You’ve probably noticed. Leading a church is more confusing, frustrating, and complex than ever.
In this post, I’ll share some surprising data that shows why leading a church feels that much harder, and some observations and suggestions that I hope can help point you in a more promising direction.
Please hear the tone of this post. I’m a huge believer in the mission of the local church.
I continue to be part of the local church and am doing all I can to support our church and churches around the globe.
So as hard as the news is in this post (and the self-reflection it provokes), I’m believing in a strong, fresh future for the church, its leaders, and its people.
That said, the trends developing over the last two years are more than a little alarming. The numbers show just how much the church has changed since 2020.
Even if things swing back more positively in the post-pandemic church, even the most optimistic leader needs to pay attention and change course (I’m also an optimist).
While we won’t know the full impact of the disruption for a few more years, the steady decline of church attendance over the decades may be on the verge of becoming a new exodus.
Barna data that tracks the church attendance patterns of Christians and the general population during 2020 against a pre-pandemic benchmark shows dramatic changes in church attendance patterns and attitudes.
I’ll share the results of that survey first, and then offer four reflections and reasons why people are leaving the church. The first two are more about our strategy. The next two are more about our tone and the state of our hearts as leaders.
This article was updated and republished on July 5th, 2023.
First, though, the numbers.
In 2020 alone, 22% of Churched Adults Stopped Going to Church.
This 2021 Gallup poll shows that for the first time, less than half of all Americans now claim to belong to a church.
But data gathered in 2020 by the Barna Group remains instructive today.
In 2020, The Barna Group polled the general population, practicing Christians, and “churched” adults about their attendance patterns.
The main distinction between practicing Christians and churched adults was whether they considered themselves regular church attenders.
As you can see from the chart above, in 2019, only 14% of all US adults said they never went to church.
In 2020, that number jumped to 53%. That’s an almost 40- point jump in less than 12 months.
Even starker in the 2020 study is how practicing Christians and churched adults answered the question.
In 2019, 100% of practicing Christians and churched adults had gone to church within the past six months. Six months into the pandemic, 19% and 22% hadn’t gone to church at all — digital, physical, or reopened.
Please let that sink in. One in five churchgoers had simply stopped attending all forms of church in 2020.
There’s Been a Resurgence, but Attendance Isn’t Even Close to where it was a Decade Ago.
As the chart above shows, church attendance rebounded in 2022 to above 2019 levels in almost all demographic categories, according to another Barna study.
And while church attendance is nowhere near the level it was two decades ago – not all is lost.
So there’s no easy way to explain these numbers away.
Almost everywhere you click, the news is challenging.
‘Is This Real?’ Matters More Than ‘Is this Right?’
My guess is that as you read through the data, you’re alarmed, depressed, and a bit angry.
One of the top responses I’ve seen here in the comments and on my social is leaders angry about trends like this or who lament how bad this is.
As a leader, you can ask, “Is this right?” from several perspectives.
First, you can argue with the numbers…making up your own facts or looking at your own church as an exception to the rule.
If your church is growing, that’s amazing. But exceptions to the rule don’t change rules.
Second, you can argue that people are wrong to leave the church.
That may be true…but just because it isn’t right doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Both of these reactions are just that: reactions, not responses. Wise leaders spend their energy responding instead of reacting.
Yes, there are great arguments in favor of digital and in-person church participation. As you can see from other Barna research, anxiety and worry seem to be higher among people who don’t attend church or stopped attending church.
Still, that hasn’t stopped people from not attending church. So that leaves us reflecting. Why are people leaving the church?
Reasons Why People Are Leaving the Church
Here are four reasons I see people disengaging from the church in record numbers right now.
1. Overfocusing on Content at the Expense of Connection
Let’s start here.
In the early days of the pandemic, as almost every church pivoted to online, there was a lot of experimentation with different forms of ministry and connection.
Then a lot of churches abandoned experimentation in favor of adaptation.
Soon, most churches gave up doing almost anything other than streaming Sunday services or offering them on demand.
Yes, groups ran in the background, and a few other endeavors were attempted, but for most churches, the innovation stopped.
It’s like the old obsession with church attendance has become the new obsession with content consumption.
The problems associated with that are many.
First, people can get great content anywhere. So they do.
