Why Do They Leave the Church?

The following was begun 2 weeks ago.

I have a theory.

There are a lot of theories out there on why people leave the church and never return or return only much later in life and some of them are very compelling. I’ve never really bought into the idea that biblical illiteracy is the cause. Wishy washy doctrine surely doesn’t help. And  my entire life as a youth pastor – trying to keep kids at least intrigued with The King and his Kingdom – was set like a flint on inculcating a Christian Worldview. Others set me on that path and I am thankful for them.

But I still have a theory taking this a little further. A theory too new in my own head for me to place my full weight on. A theory I am not too sure I could have had if my story of leaving the ministry and entering the business world were different. Apart from the difficulties, I might not have this theory at all.

Here is my theory – one reason why so many people, young and old, leave the faith is no one is helping them think about what the great majority of what their lives are made up of.

Christianity is given (sold?) to us, in the main, as a life of evangelism, morality and church activities. Evangelism is painful for most people. Morality is great but there are always unbelievers who are more moral. And church activities, even when profoundly helpful, are another spinning plate in already busy lives.

Honestly, I can’t help thinking this is not enough.

Sure, there are the gospel-hyphenated movements that get people to be gospel-centered, and these do some good in helping people see the big picture. But the big picture is not enough. It is not enough to see the big picture.

Our lives are made up of finely drawn details. Each day is full of countless ones. We do all these “little” things at home, at work, and in the marketplace and they just don’t get a lot of sermon time.

Evangelism gets a lot of press. Devotionals get a lot too. I mean, not from the Apostle Paul, mind you. But they get them from everyone today.

But let’s face it, outside of the Lutherans, who is talking about work and vocation? And every adult works at some level. The mom in the home, whose work is never done and all those who leave the house (or don’t) and work all day for a paycheck work hard in a land of minefields. Sometimes those minefields are buried deep below beautiful fields of green. Others are just below service and must be traversed with moment-by-moment care.

Usually, our work is seen as just a means of evangelism or make money for those doing the real work of the kingdom in other lands.

Course, we didn’t get that from anyone but ourselves. But what about work is like God and where is God seen in it? How do we know him better through it? Where does this work fit in the Kingdom and how does it reflect it’s values?

I keep asking these questions because I’m working. Everyday I go to a job I do not like just like so many others. We catch glimpses of the glory of the King and his reign but I long for more.

Mothers, day after day, well, mother. They cook and clean and some have to add work outside the home onto that.

This isn’t a request for pity. It’s a plea for meaning.

For all our talk about relevance. We are not very good at it. We think faux-hawks, untucked plaid shirts and references to pop music will do the trick. Men and women don’t walk away because of the way we dress. Who would give a rip about them anyway?

They walk away because we are answering the questions they are not asking.

They want to live and work (and play?) Christianly. And so we send them to an evangelism class. We have taught them to have a wretched urgency about the souls they work with. But we have taught them next to nothing about the soul of work.


Everything you just read I wrote a few weeks back in a fit of frustration. None of these thoughts are new on this blog  and so I saw no real need to post them here. I was worried the words were not sound enough to be helpful.

But then two things happened.

First I heard from a few different people. They poured out their frustrations and were glad there was someone who was dealing with some of the same issues with work and faith and vocation and looking for some hope beyond and within it all.

Then Skye Jethani posted a quote by Dorothy Sayers that I could not get over. Sayers is the closest thing to a female C.S. Lewis we may ever have. She was a friend of his and has the same ability to cut through the fog of confused thinking with simple and eloquent language. The following is from “Why Work.”

“In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion. But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?” 

So my theory may have some merit. I’m under no illusion this is the whole answer. But I sometimes wonder if we are really talking about the real thing.

I repeat, most often, the question, “Why work?” is answered with only evangelism and missions. Rarely, if ever, is there anything else to the answer. We hear nothing about God’s view of work and his creativity.

Shouldn’t we want the arc of the redemptive story to stretch over our lives and be the banner of the way we think about this 9/10ths of our lives?

My guess is the reason we rarely hear about these thing is that sounds like hard work. Evangelism and missions are easy for pastors and bloggers and writers. Those subjects preach well. And they are needed. We need to think and talk about those things.

And we need to talk about morality. In a world careening into darkness, we must.

But we should not be surprised when people leave if this is all we are serving them.

12 thoughts on “Why Do They Leave the Church?

