Ten Myths About Church Leavers
Despite the almost mantra-like status of the statement "people are leaving the church" there still appears to be little understanding about who is leaving, when they leave, why they leave, and what happens to them and their faith after they leave. Of course everyone has their own view on these issues but few, especially our church leaders, have taken the time to sit down and talk with an actual leaver or two.
It is much easier dealing with stereotypes than actual people, even if the stereotypes don't help us understand what is really going on. For those interested in moving beyond the stereotypes and asking: "Who are these people who are leaving our churches?" an examination of some myths about church leavers may prove helpful.
It is only the traditional mainline churches that have large numbers of leavers. While it is true that people are leaving the traditional churches1 people are also leaving evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches. These are the churches which have been growing both in New Zealand and overseas. They are the churches which - with their focus on overt biblical teaching, vibrant worship and greater opportunities for participation - have attracted many young converts as well as those disillusioned with the traditional churches.
However, these growing churches also have a 'back door'. Estimates as to how large this back door is vary depending on who you're talking to. But studies like those done by Elaine Bolitho on the back door in the Baptist churches in New Zealand have shown something of the degree of loss in these so-called 'growing' churches.
Bolitho's study looked at membership figures for the Baptist churches.2 She found that between 1989 and 1996 the Baptist churches of New Zealand had a small overall membership decline (from 23,601 members to 23,031). However during this period over eleven thousand new members were added to Baptist churches. Taking into account those who died and the fact that Baptist churches had transferred more people in than out, she found that 10,118 members were 'lost' without record.
This means that for those seven years (1989 to 1996) the net result was a loss of 570 people - a percentage loss of 108% of new members. In effect this means that for every one hundred new members added to the Baptist churches of New Zealand one hundred and eight left. These leavers could not be accounted for as moving to another church or dying.
This was a substantial increase in back door leavers from previous periods between 1948 and 1988, for which Bolitho provided comparative figures.3
Figures from Pentecostal churches also point to a large number of church leavers. The Apostolic Church in New Zealand figures, for example, have shown dramatic recent growth, but a closer look at the figures also indicate a steady back door loss rate of approximately 10% per annum.4 If Bolitho's findings and those from the Apostolic church are replicated in other groupings of evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches it indicates that there is a sizeable number (perhaps even a growing number) of leavers from these churches.
The people who leave are young adults, people on the fringe of our churches, and people who have not been in the church for very long.
Obviously some leavers are in these categories, but they are not the only ones to leave. In the research I did - based on 108 interviews with church leavers across New Zealand - I found the church leavers from Pentecostal and charismatic churches were predominantly middle aged (70% were aged between 35 and 45 years) and had been involved in their respective churches as adults (ie beyond their 18th birthday) for an average of 15.8 years. While there are other categories of leavers, here is one category of leavers that few seem to consider.
Those with children are less likely to leave.
In 1990 5 Newsweek magazine ran an article titled "And the children shall lead them: Young Americans return to God." The article suggested that people brought up within the church who left in the turbulent period of the 1960s were likely to return to church when they became parents themselves.
This was later supported by Roof's6 study in which he stated "unquestionably, the most frequently cited reasons (for people returning to church) have to do with family life. The influence of a spouse and keeping harmony within the family are strong factors, but far more important is the religious upbringing of children. The presence of young, school-age children and feelings of paternal responsibility for them drives (baby) boomers back to church."7
While we may have an understanding that children will draw people back, or hold them in our churches, this assumption is called into question by the choices the people I interviewed have made. 80% of them had children under their care but nevertheless they chose to leave their church, with the almost inevitable result that the children left too.
For some time now youth leaders have been suggesting that the intermediate age group is becoming the crucial age point in terms of children's continued interest and involvement in church.8 It may be that when these children's grumbles about going to church connect with the deep dissatisfaction of the parents, the stage is set for the family to eventually leave altogether.
If Mum and Dad go to church, their children will grow up to be churchgoers too.9
Generally speaking there is an understanding that strong church beliefs and practice through childhood will influence subsequent adult behaviour. While such an influence may well affect subsequent beliefs, values and faith contents, recent research has begun to question the degree to which church attendance and involvement is also set in childhood.
An American study of five hundred Presbyterian adults between 33 and 42 years of age found that "the influence of positive parent-child bonds was very weak. They concluded that "the effect of early social learning was weaker in our data than in most past research and the reason is probably that our sample consisted of adults at least 33 years old, whereas earlier research looked at persons of high school age or college [university] age.
"The effects of childhood social learning during childhood and youth apparently wear down under the pressure of later influences." This is supported by another study10 which found that spouses became more important than childhood religious backgrounds.
