Why People Leave the Church

Why People Leave the Church
A. Koshy Muthalaly, Ph. D

Have you ever wondered if new converts in your church feel they’re being properly cared for? You might do a little investigating. Find a couple of people who have missed a Sunday or two, and see if anyone noticed that they were absent. Did anyone call them? Did they receive a card or two in the mail letting them know they were missed?

This could be a clear indication of whether your church is a caring church’regardless the size. Most people appreciate a good sermon or Bible study; but if they don’t receive care, their stay in the church is usually abbreviated. A church member’s longevity is a good indicator of the extent to which the church cares for its people. All this is good, but what if the pastor doesn’t care?

How long does someone have to miss church before the pastor notices he or she isn’t there?

John hasn’t gone to church in three weeks. He’s been having some marital difficulties. As a leader in the church, it’s been really hard for him to ask for help. He waited for his pastor to call, but the call never came. John faded into obscurity while a worshiping community failed to notice his pain.

Mrs. Johnson is in her 80s and living alone. She’s a recent convert. She longs for someone to call and take her out for a drive to the store. She hesitates to trouble others, and her church fails to check on her. Somehow she’s fallen between the cracks of pastoral care and is forgotten. Fortunately, she has a good non-Christian neighbor who helps her on occasion. (One wonders what her neighbor thinks of the church…) Elderly Mrs. Johnson is a casualty of our swiftly changing pastoral scene.

Sue’s a professional who lives with her boyfriend. Lacking commitment to the relationship by way of marriage, she’s ignored her childhood training in the church. Angry with the church for its hypocrisy, she challenges its values by flaunting her disobedience to God in brazen defiance. The church hasn’t stepped in to help in her pain. Absent from the church for several weeks now, she feels that no one really cares whether she’s there or not.

Who Cares?

In many churches’especially smaller ones’pastoral care is just one part of the senior pastor’s ever-demanding portfolio. However, in our changing church climate, this important task of caring is often left to the church leaders, pastoral care leaders, or a team of lay ministers in the caring ministry of the church. In this changing climate, senior pastors are becoming more like CEOs of large corporations’making executive decisions and leaving the immediate care of their employees to the lower ranks of management.

They perform the ‘professional’ tasks of preaching, leading, baptizing, marrying, and burying’duties that come with ordination’leaving the everyday tasks to others on staff or to volunteers. This pattern is certainly acceptable in the corporate world, but it’s hardly correct or healthy when it comes to the church.

The very meaning of the word ‘pastor’ has been derived from the symbolism of the caring nature of a shepherd for his sheep. When any one sheep is missing, the shepherd knows it immediately and risks life and limb to restore that one to the fold. In fact, this pastoral dimension is so important that Jesus took time to compare himself to the ‘good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.’ Remember the story that Jesus told of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one that’s missing? I wonder if that’s happening enough in our churches today. The very nature of pastoring involves sensing need and taking the necessary steps to meet the needs in whatever manner is best suited to the situation.

People miss attending church for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s as simple as not having adequate transportation or being tired. At other times it could be that there’s dissension in the home or a broken relationship with someone in the church. People also may become disenchanted with God or the church. In any case, it’s important that someone reaches out to communicate.

The title of pastor means more than just presenting a message on Sundays and during midweek services. A pastor’whether paid or volunteer’needs to be aware of other pastoral duties. As in the early church, a pastor can become successful in ministry by building a good team of lay leaders and by personally being involved in the everyday lives of people.

Know Your Limitations

In 1 Corinthians 12-13 and Ephesians 4, we have a clear picture that different gifts are given to different people, and not everyone is called to pastor a church. And not every pastor is capable of being the ever-elusive Super Pastor’very few are. Certainly some are good preachers, others are good administrators, but not every pastor can do all things well. The term ‘pastor’ involves caring from the very heart of God. When a church seeks to locate a good pastor, often this very important dimension is overlooked. Does the prospective pastor have a heart of caring? Does he or she have a desire to be with the people under his or her care? There’s that crucial word again”care”and it boils down to real and genuine caring as a good shepherd does. A seminary degree can’t replace the art of caring. Academic pursuits provide the academic training that is a good foundation for ministry, but the lion’s share of ministry is often done wherever people hurt. It’s a totally different scenario when a pastor cares for people. Often a pastor is given a congregation in much the same way a shepherd would get sheep’they’re assigned. They become part of the pastor’s life, and he or she learns to love them as daily interaction takes place.

Do you as a pastor come with this gift or calling? Or have you just chosen a profession that will bring in an income? If the calling is missing, pastoring loses its supernatural accreditation and divine purpose in ministry.

Let’s go back to that all-important question of whether the pastor notices when someone is missing from the pew. If you don’t notice, is it a sign that you don’t care? Or did you inadvertently overlook the person who’s missing? Is your congregation so large you don’t know everyone? Remember, as a pastor you can’t do it all. Moses complained to God that he had too much to do, he was put in charge of a mob of unruly people, and he hadn’t asked for them. God reminded him that help was available. God assigned him 70 elders who shared the responsibility of caring.

This sharing of responsibility is a good thing. Sometimes needs are beyond the gifts’or time’of a pastor. We don’t possess every gift that’s available. Spiritual gifts are shared among the people in the church, and every one’s important. While the pastor is certainly called upon to recognize an area of need or at least take the leadership in meeting a particular need, he or she isn’t required to meet every need directly. Pastors can certainly share the responsibility with other people in the congregation who have the gifts and the resources needed.

This brings us to the flip side of sharing responsibility’doing it all alone. In many churches, the pastor is the paid professional and is expected to do all the work. The reality is that some tasks must be delegated’biblically, and because the pastor’s only human. This provides a much-needed obstacle on the road to the Super-Pastor syndrome. This syndrome takes away the privilege the congregation has to be involved in other people’s lives and to share in the caring. It also minimizes the quality of care provided to the congregation. When the church truly cares for each other, the tendency will spread like wildfire’for it’s the true nature of the body of Christ.

Start Now

Let’s go back to our question at the beginning: Have you ever wondered if people in your church feel they’re being properly cared for? It’s an indicator of the level of pastoral care. Ultimately, the pastor is responsible to keep an eye on the flock. When the flock gets too big, other shepherds should rise up to care for others. The pastor must have a watchful eye on the flock, and when someone’s missing either the pastor or lay ministers should find out why. Jesus said the good shepherd knows his sheep by name. What a beautiful picture of good shepherding. In today’s society a personal contact can speak volumes to a hurting member of the body of Christ, but sometimes even that’s sadly missing.

So, pastors, if you want to show care for those in your charge, step out of the CEO’s chair and walk with the people as Jesus did. They’ll appreciate you much more. And there’s something else. As you interact with others, your sermons will begin reflecting your relationships. You’ll be much more relevant to the congregation because you’ll be addressing their needs. Find out who’s missing this Sunday and start there. They’ll love you for caring. That’s the task of a true shepherd.

A. Koshy Muthalaly, Ph.D., serves on the faculty of the Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma.

This article ‘Why People Leave the Church’ written by A. Koshy Muthalaly, was excerpted from www.smartchurch.com web site. September 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’