Second, what your church has to offer that others don’t is connection – a real relationship.
Content alone won’t build the future – connection will.
Moving forward, rethink what you’re doing online to make it more about connection than consumption.
Connection leads to community and relationship – with God and each other.
Moving forward, make the goal of digital content connection, not consumption.
I’ll have a lot more to say about this in future posts, but let’s leave it there for now.
2. An Obsession With Attracting, Not Equipping
It’s great to get a lot of views, but the deeper question is, what do those views produce?
In the same way, a lot of us (myself included) love to see a full room. Watching your view count can be a great dopamine hit (for more on what triggers you and why you love full rooms/large views/record stats, read this).
It’s just so easy to focus on attracting, not equipping. And that has seemed to be a quick snap back for many church leaders as they have tried to fill up their less-than-full auditoriums during 2021.
To some extent, the pandemic-era church revealed what we had produced: lots of attenders who, once the pattern was interrupted, stopped attending.
It was easy to assume we had cultivated devotion, but instead, we’d really created attendance habits that quickly dissolved once the pattern was interrupted.
To reference the over-used proverb, perhaps we took too many people fishing, but never taught them how to fish.
For years here, we’ve discussed the need to focus on engagement, not attendance.
In the digital disruption that’s changed so much, the focus has to shift further from engagement to equipping.
With more people moving than ever, the rise of location-independent churches, and the fragmentation that digital options create, it’s almost like you have to view the people you reach like a teenager who needs to learn to cook, clean, and budget before heading off to college.
Disciples who know how to follow Jesus endure much better than church leaders (priestly, pastoral, or celebrity) who get discipleship wrong.
And, of course, that makes engagement even more important. Engagement that leads to connection, that leads to community, that leads to equipping.
That was kind of the mission all along, but the recent crisis has brought it into even sharper focus.
3. Christian Meanness on Social Media
2020 and 2021 may have been the years when almost everyone considered deleting their social media accounts. I know I did.
I searched for the right adjective to describe the tone of Christian posts I’ve seen, and the best one I could come up with was ‘mean.’
What many church leaders forget is that whenever you post, the world is watching.
That jab you took at someone you don’t like. That right hook you threw at someone who’s different than you. The cynical/angry/sarcastic rant you posted thinking you told everyone what they need to know.
You know those posts? The ones that get commented on and shared because the internet likes anger?
I’m guessing it leaves non-Christians wondering why Christians are so mean. At least, it leaves me wondering that.
The unchurched are watching. And listening. And for the most part, you don’t even realize they are. But your profile is public. And they know. They’re connecting the dots.
And maybe, just maybe, while they’re watching and listening, they’re walking away.
2020 was not the Christian world’s finest hour on social media.
Time and time again, when the world needed love, Christians gave it judgment.
It’s not our job to judge the world. It’s our job to love it.
Ultimately (and this is my challenge to myself), any tone issue isn’t really a tone issue: it’s a heart issue.
Because out of the overflow of your heart, your mouth (and fingers) speak.
When our hearts heal, the church will heal.
4. Making Politics and Ideology More Important Than Theology
I wonder if years from now we’ll talk to people who bailed on the church and realize the exodus during the pandemic and early post-pandemic era wasn’t medically induced, but politically induced.
More than any other year I can remember, the evangelical church became inflamed politically and ideologically. Regardless of which direction you lean, it wasn’t pretty.
Having lived and led in a post-Christian culture for decades now (Canada), my experience is that people who show up at a church in a post-Christian culture (which America is quickly becoming) aren’t looking for my political views or ideological bent – they’re looking for God.
My hope is that Christians look, live, and sound much more like Jesus than the political candidate of their choice.
The last vestiges of Christendom may be slipping away in America. And that’s not fatal to the church. Not in the least.
The church was the church long before Constantine and has often been at its best when the culture is indifferent or hostile to it.
It allows love, compassion, generosity, mercy, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice that characterize authentic Christianity to shine.
And, contrary to what many believe, that is in abundant supply in many – if not most churches.
The collapse of Christian culture should bring out the best in us, not the worst.
What many church leaders are about to face is this truth: Unchurched people aren’t looking for Christendom. They’re looking for Christ.
I pray they find him in our churches.