Why People Leave Church

Rachel Chimits

In our current culture of pluralism and individuality, a fair amount of controversy surrounds church, who leaves and why they leave.

Pew Research Center survey found that one in every two self-identified Christian believers who don’t attend church say that they “practice their faith in other ways.”

In the same survey, over half also said their absence was because they hadn’t found “a church or house of worship they liked.”

About 48 percent cited “not enough time” as their reason for not going to church.

If you’ve talked to people about religion or church for longer than a minute, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Well, I don’t need to go to church because my relationship with God is personal.”

Or maybe, “I’ve been burned by the church. I’m done with organized religion.” 

Or, “The church is a man-made invention, not God’s idea.”

Paradoxical, Dangerous and Natural

There are a lot of reasons why people stop attending church, but the vast majority of them are personal rather than institutional. It’s rare to hear someone say they walked out because of incorrect theology.

In general, Western culture seems to be experiencing personal disillusionment with the church that has very little to do with what the church is biblically.

Ephesians 2:20-21 describes the heart of the church as it was meant to be. “Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.”

The practical expression of this is found in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Anywhere you find the church mentioned in the Bible, it’s talking about community.

In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis pointed out, “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion…. In our own age the idea that religion belongs to our private life—that it is, in fact, an occupation for the individual’s hour of leisure—is at once paradoxical, dangerous, and natural.”

Even if we go back into the Old Testament, there are very, very few examples of people meeting with God outside of serving a community or being part of a community.

However, church is messy, flawed, disappointing and at times deeply hurtful.

It’s natural to not want to be hurt, but withdrawing from Biblical community is, as Lewis pointed out, dangerous.

When Church Isn’t Great

Moses, one of the most iconic leaders in the Old Testament, became extremely frustrated with the community of God several times. This is the man who hurled the stone carvings of God’s commandments down a mountainside when he saw the way that people were behaving.

He had followers start rebellions against his leadership, openly fornicate and craft idols in front of him and then, as the pièce de résistance, they made threats on his life.

If there was ever a person who had “the right” to be fed up with community, it was Moses.

Well, frankly, it was God.

Despite this, God commanded that people in Israel to work together, live together and worship together, over and over and over.

Jesus came along and upped the ante: he called the community of believers his own body. Paul further explored this image when he described individuals within the church as organs.

It’s utterly ridiculous to even consider something so integral to the well-being of others leaving the others and striking out on its own.

In fact, when a body part is removed, it immediately starts dying and the rest of the body suffers long-term pain and often permanent health problems. Jesus was likely very aware of the visceral complications included in his comparison. 

Needing Messy People

The problems that many believers are citing with church then are really complaints with the native difficulties of being in community with other people.

It’s much simpler to be alone. No disagreements. No pain. No growth. 

Our relationship with God isn’t a solitary affair, as much as we might like it to be. It needs to happen in the context of other people in the same way that our lungs, heart and brain all function together.

Relationships are filled with pain as well as joy that has to be worked through. There are times when forgiveness needs to be balanced with new boundaries, but holding a grudge isn’t an option in Biblical living. 

While considering the church in Acts 2, Nicky Cruz pointed out what many believers are missing today: “I long for that kind of church today—a unified body of Christ. And I believe God longs for this as well. This is a church unified by a clear vision of our compelling mission and purpose in this world. It is a church drawn together, as believers everywhere learn to view the lost people all around them as God sees them.” 

Unity, especially unity in vision, often requires a sacrifice of self. 

The hardest part of community is giving up something we want or making ourselves vulnerable to others. The best part is when someone sees our pain or troubles—really sees us as we are—and maybe sets aside something they wanted in order to help us and lift us up.