Do You Have to Go to Church to Be a Christian?
“How many people attend your church?”
This question, which comes up in casual conversations for both clergy and laypeople, is becoming more and more difficult to answer. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many church services online, and as more and more churches have started to worship in person once again, some people haven’t come back.
There are many online options for Christians to consume; the convenience of listening to a sermon as you drive to work or singing worship music as you get ready in the morning coincide with a cultural and religious shift in our country: Fewer and fewer Christians go to church, or think going to church is essential in being a Christian, than ever before.
American Church Statistics
The latest statistics indicate this is a trend. Among the more illuminative findings are:
- America’s membership among all religious houses of worship fell below 50% for the first time in the 80 years Gallup has been keeping data.
- Among all demographics, almost 20% fewer people attend church in 2020 than 2000.
- One-third fewer Americans attend church now than in 1993.
- Only 36% of Christians attend church at least once a week.
- More and more Christians post-pandemic are staying home, electing to not attend church or watching services online.
The data suggests that fewer people are attending in-person worship in the U.S. than ever before. What’s going on? Are people losing faith?
Reasons for Leaving the Church
Spiritual Abuse or Religious Trauma
Some who leave church do so to get away from harm, trauma, and abuse. Recently an internal investigation by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the USA, revealed how church leaders from the SBC covered up sexual abuse in their churches.
This is hardly an outlier: The hashtag #churchtoo began in 2017 on social media as more and more people stepped forward to tell their story of sexual and spiritual abuse at the hands of church leaders. Organizations like GRACE and Pellucid have long waitlists as churches line up to hire competent, trauma-informed, independent investigators to address allegations of spiritual abuse, religious trauma, and sexual abuse in churches.
In cases of abuse and trauma, people are leaving churches to get away from harm, or they are disillusioned with ungodly responses to harmful behavior. This is an instance of people leaving church for their own good as they move away from the harm they experience in their church.
Failure to Do Justice, Love Kindness & Walk Humbly with God
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
A second reason we hear from those who have left their church has to do with issues of justice: racism, patriarchy, misogyny, economic disparity, support for violence and war, etc.
I’ve spoken with a number of pastors who spoke up about Black Lives Matter or church abuse scandals happening in their denomination, and they were forced to resign by their board or elders.
Likewise, parishioners find that they cannot pursue acting justly according to their conscience without being labeled as a “social justice warrior” (SJW) or worse. Faced with the choice of ignoring their conscience or gaslighting their convictions, many are walking away from membership in a local church to band together with other like-minded folks keen on fighting injustice.
Dismissal or Punishment of Questions/Doubts
Another reason people are leaving Christian churches has to do with what is commonly called “deconstruction”. Deconstruction involves asking questions, probing doubts, and seeking different ways to understand and live more faithfully the Christian life.
Many churches cannot handle questions and doubts, especially around hot-button issues like gender/sexuality, racism, abortion/reproductive rights, gun violence, and the climate crisis.
Additionally, when people encounter theological or exegetical arguments that challenge their received dogma (authorship of Scripture, contradictions in Bible, evolution, religious pluralism, eschatology, etc.), they are unable to process and probe these questions without being shut down or shut out of their religious communities. Many find there is simply no room to ask questions or face doubts in church systems built on “being right” and conformity to an official dogma.
People leave churches not only because they can’t question what they believe, but also because they experience hypocrisy and lack of integrity in stated theological convictions. A lack of transparency and honesty plays into this as well.
Churches make a big deal about repentance and grace, but treat those in power differently when caught in sin than they do laypeople. Churches make a big deal of being “biblical,” but then ignore inconvenient or challenging passages that contradict their politics or culture.
The inability to acknowledge and reckon with theological contradictions in a particular tradition contributes to some leaving the church. They experience selective application of Scripture and a disregard for emphases in the Bible (care for the poor, nonviolent resistance, sharing all possessions in common, etc.) as dishonest and hypocritical. Rather than ignore or justify the incongruity, some people choose to leave.
Shame & Judgment
Finally, there are those who left the church because at their lowest point, whether it was a mental health issue or sin or poverty or divorce or death of a loved one, they experienced shunning, shame, judgment, or abandonment from their church.
Many people who’ve left churches have done so because they heard great sermons and teachings about love and grace and transformation and the goodness of the Chrisitan community, but when they needed those things the most in their life, they didn’t experience them.
