Ever wonder why generating momentum in the local church seems harder than ever for most leaders?
You’re not alone; the conversation about momentum and shifting attendance trends is happening at every level of church, including some of the largest and fastest growing churches in North America.
Everyone is feeling at least two realities:
First, even people who attend church have stopped attending as frequently as they used to (I wrote about how to reverse that here).
Even in communities that are home to growing churches, the overall percentage of the population that attends church continues to drop, especially among under 30s.
Recently, the Barna Group released a new survey citing (among others) five compelling reasons church attending continues to decline, particularly among Millennials (those 30 and under).
The good news is that once you spot the trends, you can work at reversing them.
5 Reasons People Have Stopped Attending Your Church
In the study, Barna cites 5 specific reasons Millennials have stopped attending church that drew my attention:
1. The church is irrelevant, the leaders are hypocritical and leaders have experienced too much moral failure
Yes, I know. That’s three reasons in one. But the Barna study groups all three reasons together as one reason.
And I think that might because that’s what most people do in real life. I mean, just have a few conversations with unchurched people.
They will go something like this: the church is irrelevant (why would anyone go) and full of hypocrisy…just look at the moral failure of so many of its leaders.
To some extend, I can’t blame people for this perception. I wince every time I see another headline announcing a new moral failure. And far too many of us have been burned by the judgmentalism of the perpetually self-righteous.
So what’s the antidote?
Just because many churches are like that doesn’t mean yours has to be. It’s more than possible to create a counterculture of integrity and grace. It’s actually a bit strange to call things like integrity and grace countercultural (even within the context of church culture), but they are.
Jesus said that it would be by our fruit that people would recognize us. Live a life of integrity with each other and outsiders, and your church will become a magnet, not a repellant.
2. God is missing in the church
People go to church looking for God but are having difficulty finding him.
This one hurts, but in an age where perception is reality, you can’t ignore this criticism.
The paucity of personal experience with God is disturbing. It would be easy to point at rock show churches and blame them (I lead one after all), but the truth is that people in all kinds of experiences from liturgical to charismatic have left the church in search of God.
Although some would disagree with me here, I’m not sure leaving the church for an individualized, personal or even home-based experience of church helps people any better. Although our consumer culture certainly applauds individually tailored experiences, what if the real paucity is that we had have even lost a sense of what true maturity and the experience of God is?
So how do we address this? Seeking a new definition of spiritual maturity (also blogged about that here) is a great place to start. Andy Stanley also outlines the five ways people grow spiritual. I taught through the same 5 principles recently here.
A clearer understanding of Christian maturity and experience could go a long way in better helping people connect with God.
3. Legitimate doubt is prohibited
Honestly, I simply agree with this criticism. It is very difficult to have an honest conversation in many churches today.
In many conservative churches, legitimate questions get dismissed with pat—and often trite—answers. In many liberal churches, there is often so much ambiguity that questions that actually can be answered are left unresolved—as if leaders were taking people nowhere.
Church leaders today simply have to get better with handling the tension that comes with questions.
At Connexus, where I serve, we’re heading into a 9 part series called Skeptics Wanted where we’ve actually invited people to ask their toughest questions about Christianity. I’ll certainly present some strong evidence for why the Christian faith makes sense, but rather than trying to ‘slam dunk’ every argument with Christian evidence, we want to series to be an invitation into a deeper dialogue. (You can subscribe for free to the videocast of the series here. The series launches April 6th 2014)
4. They’re not learning about God
It’s amazing to me that people come to church seeking God only to not understand anything they’ve heard.
One couple that attends our church told me that they tried to go back to church when their kids were young only to give up in frustration after a year. The reason? They couldn’t understand anything the pastor taught. The woman said “It was like he was speaking a foreign language.”
After 5 more years out of the local church, they decided to give it one more shot when they came to our church. I’m so grateful they were willing to try again.
The truth is you and I can relate. Every one of us has listened to a sermon for 45 minutes only to walk out the door tremendously unclear about what was just said. And—preachers—come on, we’ll all given more than one of those message.
The solution to this is simple: clarity.
Speak in everyday language, not in church speak or in a meandering way. It takes far more work to be clear than it does to be confusing.
Have a clear point to your message.
Be clear about what you want to have happen when people leave.
If you want to read more, I outlined how to write a message series for unchurched people here.
In addition, my friends at Preaching Rocket are offering a free online conference that can help anyone become a better communicator. You can register for free here.
5. They’re not finding community
The Barna study points out that despite a growing epidemic of loneliness, only 10% report going to church to find community.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s because people expect the church is the last place they’ll find community. And that’s tragic.
Of the many criticisms that can be levied at the church, lack of community shouldn’t be one.
Nobody should be able to out-community the local church.
You can make a legitimate argument that one of the reasons behind the explosive growth of the first century church was because of the way they loved each other and the world. Love should be a defining characteristic of the local church.
If we loved the way Jesus loved, people would line up out the door.
As your church grows larger, small groups become essential. For us at Connexus, everyone has a place in a group…from pre-schoolers right through to seniors. No matter how big or awesome the weekends might be (and they can be awesome), small group is where life change happens deepest.
Personally, I’m so grateful for research like this latest Barna data. It can only help us get better at being the church as Christ called us to be.
If you have to add more reasons, what would you add?
Any other ideas on what could help all of us in the local church better realize our mission?
By the way, join me and over 5000 other leaders next month in Atlanta at the Orange Conference.
I’ll be speaking along with Andy Stanley, Mark Batterson, Perry Noble, Jeff Henderson, Derwin Gray, Ron Edmondson, Geoff Surratt and many more.