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Why People Walk Away From Church

By Kristi Northup | Posted In Ministry Tools

Several years ago, I heard a statistic on the radio about the growing share of Americans who no longer identify as Christian.

As I turned off the broadcast, I began to think of people I knew who had left the faith. I have a passion for reaching the lost, but that day I also sensed God’s heart for those who have known Him but walked away. It changed my understanding of our God-given mission.

I believe at this moment we are witnessing a great falling away. From 2009–19, the share of Americans identifying as Christian fell 12 percentage points, from 77% to 65%, according to Pew Research Center.

The pandemic may accelerate the decline. There are people of all ages and walks of life who used to be active in the life of the church. They attended faithfully, participated in ministries, and gave consistently.

After the pandemic-related shutdowns happened, some of them were never heard from again. Others initially watched online but eventually withdrew and have not resurfaced. How do we reconnect with these people? We can begin by understanding some of the reasons why people walk away.

I’ve been pondering the parables of Jesus in Luke 15 that tell of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. As I consider Jesus’ compassion for the lost, I’m also wondering why people become lost. Drawing on the imagery in these parables, I’d like to suggest four reasons many today are falling away.

1. Wandering

In recent months, some people have simply wandered off. They got out of the habit of participating in church. They disconnected from a small group to manage online schooling, or they had underlying conditions and were understandably nervous about leaving home.

Sadly, as people disconnect from the body of Christ, some eventually disconnect from their own faith.

Sheep move in flocks. They have few defenses, but they gain some protection by staying together. A sheep that wanders off is especially vulnerable to predators.

I vacillate right now between wanting to reach out one more time and simply moving on. But then I think of a shepherd leaving the 99 safe with the other watchmen to seek out the one lost sheep. I know the heart of the Great Shepherd is to pull people back into the protection and provision of the fold.

Let’s not hold so tightly to our way of religious life that we push away the very ones we set out to reach.

2. Broken Relationships

A dispute or offense can destroy relationships. Whether it is an argument between two members, a disagreement with church leaders, a marital conflict, or some other rift, the sense of loss can be devastating.

The lost coin may have been part of an adornment worn by the woman to show she was married. If so, it would have held significant sentimental value. Losing one coin would have changed the entire piece and rendered it broken.

Recently, my husband, Wayne, and I had a conflict with some individuals who held key leadership roles in our church. While there was hurt on both sides, Wayne felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to reach out and apologize. A healing conversation followed, and the lines of communication reopened.

Taking responsibility for our part in causing hurt goes a long way toward restoring relationships.

3. Self-Centered Worldview

There are so many issues with the Prodigal Son, but at the core, he was selfish. The Prodigal’s rebellion and the consequences of sin were rooted in the desire to advance his own interests above all others.

A pastor in the church I grew up in often said, “The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s selfishness.”

The humanistic message of looking out for No. 1 has deeply infiltrated not only the culture, but also the Church. It has made it difficult to compel people to give, serve, or do anything that is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

COVID has brought this to the surface. We have been astounded at the self-centered, unbiblical words and behaviors on display among many Christians during this crisis. As a staff, we are more determined than ever to present the true gospel, teach sound doctrine, and model sacrificial love for God and others.

4. Hostile Environment

I suspect the condescending attitude of the older brother contributed to the Prodigal’s decision to leave home.

We can’t talk about why people are not returning without acknowledging the impact of the current political climate. Responses to the pandemic, racial tensions, and the 2020 election have highlighted deep divides. Meanwhile, COVID provided cover for some people to slip away, leaving the church to the older brother.

Jesus’ harshest words were for the religious leaders of His day — those who were more concerned about maintaining their position than reaching out to the lost or wayward. Our mission is not to preserve our rights or demand recognition for our sacrifices. It is to let our testimony so shine before others that they may see our good deeds, and ultimately glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Let’s not hold so tightly to our way of religious life that we push away the very ones we set out to reach. Instead of condemning those who walk away, these parables challenge us to seek them out and celebrate their return, restoring them to the family.

Whether people have drifted away, left over broken relationships, or been driven by selfish motives or frustrations over toxic church culture, let’s demonstrate Christ’s love and run to meet them.