Some church cultures have a high level of toxic shame that permeates the staff and congregational culture. When people begin to experience the goodness of healing friendships (at work or in their neighborhood) or the grace and acceptance and challenge that can be found in some therapeutic relationships (support groups, social worker, counselor), they are able to identify the goodness and health they receive there. Unfortunately, many people look to relationships and experts outside the church to find transformation and healing because too many churches seek punitive or retributive strategies for human change.
Why Do Young People Leave the Church?
In addition to all this, young people are leaving the church for reasons of their own. Recent research from Barna found six reasons young Chrisitans are leaving:
- The experience of fear-based Christianity: Young Christians want a faith that helps them engage and navigate their world, but too often, they experience reactionary, culture war, fear-based ways of relating to the world. Young people don’t see the world as a “threat”, but as their home.
- Lack of depth and spirituality in church: Young Christians want to be challenged, to talk about deep and vital topics, to have a faith that is robust and rugged enough to handle life’s most challenging questions. But many experience church as boring or shallow, with messages and ministries disconnected from the questions and challenges most important to them.
- Culture wars and the embrace of “anti-science”: Most young Christians don’t have the baggage of being at war with science. In fact, they are looking for ways to integrate and make sense of how science and religion coexist in the world as revelations of truth. Anti-science rhetoric and policies are a big turn-off to them.
- Judgmental attitudes, especially in regards to gender and sexuality: Young Christians are looking for more faithful ways of navigating human sexuality and gender than what they’ve received from their parents. Purity culture, shunning LGBTQ people in ways that others are not, body shaming, and misogyny are all troubling, and churches often do not respond well to young people seeking better ways to handle the complex reality of gender and sexuality.
- Lack of open-mindedness: Young people in general are growing up in more diverse communities than their parents . They’re exposed to a wide variety of ethnicities and religions and worldviews. These young Christians are looking for churches that respect difference, honor similarities, and do so without shunning or excluding people who think differently than they do. There’s a value of open-mindedness and inclusion that they’re looking to live into as they identify as Christian.
- The dismissal of serious questions and doubts with mere platitudes: This is very similar to older generations as well: easy answers, trite platitudes, or appeals to “just listen to the authority” are not compelling to young Christians. They have a higher tolerance to hold space for doubt and questions, and are looking for churches that will take them—and their doubts—seriously.
Why Do Pastors Leave the Church?
At Gravity, we work with a number of pastors who have left their churches (and pastoral ministry all together) in the last several years. In addition to all the reasons stated above, we’ve found that burnout is a major factor in why clergy leave the church.
Our friend Bethany Dearborn Hiser discussed the toll that compassion fatigue and moral injury take on those in helping professions like the pastorate in a recent episode of our podcast. The combination of a lack of commitment to self-care and the incredibly high emotional and relational demands of being a minister makes burnout a far too frequent reason for pastors leaving the church.
How to Respond When People Leave Your Church
So what can we do? How do we who work in churches or care about the health and vitality of our local church respond to the people who leave our church and the reasons they do so? A few proposals that may help us move in faithfulness in these situations:
- Validate experience: The impulse to defend the church or correct someone who has left can be strong. Many people leave churches because they’ve experienced shame, judgment, harm, abuse, manipulation, or neglect at the hands of other Christians and Christian leaders. Try responding with, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and “That’s wrong, I can see how hurtful it is,” and “Thank you for sharing this with me.” Notice if and how you want to argue and be right, and resist the urge to do that if you are speaking with a hurting person.
- Listen: Those who leave our churches have a lot to teach us about how we can grow and areas we need to address. Be curious, ask questions, listen, take notes, be appreciative, address concerns, and learn from those who’ve left how to become a healthier church.
- Address underlying causes: Take what you’ve learned and seek to make restitution and repair. If people are leaving because they can’t ask questions or their doubts aren’t taken seriously, seek to identify ways to create safety and encourage open discussion. If people are leaving because of harm or abuse of power, seek to reckon with that wrong. Not only will those who have left feel honored and valued that their experiences were taken seriously, but you’ll also take tangible steps to prevent more people leaving in the future due to similar mistakes.
I Left My Church. Now What?
Maybe you’re reading this because you are someone who’s recently walked away from your faith community. You’ve looked to connect locally to a church and can’t find a place where you feel safe or seen, where your questions and doubts are validated and your experiences are taken seriously. Many who have left local congregations have found faith communities online that provide what they’re looking for.
This is one reason we started the Gravity Commons as a place for us to listen, learn, ask questions, share stories, and seek Jesus together in an open-handed, nonjudgmental environment. Consider joining Gravity Commons, and see if it’s what you’ve been looking for.