What’s the Big Deal When People Leave a Church?

Last Sunday (12/1/13), a pastor asked a question during his sermon.  I don’t want to misquote him, so I waited so that I could listen to the sermon online again and quote it word for word.  Here it is:

“One of the things I’ve never understood about church people, and maybe this is because I didn’t grow up as one:  is why do we get so upset when someone leaves one church and goes to another?  What’s the big deal?”

Clearly how the above words affect people doesn’t matter and no reasonable answer is going to matter because the question was labeled afterwards as rhetorical:

“Don’t answer me now; I’m sure I’ll get the emails and phone calls later.”

I’m answering it anyway because I don’t want to continue sitting silent with the thoughts in my head as I always do.  I also feel I’d be doing a disservice to my friends and family- strangers even- if I don’t answer it.  Granted, I don’t spend 40 hours a week reading scholarly books, looking up church-related statistics, following blogs by leaders of ginormous churches, and I know I don’t spend nearly enough time reading God’s Word, but I do have two characteristics that I think are necessary to respond to this:  logic and compassion.

By asking this question, our pastor was clearly implying that it’s not a big deal when people leave a church to find another.  Let me tell you; it IS a big deal.  Here’s why.  All regular church members spend about two hours at church every Sunday.  Most church members spend an hour or two at church on Wednesdays.  Some church goers are involved in a small group or a Bible study.  Some serve on ministries that might spend hours a month doing charity work, organizing events, or working in the church office.  Some care for, teach, or lead their own children and other people’s children week after week in church.  Etc. etc.  Personally, I see people that I attend church with more often than I see my own parents and siblings.  These aren’t just people you go to church with.  These people are family, and more specifically:

  • They are men and women who listen to the needs of others with empathy
  • They are families who moved from across the country and found this to be the first place they felt comfortable and welcomed
  • They are families who financially helped us while our children battled cancer
  • They are couples who emotionally supported us when we lost our child
  • They are friends we confided in when we thought our marriage was falling apart
  • They are couples who peel potatoes beside us year after year preparing for the Thanksgiving feast
  • They are couples who watch our children while we go to dinner and a movie
  • They are men who go to the church to fix a toilet, clean the baptistry, or shovel sidewalks at all hours of the night
  • They are men and women who sang our song requests and lead our worship
  • They are couples for whom we raised money when their child was born with unexpected medical complications
  • These are people who helped us tear down plaster and lathe in our home and then put up drywall and mud
  • They are couples who open their home to our small group and spend hours preparing material to feed our minds and hearts
  • They are men who tirelessly sit in meeting after meeting, trying to compromise or express what they feel is right or wrong on behalf of their congregation
  • They are women who send us cards and make us meals after we’ve had babies
  • They are women who play piano beautifully week after week during our service
  • They are men who bring communion to shut-ins
  • They are couples who dedicate hours each week to leading and setting an example for our youth group
  • They are young people who were raised in this church and are now raising their kids here.

THESE are the people who are leaving the church, and for those reasons alone, it IS a big deal.

In case that’s not enough, here are some other things to consider.  I’ve not researched the statistics on this, but I am certain that not all families who leave a church will find another one.  We are running the risk of entire families lost, for what?  Also, most people take church membership very seriously.  A very large percentage of people who choose to leave a church to go to another do so after fervent consideration and prayer, so if they finally do choose to leave, it’s because something is seriously wrong.  When the amount of people leaving a church grows and becomes more frequent, something is seriously, seriously wrong.  We shouldn’t simply turn our heads and believe that it is ‘no big deal.’  Even if someone from the pulpit tells us that.

Another issue with this rhetorical question is the message it sends to more recent church members.  Many people view church membership like a marriage.  They are committed to the cause, the people, the building.  What is this telling them?  “I know you are wholeheartedly committed to this union, but if you choose to leave, we don’t really care that much.  It’s no big deal.”  So are we not committed to and concerned about the people who have been here for 30 hours or 30 days the same way as we are to the people that have been here for 30 months or 30 years?  People are people; they all matter.  There’s another reason that should be obvious, but it’s not nearly as important as the others; and I don’t want this message to be about the wallet, I want it to be about the heart.  So I’m leaving it at this.  And this should be plenty.

Just to recap.  The reason it’s a big deal is because it’s not just a church member leaving a church, it’s a family member leaving a family.  What it’s not is ‘not a big deal.’


[Updated on 4/15/14 to remove hyperlink for anonymity.]