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.