What’s the main reason people leave the church? It’s not politics. It’s not traditional worship. It’s not talk of money. It’s not unfriendly or overbearing people. It’s not the appearance or age of the building. It’s not generationally-imbalanced congregations. It’s not a lack of technology. Nope; none of these are the top reasons people give for why they leave the church.
A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that most religiously unaffiliated people, or “nones,” enter that category because they simply stop believing in their childhood religion. Of those folks, most drop out before the age of 30.
From the hymns and songs to the children’s message and the sermon, from the call to worship to the benediction, what we should believe and what the church believes is often emphasized in the local church. At a time when churches are desperately aware of the lack of young people, it’s hard to swallow this truth: "Nones" are 25% of the U.S. population and rising. They’re not coming to church now and they’re unlikely to come back.
That puts churches in a quandary. What do you do when belief isn’t enough to keep young people engaged? I’d like to offer some suggestions, including one from Paul and one from Jesus.
As I see it, we’ve got at least five options.
1. Don’t change a thing. Continue to focus on time-honored beliefs. After all, they surely provide a steady and constant source of comfort. They bring peace to world-weary hearts. And there are plenty of people who are buoyed by a recitation of the beliefs of the faith.
Tip: Pray for those who don’t share your beliefs, and move on.
2. Ask nones what it is they don’t believe in. No need to wonder or guess. Simply talk with nones and find out what it is they no longer believe in. They’ll be happy to share with you and probably pleased that someone cares enough to ask. I have asked several people this question, including my own father who left the church of his childhood at the age of 18. While my dad doesn’t talk faith, we have many interesting conversations about cosmology, science and ultimate meaning. It’s surprising how much we still share in common, even without the language of faith.
Tip: Be open, straightforward, and curious. Ask open-ended questions and listen without judgement. See what you can learn from the conversation.
3. Put away the baby food. In 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul wrote that many believers were immature in their faith. They had been on a steady diet of milk and haven’t yet graduated to solid food. The famous developmental psychologist, James Fowler, suggests that wasn’t simply an ancient problem. He identifies a similar dynamic in his theory of stages of faith development. If most people leave before they are 30, maybe it’s because we in church rehearse a child-appropriate understanding of our beliefs, rather than an adult version. Fowler suggests that as we mature, we can handle ambiguity, uncertainty and lots of grey area. Not only can we, we must, or we don’t mature as human beings. Perhaps it’s time for us all to put away the baby food and move from milk to solid food. That may not bring nones back, but it will likely mature the people who are sitting in the pews.
Tip: Check out where have you focused on black and white perspectives instead of entertaining ambiguity, nuance and critical thinking. Discover where you have been unwilling to discuss new ways of looking at things or insisted: “This is the way it is.” Perhaps it isn’t.
4. Focus on behavior as much as belief. Jesus, in fact, seems to prefer this option. He’s pretty clear that calling him “Lord” isn’t enough (Matthew 7:21-23). It isn’t what you say about Jesus that makes you a disciple or ushers you into the kingdom of heaven, but if you actually do God’s will. He’s also pretty clear on what that is. Later in the same Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46) he references how one inherits the kingdom: giving the hungry food, giving the thirsty drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned. How do your churches do at emphasizing kingdom behavior? Do you talk about it? Do you give people ways to do this? If not, begin now. If you already do, what can you do to reorganize church activities around these kingdom behaviors even more?
Tip: Look at your bulletin and church calendar to see which organized activities and ministries take precedence in your church. Map your ministries under Belief-Building Activities and Kingdom-Building Behaviors to see where your church has invested its energy, time and resources. What can you do to channel resources to Kingdom-Building Behaviors?
5. Incorporate a third B. Beyond belief and behavior is the 3rd B of being. Does your church offer any experiences that empower people to enter and dwell in the presence of God? For some people, hymns and songs do it. For others, mission trips and service give people the experience of God. But those things don’t do it for everyone. One of the most powerful church services I attend begins with three minutes of quiet meditation each morning. No matter what else is happening. People are invited to enter the presence of the Divine. Another church I know offers prayer that directly involves people. The leader creates a structure for people to offer their own prayers to God, with prompting, on various subjects. There is enough silence and pausing for people to be able to do that. Other churches I know offer the opportunity to light a candle and say a prayer, walk a labyrinth.
Tip: Map your worship service to see what experiences of heightened being are offered. If your church only offers these options outside of worship, ask yourself: Why? Why is the direct experience of connecting with the presence of God not offered during worship? What options can you incorporate into seasonal and regular worship services.
25 percent of the potential churchgoing population isn’t satisfied with the experiences we offer. Are you? More and more churchgoers want something more. Before more folks leave your church for good, have some honest discussions at your church about what’s working, what isn’t, and what you can do about it. There’s no shame in examining your beliefs, your approach to them, or your presentation of them. That’s something communities of faith have done for generations.
Need some help? Contact me; I specialize in helping churches create a culture of renewal. I’d be happy to assist you in mapping the ministries of the church, and your worship experiences, to make sure you’re reaching all the folks God has brought to your church. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out cultureofrenewal.com for further learning opportunities.