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 the church, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in North America.
Church attendance in America began to modestly decline in the late-1940s (from a high of 76%), but that trend accelerated rapidly over the past two decades – dropping below 50% for the first time in 2021. The decline is most evident in younger generations.
According to one survey of young adults, 32% of respondents who had left the church said they did so because church members “seemed too judgemental or hypocritical,” 29% said they “didn’t feel connected at church,” and 25% said they disagreed with their church’s stance on political and social issues.
Even in communities that are home to growing churches, the overall percentage of the population that attends church continues to drop, especially among those under 30.
The good news is that once you spot the trends, you can work at reversing them.
Note: This article was updated and republished on April 26, 2023.
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. Irrelevance, Hypocrisy, and Moral Failure
Yes, I know. That’s three reasons people are leaving the church in one. But the Barna study groups all three reasons together as one reason.
And I think that might be 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 extent, 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.Live a life of integrity with each other and outsiders, and your church will become a magnet, not a repellant. Click To Tweet
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.
It would be easy to point at rock-show churches and blame them, but the truth is that people in all kinds of experiences from liturgical to charismatic have left the church in search of God.People go to church looking for God but are having difficulty finding him. Click To Tweet
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.
A clearer understanding of Christian maturity and experience could go a long way in better helping people struggling to find a church and 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 at handling the tension that comes with questions.
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 five 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’ve all given more than one of those messages.
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 happen when people leave.
If you want to read more, I outlined how to write a message series for unchurched people here.
In addition, I have a course on preaching that will help you preach better sermons almost immediately. You can check it out 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 to be 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 church doors.If we loved the way Jesus loved, people would line up out the church doors. Click To Tweet
As your church grows larger, small groups become essential. No matter how big or awesome the weekend services might be (and they can be awesome), small groups are 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.Love should be a defining characteristic of the local church. Click To Tweet