WHY DO PEOPLE LEAVE CHURCHES
This article by Dr Richard Hibbert came from the Australian Prayer Network. Dr Hibbert is Head of the Sydney Missionary Bible College's School of Cross-Cultural Mission. He is a medical doctor who has served as a missionary with WEC in the Middle East and Europe, working among Muslim people. He has a Doctor of Missiology from Columbia Seminary in Georgia, and a PhD through Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. Why have I posted it here? It's fair to say that during this Christmas season, the thoughts of many Australians who may be unchurched turn to spiritual things. Also, occasionally I read militant atheist blogs which attempt to argue that there is a correlation between the growth of their movement and the decline in church membership and attendance. As Dr Hibbert shows below, the situation is more complex than that. The fact is that leaving the church does not always mean abandoning the Christian faith as well.
It's safe to say that the vast majority of Australian churches have experienced the pain of having someone leave their gathering. At your church, it might have been someone who was moving out of the area or into a new phase of life - or, tragically, someone who has fallen away from Christ. But why do people really leave churches in Australia or in mission contexts?
I conducted a case study in Bulgaria to find out some of the reasons why people leave - and to pull together some of the lessons we can learn as God's people. From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, and especially immediately following the fall of Communism, thousands of previously Muslim, Turkish-speaking Roma in Bulgaria began to believe in Jesus. These Roma people are known as 'Millet'. In this period, the number of Millet churches grew from less than five to approximately 100 with an estimated 10,000 Millet church attendees.
A. Sadly, the dramatic multiplication of Millet believers and churches was followed by an equally dramatic decline in the number of Millet church attendees in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
B. Stagnation and decline in the number of churches and church attendees have often been observed following periods of rapid church planting and multiplication. Missiologists have suggested a wide variety of reasons for this phenomena of 'cooling off', including a lack of leadership or of a contextualised pattern of leadership, poor patterns of communication and/or conflict within the church, failure to nurture new Christians, lack of meaningful rituals and structures of incorporation into the church, and the natural entropy common to all human institutions.
C. But establishing the specific reasons for decline in a particular context is an important step in addressing decline and working towards future growth. The literature on defection from churches and other religious groups offers a range of possible explanations for people leaving churches. For example, Jorge Gomez's excellent 1995 study of people leaving evangelical churches in Costa Rica identifies several main reasons for defection which are relevant to the Millet experience: sinful conduct by some church leaders, the misuse of money in churches, defectors' sense of shame about their lifestyle not matching the standards of the gospel, and pressure from family and friends.
At the same time, many studies suggest that deficiencies in the process of conversion can be associated with defections. These deficiencies might include a lack of meaningful ritual to demonstrate conversion or to signal incorporation into the church, insufficient development of social interaction with church members, and motivations for conversion that are primarily utilitarian without sufficient understanding of the full meaning of the gospel. Another important reason for leaving that is raised by many studies is the inability of newcomers to develop and maintain strong, satisfying bonds with church members and pastors.
D. But what were the significant factors behind the Millet church's stagnation and decline? During late 2007 and early 2008, I visited several Millet neighbourhoods and spent a few weeks interviewing people who had left Turkish-speaking Millet churches ('leavers') as well as people who had stayed in churches ('stayers'). The leavers I interviewed gave four main reasons for leaving: Being hurt by or disillusioned with their pastor or group of pastors; Lack of time due to work or other commitments, which in each case seemed to be a cover for actions they or others considered sinful and shameful; Opposition from husbands; Conflict with another believer.
By far the most frequently cited reason for leaving was being hurt by or disillusioned with church leaders. Leaders making unilateral decisions, misusing money, fighting among themselves, failing to visit when the leaver had a problem, or insulting, shaming, or offending the leaver or their family: all of these leadership behaviours were highlighted as being hurtful or disillusioning for defectors. Indeed, the prominence of leader-related reasons for defection corresponds with the findings of many church growth studies. Problems of church leadership are often associated with decline.
E: Having said that, my interviews with stayers revealed that support from other believers was absolutely central to keeping Millet at church. Half of the stayers I interviewed described times when they nearly or actually gave up believing in Jesus or going to church temporarily. Support from other believers - whether in the form of verbal encouragement, prayer, or home visits - was the factor most frequently mentioned as helping these Millet to stay at or return to church.
This accords with the findings of Allen Swanson's 1986 study of Taiwanese believers and those of Arthur Duck's 2001 study of Brazilian churches. Each study revealed that support from other believers was a key factor associated with church members staying in their churches. One of the most striking findings of this study was that all the leavers, except for one, still expressed belief in Jesus and continued to pray regularly.
How does this study help us to know why people leave churches, and what we can do about it? There are several key implications here for missionaries and local Christians.
1. Don't assume that those who have left the church have also left the faith. Almost all of the twenty Millet interviewees who had left the church still believed in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. They missed the church, and they wanted to be back in fellowship with the community of believers. Given their continuing love for the Lord and for his people, it is likely that they could be gathered again into existing or new churches. Studies suggest that in Western contexts, including Australia, many who have left churches have also not left their faith in Christ. Many of them may also be 'gatherable'.
2. While most Millet defectors were positive about the thought of returning to church, they were prevented from doing so by a sense of sin or shame. Overcoming this barrier, in the Millet context, requires church members and/or leaders to intentionally reach out to the defectors. Visiting defectors in their homes will be the most effective way of doing this. Home visits should be one of the most important activities for Millet churches, since such visits, along with prayer and encouragement, led many Millet who had temporarily stopped coming to church to return.
In other contexts, too, current church members or leaders would do well to visit people who have recently left the church - in the West, many who have left churches are discouraged by the church's failure to pursue them.
3. People leave churches for many reasons, but many continue to believe in Jesus and live for him. For the Millet, the primary issue is poor leadership. In other contexts, other reasons are likely to predominate. Finding out why church leavers have left is crucial if we are to develop context-specific strategies for preventing defection and for helping defectors to return to church. The best way to do this is to sensitively ask the leavers themselves.
As Stuart Murray points out, some church leavers "have abandoned their Christian faith; but many have abandoned only church", and therefore, "Leavers have insights and perspectives that can sensitise churches to issues that hinder witness and community life - and that may prompt others to consider leaving". Having learnt church leavers' reasons for leaving, it is critical that churches evaluate their own practices and change to address the problems. If your church wants to begin this evaluation process, you could begin with the list of reasons for leaving given above alongside the specific reasons for leaving given by leavers in your context.
4. Many church growth studies implicate poor leadership as a cause for church decline. Church leadership must be transparent, accountable, and culturally relevant. A major problem in mission contexts is that the expatriate missionaries impose their own inherited forms of church leadership and administration on local churches without realising that these may be counterproductive according to the values of the local culture.
Sometimes the inherited forms are very difficult to let go of as they are thought to be inherently 'Christian' rather than simply one cultural expression of worship and church practice among many possible options. The missional principle here is work with the culture, not against it. The only way to do this is to seriously research both the culture and the Bible, being willing to let go of 'the way we've always done things' for the sake of finding culturally relevant expressions of biblical principles. This kind of research needs to involve local people in an empowering dialogue.
5. Christian community is not primarily a meeting: it is a sharing of life together as an expression of our shared identity in Christ. It includes a sense of belonging to one another because we belong to God. The processes of entering and leaving the community of a local church hold great potential for nurturing a sense of belonging and shared identity, so it is important that churches mark the incorporation of new members into their group with special events or celebrations, including baptism. By the same token, when people leave the community of the local church, they should not be abandoned - pathways should be constructed which help them to come back into fellowship with the church they have left or with another local church.
Source: Dr Richard Hibbert