  1. Chris Canuel October 9, 2012 / 8:42 am

    The problem with the Church, and the reason people leave the Church, isn’t that we aren’t focusing on the secondary needs that people want to hear about. Shifting our focus from one secondary issue to another isn’t going to fix anything. The problem with the Church, and the reason people leave the Church, is because the Church is failing at their main task…telling people who God is as revealed through Christ. When people fail to see how God is relevant in their day to day…it isn’t because they haven’t been given enough practical steps on how to be a good Christian in the work place…it’s because they haven’t put God in his proper place. When I fail to be the husband and dad I’m supposed to be…it isn’t because I don’t understand what God desires of me…It’s because I’ve stopped focusing on Christ..he has ceased to be front and center, and I’ve made myself front and center. The same is true in every area of our lives…Shifting our focus from one set of’ how to/you have to’ steps to another isn’t what the church needs, or where the church is failing…The church is failing because we’ve failed at telling people who Christ is, and how beautiful He is…The problem isn’t that understanding the ‘big picture’ isn’t enough…the problem is that we’re not giving people the big picture. If we got the big picture, then we wouldn’t have to wonder whether or not Jesus was relevant to our lives…every facet of our lives…it’d would be obvious that He is…The problem is that we don’t get the big picture…and we’ve made ourselves, and how everything relates to us the big picture. Our work, our callings as parents, our evangelism, our morality, our church activities, are all a part of the big picture…but they aren’t the big picture. And this isn’t coming from someone divorced from the marketplace…I both work and pastor and live in the world…so I don’t thing I’m shaded from the day to day realities of life…even in my own failings…I don’t see them as a failure of the church to spotlight the issues that I care about…My failures are a result of me putting myself at the center of the picture, as opposed to putting Jesus where He must be.

  2. Howard Davis October 9, 2012 / 2:05 pm

    Great post Matt.

    I especially love your line: “They walk away because we are answering the questions they are not asking.”

    I think along the lines of Chris’s response, it is also because we have failed in training people what questions to ask, how to think with a God-centeredness about everything, from work to play to home life.

    I was especially struck regarding this when I was talking with two lawyers about their work several years ago. They were questioning whether their work had anything to do with God, and I responded, “Well, of course it does, for God is all about pursuing justice.” To which they both responded at the same time, “What makes you think the law and lawyers is about pursuing justice.” Made me pause…for about 8 years. They then went on to talk about how law has become all about money and getting clients as much as they can or keeping them from losing as little as they can.

    We must address the questions people are asking about the 9/10th of their lives and train them to ask questions that direct them to what pleases the Lord.

  3. Mike Mercer October 9, 2012 / 4:40 pm

    As a honeymoon-stage Lutheran I’m thrilled with this post and agree. The doctrine of vocation is one of the most transformative teachings I never heard in evangelicalism but which is huge in the Lutheran tradition.

    But even this doctrine is part of a bigger picture. In my view, the overarching problem is the neo-platonic spirit of evangelicalism. That is, we separate ourselves from real life, from being human, from mixing it up with the stuff of earth, from building actual lives in the life of the community around us. That includes our work (vocation), but it also includes all the other common stuff of life. We have spent so much time focusing on “growing the church” into an all-sufficient, safe and fully programmed family-friendly institution for believers, separated from the world and forming a world of our own, that we’ve become a team that doesn’t know how to play the game on the other team’s field.

    Of course, everyone is talking about being “missional” now as an antidote to that. I’m taking a wait and see attitude.

  4. Meaghan October 9, 2012 / 9:37 pm

    I’m glad you write these things.

  5. ocdinstructor October 9, 2012 / 10:21 pm

    For anyone who has any doubts, all one has to do is follow any of the leading Baptist blogs. See what the preachers are talking about among themselves. It is NOTHING like what I talk about unless I am at church. It has no connection to work, home, family, recreation, or anything else in my life but church.

    Well stated. Good post.

    • Coco April 14, 2014 / 11:22 pm

      Good point!

  6. Brian October 14, 2012 / 12:15 am

    The inability to deal with doubt is the biggest problem.Disipleship for new Christians in many churches is lacking.New converts are always full of questions….when they get no answers they become fustrated then leave.

  7. Coco April 14, 2014 / 11:29 pm

    So thankful for your thoughts and insights. They are spot on. A voice in the wilderness. These things are really the reason we went back to the Lutheran church (LCMS). But even they have become too focused on meetings, events, activities, ministries, etc…

    Do, do do. That has sadly become the motto of Christianity.

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