Rob Dyer is the pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Belleville, Illinois. Dyer recently wrote an article for Ministry Architects’ website detailing why people leave churches and don’t come back. I first read Dyer’s article on a Southern Baptist website.
Years ago, we used to tell ourselves that young adults who had strayed from the church would come back after they got married. When that didn’t happen, we shifted our hopes and proclaimed that they would return when they had kids. Some came back for baptisms, but the tsunami of baby-toting individuals never quite hit the shores of our weekly worship.
And, so, we edited the story, confident that the returns would happen once their kids reached school age. As school-age children began signing up for all sorts of activities, we figured that our amazing youth programs would make the list of prioritized pursuits. While many congregations saw some waves of church reengagement, many others experienced something entirely different about “their” young adults…
The reality is, this is the story for many churches for many years; it isn’t a truth we found out in 2020 or even 2021. And surveys and church statistics continue to reveal that missing church members are more likely to stay home than to go to a different church. So it’s not that they’re going somewhere else. They aren’t going anywhere. And they certainly aren’t coming back.
Churches around the nation had a reset button hit. In-person church was halted and then, slowly, restarted. In the meanwhile, online methods of worship filled the gaps. In the beginning, many churches experienced numbers that exceeded their previous in-person numbers. “We’ve got so many people attending our church from out-of-state!” we exclaimed with delight, as evangelism seemed to thrive despite the pandemic. At the same time, our church members were laying down some of the activities and hustle of everyday life that used to conflict with church options.
But they were doing this all while at the same time picking up the stress of daily pandemic navigation. And experiencing the rise of political and social tensions. And a general feeling of exhaustion grew in our people.
People were starting to drop off of the Zoom gatherings and online worship events. Online children and youth ministry activities saw an increase of cameras turned off and eventually a decrease in participants. Our masked and socially distanced gatherings that started to emerge attracted fewer numbers, but we figured that the people would return, volunteer, and help us rebuild the church once we reached that “new normal.” We started editing the story that we told each other – making excuses for individuals and families who were not showing up.
As our society is opening up more and more, people are starting to pick up the weight of busy lives again. With the pandemic and virus variants over their heads, people are finding that they have a reduced capacity for weight bearing. Even joyful activities are getting sidelined in this “new normal.” Now, the church is realizing something not just about young adults, but also about people of all ages in our churches. They’re not coming back.
Our excuses for the absence of others don’t help anyone. We can hope – and speak in goals and prayers and aspirations – for a someday return. But there’s a reality to our relationships, or lack thereof, that’s been hushed or is being ignored. And our stories aren’t as true as they could be.
It’s not even that people aren’t returning – they might never have been connected in the first place. People have experienced how easy (or how difficult) it is to live without their church. Obligation and duty no longer make up for a lack of connectedness, devotion, or faith itself. People learned who their friends are and some discovered – or finally acknowledged – that the church isn’t a necessary part of their lives. As much as churches miss people, people just aren’t missing back.
For years we’ve had no magic answer for the young adult losses that many churches grappled with before the pandemic. In that context, though, we believed too many false narratives and failed to adequately address the motivations involved. Similarly, no magic answer exists for the receding engagement across multiple age groups that we are seeing post-pandemic.
But what we do know is that the future of the church will require innovative changes. We have experienced how developing healthy systems is essential for all church seasons to not just survive – but thrive – and it’s time to admit we cannot move forward with our pre-pandemic approaches.
I appreciate Dyer’s willingness to address the lies that sects, churches, and pastors tell themselves about why people leave churches and don’t return. However, Dyer seems to imply that the main reason people leave churches is a lack of engagement on their part; fringe members who never bought what their churches were selling. This certainly explains some membership loss, but Dyer fails to address the proverbial elephant in the room: pastors, evangelists, missionaries, youth directors, deacons, elders, and worship leaders are leaving Christianity, often embracing atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism, or declaring they no longer have any interest in organized religion (the nones). Further, churches are seeing a mass exodus of younger adults — their future is literally walking out the back door, never to return. Are these people, as Dyer seems to imply, fringe attendees, people who were never committed to their churches (and Jesus)?
I suggest Dyer and others like him talk to some of the people who frequent this blog; people who were once on fire, sold-out followers of Jesus Christ; people who devotedly served their churches for decades. Take note of the reasons why they are no longer Christians.
Dyer thinks that the bleeding can be stopped, though amputations might be necessary. I disagree. Evangelicalism is terminal, slowly drawing its last breath. They have forsaken Jesus, turning to politics as their Lord and Savior. As they strain at gnats and swallow camels, Evangelicals need only to look in the mirror to see who is to blame for their demise. Evangelicals may burn down the world as they lust for power and control, but one thing is for certain: those who walked (or ran) out the back doors of their churches ain’t coming back. There is nothing the Dyers of the world can say or do that would entice those who left to return. Once you have left Egypt for the Promised Land, there’s no going back.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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