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Why People are Leaving Evangelical Churches: Pastor Rob Dyer, Close, But No Cigar

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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.

Dyer wrote:

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-headshot

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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    sgl

    a couple excerpts from an amazon review of the book “unChristian” written way back in 2008:

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R8YIGA2YV38S5/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0801072719

    “In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003) Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. “When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity,” says Borg, “they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.”

    [….]

    According to Kinnaman’s Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:

    antihomosexual 91%
    judgmental 87%
    hypocritical 85%
    old-fashioned 78%
    too political 75%
    out of touch with reality 72%
    insensitive to others 70%
    boring 68%”

    i still see little to no evidence that the major christian churches, or pastor dyer, are aware at all of the image they project. completely non-self-aware. unless or until that changes, i agree that the situation is terminal. (and no complaints from me as i think it’s for the better.)

  2. Avatar
    BJW

    This is an excellent commentary on Dyer’s article. Too many people in church leadership think that the way to attract more people is to double down on their principles. Unfortunately, those principles are usually rooted in bigotry and hatred of those other people: LBGTQ, immigrants, refugees, brown people, Muslims, etc. It’s like they’ve never understood the parable of the Good Samaritan. They love Trump, or at least love the power of MAGA world, and the ability to hate so many others while chasing power. It’s sickening but I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

  3. Avatar
    Matilda

    This resonates so much with me, reasons why the average heathen brit here has no interest in, or desire to become a x-tian however much evangelism is thrust in their face. As a children’s evangelist who could get a good number of our village children, and some parents, to our kids’ clubs, to listen to the school assemblies we took, not one family ever continued on to conversion. I used a word that I prayed for 5 years about, that we’d be relevant. X-tianity was a total irrelevance to these average folk. Yes, some could probably articulate that the clergy sex scandals, the bigotry and hypocrisy were disgusting, and now their anti-vaxx stance, but for many here, I came to the conclusion that they saw faith as a total irrelevance. Why would they park their bums on our pews for a boring hour and a half on Sundays, sing silly songs, hear boring sermons from an ancient book? And be told some nebulous idea about lakes of fire when you die. Then I began to see the elephant in the room, this supposedly all powerful god who promised me a great harvest of souls seemed to be working against me getting converts for him, by allowing clergy to abuse kids or by not cutting through the general apathy my fellow villagers had to the good news of jesus when we preached it so fervently and, we thought, so appeallingly. I was promised the holy ghost would convict them of their need of a saviour. At first I pondered why god was so conspicuous by his absence when we were jesusing so hard for him. Then realised it was because he doesn’t exist…..and I deconverted. Coincidentally this week I’ve heard of 2 initiatives, new plans for evangelism projects here which like all the others won’t work…no one wants the product they are selling whatever new methods are invented and sold to the sheeple saying this will revitalise their church.

  4. Avatar
    Sage

    One major problem has been hiding in the dark corners of the church for a very long time, and has has been clearly revealed in the last few years. Bigotry of all kinds, hidden within a god fearing, holy facade of religious terminology, was finally clearly revealed when Christians grabbed at political power with both hands by supporting an evil demagogue. They saw this as their chance to force their belief, through laws and political systems, on any evil person who hoes not bow to their Christian ideals. They hypocritically tossed out any shred of ethics and morality, and proudly displayed bigotry, hate, hypocrisy, and judgement from their pulpits.

    Their corruption and toxicity is so complete that some of us have had to cut off family members. I cannot support family members or religious zealots who would be glad to see laws created to eradicate people like me, or force everyone to live in ways they deem proper. I cannot listen to or associate with supposedly godly, caring people who see LGBTQ people as the most disgusting, vile, perverted people in the world, but then claim that this doesn’t include me because I am family and they love me and only want the best for me.

    And if church members are not openly bigoted, they turn a blind eye to the bigotry in their churches and, by remaining silent, tacitly support it. There are very few Christians that call out this horrid behavior, and those that do are shouted down, harassed or tossed from their churches.

    Yet they seem to remain blind to this serious problem. Instead of going out to see the real cause, they close their doors, talk only among themselves, and create this odd, circular reasoning,to explain their loss of people. They are so convinced they are right they cannot comprehend the problem which is staring them in the face.

    • Avatar
      Karuna Gal

      Churches don’t want to face the problem of member attrition straight on. That and/or the reality of a church’s coming demise is too painful to bear and they avoid it. They know deep down that there’s no solution to their dilemma. Younger people want no part of the church. Whatever churches offer nobody wants anymore.

      I was a witness to the honest attempts of a dying Lutheran church to stop the inevitable. The bishop and the Lutheran officials tried their best to help the church and the pastor, but after a valiant try the church ultimately closed. It was a church in the city. The older members who supported it died off, no younger people stayed on and the demographic of the area changed a lot. When I went to the near-by Buddhist temple later I was struck by all the young people there, since I never saw any in my old churches.

      • Avatar
        clubschadenfreude

        noting your story about the Lutheran church, we also had one close here in my city. It was bought by Muslims and is now a mosque, with a crescent and star at the top of a rather handsome steeple. What makes this even more silly is that across the street is a “mosque” by the Shriners.

  5. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Dyer, there are a lot of comments right here on this blog that might explain some of the reasons. Add to that – many of us spent a lot of time examining how the Bible books were written, what were some of the cultural influences on the writers of the NT, do the claims in these works stand up under scrutiny (science, history, archaeology, etc) and we find them lacking. If you really want to know, talk with us. We are right here.

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, you know that your closing metaphor (Egypt and the Promised Land) will draw flies landing on you with their “you’re not really an atheist” waste on you!

    Anyway, Dyer has a point–to a point. Indeed, people don’t want to do the things that churches demand of them. His reasoning, though, is flawed: Many of us simply stopped believing in what those churches purport to; others still believe but see that none of the churches or other institutions available to them will fulfill their intellectual and spiritual (I use that word in a secular sense) needs.

    Oh, and that the pandemic followed on the heels of the church sex-abuse scandals won’t help to fill the pews and collection plates.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser