Three stories. First, about ten years ago I got to thinking about the Jr. High boys class from my youth group days. Of the eight boys from that class, I could only think of two that were still darkening the door of a church today. I wondered what might explain their departure from our fellowship.
Second, when I began my first preaching ministry, the congregation in which I served was recovering from a recent exodus of a number of families due to differences over worship issues. By all accounts, many of these former members were spiritually minded, dedicated Christians. This information challenged my preconceptions that those who might leave our fellowship are shallow, thrill-seeking, emotion-driven complainers. Even those who disagreed with their departure granted that many of these were serious God-seekers, not some disgruntled group of whiners. How was I to account for this? How could we, a back-to-the-bible people with a passion for knowing God truly, be losing people who are genuinely seeking God?
Third, the Christian Chronicle ran a center-spread piece by Flavil Yeakley in 1997, comparing states in which the churches of Christ had grown or declined since 1980. I was struck by the fact that California had declined by 6% during a time period in which the states population increased by 33%. Combined with the previous two personal experiences, this data provoked me to search deeper for why our churches were losing members.
2. What were the most common reasons people gave for leaving?
When forced to pick from 33 possible reasons for leaving the churches of Christ, 77% of respondents picked Drawn to a church with a more heartfelt/expressive style of worship and 73% selected Worship service was uninspiring.
When given a blank page and asked why they no longer worship at a church of Christ, respondents most often wrote about being fed up with legalistic and sectarian attitudes in the church. Respondents described narrow-mindedness, self-righteousness and judgmentalism, of hair-splitting church leaders who made tradition law. They wrote of enforced conformity of thought, Pharisaism, intolerance, cookie-cutter Christianity, exclusivity, crushing guilt, and bondage to fear.
Respondents also wrote about a hunger for spiritual transformation and the apparent lack of it within some congregations. These respondents hungered for changed spiritual lives, for a heart-felt faith, for greater impact on their communities, for a faith that made a discernible difference in the world. Many described their church experience as lacking a transforming relationship with Christ which enlivened and reshaped their daily lives.
Were any of their reasons different from why people leave other types of churches?
Good question. My strong hunch is that the reasons many leave the churches of Christ do have to do with our particular modes of doing church and thinking about the faith. A number of reasons given for leaving seem to me to be related to our head-over-heart orientation. However, my study did attempt to systematically compare why people leave other churches with why they leave the churches of Christ.
3. Did more respondents leave from smaller churches of larger one?
Most churches of Christ have fewer than 200 members and a proportional number of respondents reported being members of churches with fewer than 200 members. Further, there are almost no churches of Christ in Southern California with over 750 members so former members could not have been from larger churches. Thus, this study found no correlation between church size and likelihood of departure.
Sidebar: One thing interesting that I learned in comparing average church sizes across denominations is that of the 15 largest church bodies in the United States, the churches of Christ have the smallest average congregational size, at 108 or 128 per congregation. There is something about our church culture that strongly favors a smaller average size.
4. Were most respondents active in their former churches? Were any in leadership positions?
While I did not specifically ask if former members were deacons, elders, ministers, Bible class teachers, or ministry leaders, I did probe their typical weekly attendance. During their last six months of attendance in a church of Christ, 41 percent of respondents said they attended more than once a week, 30 percent attended every week, and 16 percent attended two or three times per month. Regarding their childhood church attendance patterns, 85 percent of respondents indicated they attended church services more than once a week with 7 percent attending every week. At the very least then, I can say that the typical switcher in my study was a faithful church attender as a child and a regular attender as an adult.
5. In general, where do people who leave churches of Christ go?
About 51 percent of switchers went to non-denominational and community churches, with another 22 percent going to the independent Christian Churches. Of the remainder, 7 percent went to Baptist Churches, 5 percent to Calvary Chapel, 4 percent to Presbyterian Churches, and 2 percent to the Disciples of Christ. Roughly 90 percent of switchers stayed within the conservative sector of Christendom, with about 10 percent going to theologically moderate or liberal denominations.
In my study, only 11 percent of respondents reported dropping out of church altogether. However, I suspect that this figure was skewed by the unwillingness of church leaders to share with me the names and addresses of church dropouts who might still be quite hostile toward the church.
6. Does leaving churches of Christ require a deconversion process?
Since my respondents were overwhelmingly switchers (as opposed to dropouts), I dont believe they would characterize what they did as deconversion, though it certainly involved a conversion of sorts in their thinking. A number of respondents wrote quite passionately that they were not leaving Christ or His church, though they were no longer associating with the churches of Christ.
7. Did former church members express guilt or any struggles adjusting to life outside churches of Christ?
I asked respondents to indicate the degree to which they felt fourteen differing emotions during or following the time in which they stopped attending the Churches of Christ. The results were a paradoxical blend of feelings. The top three emotions felt were frustration, hurt, and disappointment. These emotions square with some of the primary reasons for disaffiliation, particularly legalism, sectarianism, and overbearing church leadership. Further down the list of feelings, respondents also felt a sense sadness, awkwardness, and loss, indicating the relational loss which leaving ones church tradition engenders.
However, the next three emotions felt upon leaving Churches of Christ could be classified as very positive. These emotions were joy, happiness, and relief. At first glance, these emotions appear to be contradictory to the first three. However, these could be understood as emotions experienced once people left the Churches of Christ, particularly for those who experienced spiritual renewal in the form of a more personal relationship with Christ. A number of respondents indicated feeling a great sense of freedom and excitement upon leaving, indicating that the frustration and disappointment which led up to their departure was followed by a feeling of renewal. For those who found an open and spiritually vibrant church home following years of consternation, these findings seem very logical.
8. What results of your study did you personally find most surprising?
I was surprised to find that only 35% left because of a desire for greater participation by women in worship and leadership roles. I expected this percentage to be higher, especially in Southern California. However, women themselves displayed highly polarized attitudes toward the public leadership of women in church. Females were more likely than men to agree strongly (21%) and disagree strongly (37%) with the statement, Wanted women to have more public leadership roles. Forty percent of female respondents agreed that the gender issue contributed to their departure; but this means that for sixty percent it was not a significant issue in departing!
9. How has our reaction as church members hurt our chances of regaining former members? Did any respondents give reasons or conditions that would have to occur in order for them to return to churches of Christ?
In response to both of these questions, I must say that my study was not an exploration of how we might regain former members, though that would be an fascinating topic for study. Not a single respondent speculated as to what conditions would bring them back.
10. Have you found anything in the reactions of church members who stayed that might hinder former members from returning?
Again, my study did not specifically ask this type of question. However, in my review of the literature of member retention, I found two very relevant studies of this question.
A fascinating study conducted by Gerhard Knutson looked at the unhelpful stereotypes which Lutheran active and inactive church members have of one other. Actives attitudes toward inactives tend toward the negative, viewing them as dropouts, delinquents, lazy, do-nothings, sinners, complainers and excuse makers. Inactives pigeonholed actives as hypocrites, nosy, fussy, nitpickers, in group, judges, high and mighty, and meddlers. These two groups exhibited the attitudes and felt the emotions of the older brother and the prodigal son of Jesus parable in Luke 15, respectively. This study suggests that Churches of Christ ought to be very careful about how they speak about and relate to former members.
Lyle Shaller has offered some helpful correctives as to how inactives ought to be viewed by the core members of a local congregation. Rather than automatically cast them in a disparaging light, church members would do far better to change their operating assumptions about inactives. Such assumptions within our fellowship could greatly help facilitate an environment of reconciliation rather than one of alienation and discord. Parts of Shallers list are highlighted in the following quote:
1. We assume that every person who united with this congregation did so with complete sincerity and in good faith.
2. We assume that every person who united with this congregation and is now an inactive member has what is, from their point of view, a good reason for being inactive...
4. We assume that for us to speculate and attempt to identify that reason will be less productive than seeking to discover that reason more directly by talking with the inactive member...
6. We assume that we can learn more from listening than by talking, and therefore our approach to our inactive members will be one of active listening...
11. Your study focuses on former church members in southern California. Is there anything about the nature of churches of Christ and members in that region that might make the results different if the study were conducted elsewhere?
This is an excellent question and I hope that others will conduct more extensive research across the nation. Heres an anecdotal response: I have presented this material at venues in Texas and California. After highlighting the reasons former members have given for no longer attending the churches of Christ, I have asked members of the audience if what theyve heard sounds like something that is limited to Southern California or if it rings true in their ministry context as well. Both times I have asked this question, class members from some twenty states have vigorously stated that this phenomenon is not uniquely Californian. Another detail: of my respondents, 36 percent were California natives, 33 percent were from the Bible belt and the rest were from other regions.
12. What, in your opinion, is the most important thing current church members should learn from your research?
That the people in our pews are hungering for a faith that is life transforming, that makes a difference in the world in which we live. Tim Woodroof said it well: Many of us are no longer willing to pour the best of ourselves into the preservation of nineteenth-century modes of worship or doctrinal positions that--in our hearts--we no longer accept or believe to be central. Jesus did not die, nor do we want to live, to ensure that buildings not have kitchens or that music remain congregational
or that a woman never make announcements in church... Whatever our purpose and mission, we know that it should be no little thing concerned with the fringes of life.
13. What do you say to those who believe that studying why people leave is like trying to do theology by poll?
I wonder if these same people would say that studying why people get divorced is the same thing as trying to provide a rationalization for divorce? No insidious ulterior motive for studying church retention needs to be assumed. Theology by poll is certainly not an appealing prospect to me.
Here are my assumptions underlying this study: 1) Christ is the Lord of all of life. I owe Him my all. 2) I dont know everything about God, the Bible, or anything else. I am limited, finite, flawed, and sinful. I dont see every situation with a crystal clear perspective. 3) If I listen carefully to others, there is much I can learn. This is especially true of those who have different perspectives than I do. Often, I gain important insights into God and Scripture from those differing perspectives. 4) Truth has nothing to fear from an honest investigation. Why would I avoid seeking to better understand why people leave unless Im afraid of what I might learn?
14. Why is it important that we know why people are leaving churches of Christ?
This study is important for a number of reasons. The first is based upon the belief that the growth or decline of any church group is a valid concern for its leaders. If a church tradition is experiencing numerical decline over a sustained period of time, its leaders have a responsibility to seek out why this is taking place. Second, church dropouts and switchers can provide unique perspectives regarding where churches of Christ need to grow, learn and improve. Certainly we wont agree with everything they say. But to ignore their concerns or turn a deaf ear to them would be irresponsible at best and sinful at worst. Third, since the church is the body of Christ, each member ought to show concern for other members of the body. This study is a special form of listening as well as an expression of caring to those who have left. Fourth, since California is a bellwether region for national trends, leaders of Churches of Christ in other parts of the country might well learn from the experiences of churches in California.
15. In your opinion, should churches of Christ change in order to retain members?
I certainly do not believe that our churches have arrived or are perfect. Restoration, particularly when it has to do with being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, both individually and corporately, is always an unfinished business. To be converted is to change. To be sanctified is to change. To grow spiritually is to change. I do think that becoming more humbly Christ-like would go a long way toward creating a community which people are less likely to leave. With that said, the reasons our churches should change is more about becoming more like Christ-like in our dealings with one another than about retaining members.
If so, how should they change? In making the following recommendations, I want to acknowledge that a number of our congregations already exhibit the qualities I describe.
First and foremost, our churches must be able to articulate a Biblically rooted, spiritually compelling reason for existing. The hunger for ultimate meaning drives a great many spiritual quests in this post-modern world. Churches must teach and live out of a healthy, Christ-centered theology rather than a dysfunctional legalism. Second, churches must be places where people can experience warm and caring relationships. Third, churches need to address the spiritual, emotional and relational needs of teens and young adults. Fourth, longtime church members must change their attitudes toward inactives, lest the entire church become poisoned with Pharisaical views. Fifth, existing churches need to pursue renewal in worship, Scripture study, prayer, outreach, and godly living. Sixth, various church planting strategies need to be implemented across the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural mosaic of this country. Seventh, church leaders desperately need to receive more training and mentoring as they face a bewildering array of conflicts to be resolved, issues to be managed, and pastoral needs to be served. And finally, Churches of Christ must improve in their ability to listen to their honest critics as well as grow in their capacity for self-examination and self-critique.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, Whom you would change you must first love. If one truly loves a church, one doesnt help it by leaving but by staying and helping it become all that it needs to be. Indeed, many have stayed in the Churches of Christ not because they believe they are perfect in their present state but precisely because they see that the church promises to be so much more than it presently is.
