life situation” as the reason they stopped attending church. Some of those changes came down to personal priorities. One in five (19 percent) said they were “simply too busy” to attend church or cited conflict with responsibilities related to family and home. About 17 percent said they moved too far from church, 15 percent cited work, and 12 percent said a divorce or separation caused them to drop out.

The second-most-common category or reason adults gave for leaving the church (37 percent) was “disenchantment” with the pastor of the church. Common reasons were that church members “seemed hypocritical” (17 percent) or that the church members “were judgmental of others” (17 percent) or “the church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement” (12 percent). Those adults said they felt like outsiders looking in, revealing that dynamics of leadership and relationships within a church can become obstacles to assimilating new members.

Just two of the top 10 reasons named for leaving the church had to do with spiritual causes. Nearly three in 10 said either “church was not helping me to develop spiritually” (14 percent) or they “stopped believing in organized religion” (14 percent).

About one-third of formerly churched adults said either that nobody contacted them after they left or nobody seemed to care.

Another LifeWay study looked at “church switchers,” Protestant Americans who have attended more than one church regularly as an adult.

“There are two types of people who slip out through the back door of the church,” Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, said in a press release. “One group is probably leaving church permanently, and the other group is going to find a new church.”

Other than moving, researchers found that people change churches for one of two reasons—they are fleeing their former church or being drawn to another. The former most often is the case—58 percent said the greatest impact on their decision to move was “my need/desire to leave my previous church” compared to 42 percent who said they were attracted by a desire to join their current congregation.

The most common specific reason given was that the old church “was not helping me to develop spiritually”—cited by 28 percent of church switchers. Another 20 percent said they left because they “did not feel engaged or involved in meaningful church work.”

Other common reasons were disenchantment with church members or the pastor. Sixteen percent said they left because they were unhappy with changes like a new pastor or a different worship style.

Finally, LifeWay Research focused in 2007 on young adults ages 18-30. That research found more than two-thirds of young adults who attend church at least a year in high school stop attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18 and 22.

The vast majority (97 percent) of reasons young adults gave for leaving church related to changes in life situation. The most frequent reason was self-imposed change: “I simply wanted a break from church” (27 percent). But just one in five said they planned in advance to take a break from church after they finished high school.

One-fourth said they stopped attending church when they moved to college, and nearly as many (23 percent) said they stopped going because of work responsibilities. About one in five (22 percent) said they moved too far away from the church to continue attending, and for whatever reason, they did not find a closer church.

Of the 30 percent of former teens who stayed in church as young adults, two-thirds described the church as “a vital part of my relationship with God.” Those most likely to remain active in church—by a margin of 63 percent to 42 percent—found their pastor’s sermons relevant to everyday life. Nearly half (46 percent) cited meaningful relationships with multiple adults, such as Sunday school teachers and volunteers, as a factor keeping them involved in church.