In my own research (albeit qualitative research and therefore involving a relatively small sample) there were no indications of any major differences between the faith of those who had strong church childhood backgrounds, and those who were from nominal family backgrounds - or even a non-church background.
The leavers I interviewed were made up of 28%11 who had strong church backgrounds as children (that is they attended children's and youth programmes run by the church and were supported in doing so by their parents' own involvement in the church). A further 40% came from nominal church backgrounds (that is they attended some church-based children's programmes and/or youth programmes but were not supported by the regular attendance and involvement of their parents in a church). Finally, 30% of the leavers interviewed had no church background in their childhood and teenage years.
The people who leave lack commitment.
All 108 of the people I interviewed had made adult (post 18th birthday) commitments to their Christian faith and to their local church. For a number this was the continuation of a previous commitment, while for others it involved a deliberate step of commitment in their adult years.
94% of those I interviewed had also been involved in significant leadership positions within their churches and 40% had been involved for one year or more as either a full-time (paid) Christian worker for a local church, para-church group, or overseas missionary organisation, or studied full-time in a theological institution - many had done both.
Leavers don't have an adequate grounding in the faith.
Again this is hard to substantiate if the people I met are indicative of church leavers. The people I interviewed had been, on average, part of their respective churches for 15.8 years.
94% held significant leadership positions within the church and 40% had been full-time Christian workers for at least one year. A third of those interviewed had undergone some form of theological study. Coupled with this, most spoke of very clear and vivid experiences of God at work in their lives.
They leave because of the increased pressure on people's time today.
Many church leaders point to today's increased demands on people's time (the net effect of longer working hours and women returning to the workforce) and the greater leisure options available to them (Sunday sport and shopping, television, and the growing restaurant and café industries) as reasons why people cease to attend church.
Although the leavers I spoke with were well aware of these changes to their lifestyle, and a number spoke of them as contributing factors, none of the people who mentioned time pressure as a factor indicated that it was the major factor in their decision to leave.
Underlying each person's account were far more significant factors than those raised by the time involved in being part of a church community. In fact, many of the leavers had gone on to replace time spent in church with other faith-nurturing commitments.
They leave because of personal issues and disagreements with church leaders.
For a small percentage of those I spoke with, the principal reasons for their leaving were to do with the direction or vision of their church, or issues of disagreement with those in leadership. Seldom were these one-off issues. Most involved a series of disappointments and disagreements with those in leadership over a protracted period of time.
For the vast majority of leavers, however, such points of disagreement were a minor part of the overall decision to leave. For many they merely acted as a final straw in a process of leaving that had been going on for a period of months, if not years.
They'll be coming back.
The leavers I spoke with were adamant that they would not be returning to the kind of church they had left. In some cases I have been able to keep in touch with these leavers and to date the majority of them have not returned.
Some do become loosely involved on the fringe of a different group of churches to those they left. They tend to do this by attending the occasional Catholic mass, Anglican communion, Taize, Celtic, multi-media or alternative service.
Even when people do go back to another evangelical Pentecostal or charismatic church they tend to stay very much on the fringes and do not become involved in the leadership and core roles where they were once to be found. Often there is another reason for their return - perhaps the church provides an attractive youth-group for their teenagers, for example.
They are backsliding and giving away their faith.
When I began this research I expected to find that the longer people were out of the church community the more their faith would decline, and in the end most would to all intents move away from Christian faith. This was not the case for a very high percentage of the church leavers I was to meet.
In fact, while these people are clear that they have left their churches and have no plans to return, they are equally adamant that they are continuing in Christian faith. It is to this paradox that I want to return in the June/July issue of Reality.
1 By 'traditional' I mean the big four denominations - Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic. Census and denominational attendance figures have repeatedly indicated the decline in these churches.
7 This was supported by other studies and predictions - for example Hoge, D.R.; Johnson, B.; Luidens, D.A. (1993) "Determinants of church involvement of young adults who grew up in Presbyterian churches", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion: Vol 32 No 3, p 242-255.
8 The Presbyterian Church report titled "How to keep the young people you have and get more" 1998. States that of the young people interviewed in this report who left the church "Most dropped out of church based activities (Sunday schools, clubs etc.) before or during their thirteenth year". p 31.
Alan is part of a Wellington-based group called 'Spirited Exchanges', which provides a forum for those who have left church or are finding it unhelpful in their continued journey of faith. The group is an endeavour of Wellington Central Baptist Church, where Alan is co-senior pastor. He has completed a PhD (in sociology) on the topic "Churchless Faith", which analysed why people leave churches and their journies of faith outside the church.