Lessons from strays: 500 former church members tell why they left

Lisa Misner Sergent —  September 3, 2015

Keeping Sheep
By Nick Rynerson

Springfield | The question is a familiar one. Most pastors and church leaders have asked it at some point: Why are people leaving the church? Every denomination has felt the effects of decline, even Southern Baptists who had maintained growth overall until recently.

To find out why people are really leaving the church, Rodney Harrison set out to interview former Southern Baptist church members and get the real story. He rode his motorcycle all over the country and visited more than 500 former church members in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Washington, and California.

The Dean of Online Education and Director of Doctoral Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Harrison explained his findings at the 2015 Midwest Leadership Summit in Springfield.

Harrison observed that not all churches are losing members, but churches in decline have some characteristics in common. Here’s his summary of what the 500 former members told him.

1. People left churches where they didn’t feel the presence of God.

What Harrison said he most often heard in his research was “I just didn’t feel the presence of God [in that church] anymore.” Former members often described their former churches as nice places, but lacking, as Harrison put it, “the manifest presence of God.” People left churches “where they don’t feel like God was showing up” more than for any other reason during his qualitative study.

“God’s manifest presence is conditional,” Harrison said. “Rampant sin hinders God’s manifest presence. Often times we invite people to a church that has ‘the flu’—it’s spiritually sick—and we wonder why people come and don’t stay.”

2. People left churches that didn’t value women.

The second most common reason cited for departures among the 500 people Harrison interviewed was disagreement over the roles of women in church life. Some reported feeling that women didn’t have the opportunity to exercise their gifts in fulfilling ways in the churches they attended.

According to him, this does not mean people left because they rejected the complementarian view of men and women. Instead, he said the former SBC church members felt women were under-valued and their contributions weren’t meaningful at the churches they had attended.

Harrison argued there is a biblical precedent for women serving in meaningful ways in the church, citing the examples of Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lydia. His research shows, however, that in our time, the roles of women in the church deserves further study before it becomes even more divisive.

3. People left churches that focused on debatable issues.

Specifically, in Harrison’s research, disagreement over alcohol use was an issue for some who left. Harrison heard stories of people who chose to leave after they began to serve in leadership, but were asked to sign a covenant forbidding alcohol use.

Harrison recalled a story of a man that was involved at a Southern Baptist church for a while and began serving in leadership roles as a layperson. When he was asked to sign a covenant, the man had to make the difficult decision to leave the church because he was employed in the wine industry.

Churches certainly have the option to ask members to abstain from certain things, even if the Bible does not expressly forbid them. But Harrison said many ex-church members they did not feel that this issue was properly handled in their former churches. Doubts raised in one theological debate raised questions over other issues and caused growing distrust of their leaders.

4. People left churches in conflict.

When strife breaks out in a church that has nothing to do with matters of orthodoxy or faithfulness, people get burned and leave, Harrison said. Many of the churches people left did not have plans in place to deal with church discipline and conflict.

Without a process in place, conflicts often escalated and became antagonistic. Harrison found that conflict came from both the pulpit and the pews. Anecdotally, his interviewees reported that antagonistic members were rarely dealt with in a healthy manner, and pastors often felt unequipped to deal with conflicts.

5. People left uncaring churches.

Ultimately, if a church doesn’t care for its people, people don’t end up caring much for it. Ex-members interviewed told stories of feeling neglected. One of Harrison’s anecdotes told of an elderly woman who spent six months in the hospital without a single visitor from her church.

“Are we ministering to our members?” asked Harrison. “If the answer is ‘no,’ be prepared for diminishing numbers.”

Lisa Misner Sergent

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Lisa is IBSA Director of Communications. A Missouri native, she moved to Illinois 22 years ago and arrived at IBSA a few years later.