Give people a good reason to leave church

February 10th, 2015

Church conflict is something that strikes fear in the heart of church leaders. Why?

The vital statistics of many mainline churches already reflect declining health. The size of worship attendance is shrinking as are the number of active ministries, and the people involved in them. Baptisms trend downward while deaths trend upward. Why bring on more conflict when we’re already on shaky ground?

Fear of conflict

I think we're afraid of church conflict because it might reveal irreconcilable differences. And then what would happen to the congregation? The already shaky boat might just capsize. And so we avoid things that might be conflictual or create tension.

But my work has show me most of the stuff church leaders are afraid of isn’t what pushes people out the door. It’s not so much a strong stance on social justice issues like poverty, racism or gay marriage. It’s not even questions of the authority of the Bible that does it. In fact, two lay leaders recently confided to me they tune out when there isn’t anything challenging going on. They want to think a new thought, chew on a new idea, and engage a new way of looking at things. So, for most people, that’s not the issue.

People have all kinds of reasons for leaving church. I say at least give them a good reason to go. I’d like to share with you the difference between a good reason and a bad reason for leaving church and four dos and don'ts when making the shift.

Why leave church?

Some people will never leave church. They were there before you got there, and they’ll be there after you leave. They’re loyal to the church and its traditions. Others aren’t so immovable. Some of them will leave if they’re not getting their way or they have been hurt by a comment, a leadership gaffe or a pastoral slight. There’s not always a lot you can do about that.

But most people leave for reasons we have far more control over. Here are three: First, there is no new vision or direction for the church. It’s same old, same old. People are asked to risk nothing. They are bored, unengaged. Second, the church is simply going through the motions. Worship lacks spiritual depth or vulnerability. Prayer is lackluster. Preaching is uninspiring. Music is uneven. They don’t sense the sacred presence of Jesus or the movement of the Holy Spirit. Third, relationships are cliquish. Worshippers may be disconnected from each other, from visitors, or from the community around them.

Now these may all be valid reasons to leave church. That we church leaders tolerate this state of affairs is our bad. Let’s at least give people a good reason to go.

Give them a good reason

What’s a good reason? A vibrant new direction that won’t please everyone. A bold, risky vision that requires big faith to enact. Worship that plunges spiritual depths, creates space for the Holy, and evokes emotional honesty. Relationships that go beyond the surface, inviting truth-telling and a community with people from a variety of backgrounds, circumstances and ethnicities.

Make no mistake, these things will be uncomfortable and to some unpopular. Some people will leave BECAUSE they disagree. Maybe they don’t want to get their hands dirty and reach out beyond their comfort zone. Maybe they are sick of hearing about those people. Maybe they can’t understand how environmental stewardship relates to the life of faith. Perhaps racial reconciliation and economic justice don’t float their boat. Maybe they like the ways things have been just fine. No worries. The seats they vacate will be filled by others. Eventually the offering plate will be too.

People want an experience of Jesus. Of his values. Of his presence. Of his message. Of his radical love. The churches that don’t provide that will die. The churches that do provide that may well live.

Case in point

One small mainline church I know was on the verge of closing. In fact, the nine remaining people had decided it was time to call it quits. At their very last meeting, an older woman said, “But where I will go next Sunday morning?” Her lament reopened the conversation. The little group decided to give it one last try. They hired a part time bivocational pastor who was passionate about connecting the church and the community. She wanted to create an inclusive space for all people, including youth at risk. Seven years later, the church is thriving! They have a church band with a professional musician from the community college, an active outreach to GLBT youth, a Friday night coffee house with live bands from the community, several 12-step meetings and a free clothing ministry. The pastor is now full-time, even as they share space with another worshipping congregation to make ends meet. This church has become the inclusive, progressive go-to community in a very politically and socially conservative town.

I was there on a recent Sunday morning and the sanctuary was comfortably full, with perhaps 60 people in attendance including a journalist from the local newspaper, entrepreneurs, several doctors, teachers, quite a few teenagers, older couples with canes and hearing aids, students from the college and a smattering of recovering addicts. Even the mayor worships at this congregation! It was a refreshing experience.

Jesus had a powerful vision of the kingdom of God. His preaching and teaching and ministry gave people direction; it pointed to something brand new. Sure, some people left Jesus. Others even killed him. But not because they were bored! We know how the story goes … a handful of followers led to the billions who now follow him.

If you’re going to lead church — whether you are clergy or laity — understand that people will leave church. Can’t stop that. I say, at least give people a good reason to leave the church.

4 dos and don'ts

Here are four dos and don’ts to consider as you move forward:

1. Do prepare people for a change in direction. If you are presenting a new vision, give people plenty of time to get used to the idea, to ask questions and to present their ideas too. Don’t expect everyone to be on board. But don’t back out if they’re not either. Ground your efforts in prayer, and trust God.

2. Do give people something new to chew on in your sermons, devotions and Bible studies. Don’t be afraid to tackle tough issues. Just make sure to fairly represent all sides. Don’t be afraid to say where you stand, and why. People will appreciate your honesty and vulnerability, even if they disagree with you. Do make sure you have thought it through as much as you can, and don’t try to force others to believe or behave the way you do.

3. Do turn to Jesus and the Gospels for guidance. In good Jewish fashion, Jesus was involved in all kinds of healthy debate with those he agreed with, and those he disagreed with. No matter what, he remained true to himself and was prepared to answer for his beliefs. We are beneficiaries of that self-differentiation.

4. Do be of good courage! Our inspired visions, risky ministries, spiritually grounded worship and courageously loving relationships can and do make a difference.

Without all this, your church is likely to continue declining and die anyway. Might as well give it a go!

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at

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