When preparing a mail survey for distribution, one would ideally obtain a complete list of potential respondents and their mailing addresses, then randomly select a small percentage from that list to survey. If such a list is available and large enough, if the survey questions are well worded, and if the response rate is sufficient, then the researcher can be assured of having a representative sample, one in which a smaller number of randomly chosen participants can be trusted to represent the general opinions of the much larger sample frame.
For this study, it was simply not feasible to obtain a list of every former member of Churches of Christ in Southern California over the past decade. One reason for this is that many churches were reticent about sharing mailing information on former members, perhaps fearing reprisals from some. Another reason is that churches do not or cannot keep good records on former members. Even among churches who were willing to share addresses, many addresses were simply out of date due to the highly mobile nature of Southern California. A third reason is that many ministers already feel burdened with too many tasks and were simply not able to make the time necessary to complete the list or delegate this task to another qualified leader. All in all, what this means is that every former member of the Churches of Christ in Southern California over the past decade and a half did not have an equal chance of being selected for the sample, thus guaranteeing the presence of some coverage error in this study.
From the directory Churches of Christ in the United States, every listed Church of Christ in Southern California with over one-hundred members was contacted by letter and invited to send names and addresses of former members from the previous decade. Out of 115 letters sent out, and following numerous follow-up phone calls to the church ministers explaining the purpose of the study and pleading for assistance, a disappointing twenty-nine churches responded by sending lists of names and addresses. Additional addresses were obtained through individuals known to the author who are current members of Churches of Christ. Through these means, 573 names and addresses of former members were finally obtained. Because of this modest number, letters and surveys were sent to all 573 names, rather than randomly selecting from among them.
Several limitations are apparent. First, the response of African-American church leaders in the Los Angeles area to the letter requesting names was very low. Consequently, this ethnic group is underrepresented in the study sample. Second, because Spanish language Churches of Christ are typically smaller, they often did not make the cutoff of membership greater than one-hundred. Thus a second and very important minority is underrepresented. Third, there was no way to control how church leaders selected names to be sent in for the study. Did leaders omit the names of those they feared would be most openly hostile to Churches of Christ? Did they omit younger and less influential former members? Did they send names of those they thought might be most inclined to respond? All of these scenarios are likely, which means that the sample frame was not truly representative.
Having acknowledged all these limitations, this study is still important for the following reasons. First, no one in Churches of Christ has ever attempted such a study in Southern California. If a sufficient number of surveys could be returned, they could provide the first ever composite sketch as to why many are leaving Churches of Christ. Second, even though the percentages of ages and ethnic groups in the study may be somewhat skewed, the aggregate responses do provide an indication of major factors which are causing non-minorities to leave. Third, when a church experiences a 6 percent statewide decline of adherents during the same timeframe in which the state population expands by 33 percent, some explanation is called for.
The data from the survey provide an opportunity to speak from more than mere hunches. Finally, the limitations of this study will create opportunities and suggest areas for future study which could fill in some of the gaps in this study.
Given the difficulties inherent in constructing the survey mailing list, the response rate to the survey was heartening. Initially, 573 letters were sent out. Out of these, 109 were eventually returned by the post office marked not at this address, undeliverable or return to sender. However, respondents were given the opportunity to provide additional names and addresses of former members with whom they were acquainted. This process yielded an additional 102 names and addresses, all of whom were contacted and of whom many responded. In the final analysis, 299 surveys were returned out of 567 valid addresses contacted, for a respectable response rate of 52.7 percent.