Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
January 10th, 2015 by Joel Watts

the absolutely real reason people are leaving church?

English: Ukrainian wooden church in Museum of ...

This picture has nothing to do with the article, but it is beautiful. English: Ukrainian wooden church in Museum of Folk Architekture. Lviv Polski: Cerkiew w Parku Szewczenki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I posted a quip on Facebook regarding why people are leaving church that, as my friends and I often do, descended into some bawdy proclamations. Yet, one person added some keen insight on why people are leaving church (I’ve removed some of the biographical details):

About 7 years ago, our church went through a long interregnum which saw the numbers decline. As a result the PCC (Parish church council) asked me to conduct a short evaluation of the church to answer the question why so many people left. I’m a social researcher by training you see, so I conducted a small research project using qualitative and quantitative methods, interviewed about 5 different families and 6 other small groups within the church, and collated over 150 questionnaires.

In addition I was given the attendance records from the diocesan office in SOMETOWN for then the last 15 years. What I found is that there was no actual reason for people to leave our church… I did hear plenty of excuses though: worship not what they wanted, not enough charismatic element, not enough theological teaching, the new vicar was a woman, it clashed with other interests, not enough young families, not enough children’s work, not enough hymns…. etc. There was no single answer, or solution that could answer why they had left.

But when I looked at the attendance data I saw an interesting pattern. If we compared the ratio of church growth before the interregnum to the ratio of church decline during the interregnum, and on the graph we turned one on it’s vertical axis… they were almost identical, and I mean 1.6 or 1.7 difference on the gradient ratio identical. In other words they were mirror images of each other.

During the interviews I also discovered that the same people who had joined in the last 5 years before the interregnum were the same that had left during the 3 years of the interregnum.

So in my report to the PCC i proposed a theory to explain why people had left the church and my theory was “Christian migratory patterns”, or, church-hopping as is known in the US. I did explain some of these patterns further, for example,

  • most church hoppers who left the church left for another church a friend of them “advertised”,
  • church hoppers see the church as a service and their attendance as currency,
  • church hoppers have ease of travel, i.e. have several motor vehicles and are ok to travel longer distances,
  • church hoppers like the feel of anonymity, and so on

… i forget now the others.

So, what does this mean? I think it can help us understanding that some loss in membership is due to the basic human nature of “migration” with no “fault” to be assigned. Sometimes, people who are leaving church do so because they weren’t really looking to stay.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t other, manageable, reasons why people leave a congregation.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

15 Responses to “the absolutely real reason people are leaving church?”
  1. “church hoppers see the church as a service and their attendance as currency” – as a former pastor in two different countries, in two different languages I think this reason is the underlying reason for all others, especially when they know the pastor personally and “pretend” to have a good standing friendship with him, or pretend to like him. As an unidentified ailment that causes other superficial diseases in the body, this may be the cause, perhaps, the root of all other reasons migration…
    Without, of course, judging anyone’s true commitment to God.

  2. People think they’re doing their “friend” (not their pastor) a favor for showing up…

  3. Church “hopers” is a delightful Freudian-typo.

    • Oh boy… so, hoper means nothing that everyone thinks it does. Rather, this was from a facebook convo from a Brit transplant. So, maybe we shouldn’t focus too much on trying to find a hidden meaning here.

  4. Ok, I’ll admit my stupidity. What the heck is a long interregnum? Checking Google, it seems to be a change in reign. So long change in ministers? I don’t get it.
    Nothing to do with this, but something I noticed about UMC, which might just be me, taking too small a slice of data. We just got a new female pastor. She replaced another female pastor who I really liked. No problem. But when we hear about other male ministers, especially ones that are retired (like visiting subs), they seem to always say, “minister Joe Smuck, who was minister of UMC in such-in-such location for 23 years”. But the women seem to be moved around a heck of a lot more than the men. Seems unfair, or is this just an anomaly?

  5. One editorial note: A “church hopper” is one thing. A “church hoper” is (I hope) something quite different.:)

  6. Joel, we must resist the temptation to offer simplistic solutions to a church’s decline or growth. We can say that’s it’s ultimately about making disciples which is true, but I do not necessarily think making disciples will result in church growth; it may result in decline because the consumerist mentality is more about the path of least resistance.

    When church is primarily about me being served rather than serving, discipleship goes out the window.

    • Allan, I agree. My point is that any “reason” that doesnt taken into account factors such as some people dont want to stay are providing a false solution. Indeed, discipliship must be our focus rather than numbers. And didnt Bishop Willimon get in trouble for saying that?!?

  7. Know More Than I Should says

    Sounds plausible until one considers that Americans have lost trust in almost all social institutions. People don’t go to church for much the same reasons they don’t vote. They don’t trust preachers for the same reasons they don’t trust politicians.

    It wasn’t always this way. Sixty years ago, most Americans had a great deal of confidence in their social institutions. Then, one by one, those very institutions began to betray the public’s trust.

    • Know More Than I Should says

      A simple fact of life is that the Republican Party is responsible for killing religion in American life.

      When I was growing up, it was impossible to determine someone’s political orientation based on their church attendance. That’s most certainly not the case these days.

      It is quite easy to ascertain one’s religious orientation based on issues such as abortion, civil rights, climate change, birth control, education, equal rights, euthanasia, evolution, gay rights, marriage, spanking, and the like. Often, it only takes the answer to one question to reasonably classify political orientation.

      Tragically, in their misguided zeal, Republicans may be in the process of creating their worst nightmare – a European-style secular society in which religion is largely sidelined.

      The only question is whether religion on American life can reinvent itself before that happens.

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