5 Reasons People Have Stopped Attending Your Church (Especially Millennials)

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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.

A few years back, the Barna Group released a new survey citing (among others) five compelling reasons church attendance continues to decline, particularly among Millennials.

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.

Too many people have been burned by the judgmentalism of perpetually self-righteous Christians. Click To Tweet

Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions

5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…

  • That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
  • That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
  • That you were confident each step of the way?

You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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.

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.

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, 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 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.

Nobody should be able to out-community the local church. Click To Tweet

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.

Love should be a defining characteristic of the local church. Click To Tweet

Secure Your Church’s Future with a Proven Pastoral Succession Plan.

If you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do I lead this church with a vision I didn’t create and a staff I didn’t hire?
  • Am I even equipped to be a lead pastor? And to lead our church through a healthy transition? 
  • How can I honor the outgoing pastor throughout the transition?

Then it might be time to make a plan for your future.

So much rides on healthy pastoral succession. A bad one can ruin a great legacy, harm a church, and make the new lead pastor a sacrificial lamb.

Or, it can go exceedingly well. 

How do you not mess it up when there's so much at stake?

The Art of Pastoral Succession helps you hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.