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What Should Pastors Do About People Who Have Left the Church

You probably don’t need another article full of statistics to confirm what you’re seeing with your own eyes.
But let’s start with just a couple before moving on to some reasons and, ultimately, landing on some practical action steps.
According to one study, 65 million adults in the United States used to attend church but no longer do.
Gallop says US church membership is now below 50% for the first time in almost 100 years.  Lifeway Research says most of these are young people who have no plans to come back.

First, there are cultural reasons people leave.

Even before COVID, Barna, among numerous others, was reporting a steady decline in church attendance.
COVID was maybe an accelerator, but it wasn’t the catalyst.
There are some big issues at play—from institutional trust to ministry philosophy to political tensions.
Carey Nieuwhof says there are at least four big reasons for these cultural shifts in church attendance.

  1. Focusing on content instead of connection
  2. Obsessing over attraction not equipping
  3. Christian meanness on social media
  4. Making politics and ideology more important than theology

In the past, people connected to intentionally be shaped and molded, but as Bret McCracken observes, “now we expect institutions to be molded around us.”
Again, huge cultural shifts are happening.
This “zoom-out” kind of problem is worth time and focus.  It’s worth asking some big questions.  It’s worthy of deep understanding and reflection.
But there’s another, more tactical, and seemingly more immediate reason…

Second, so much was changed or rearranged during COVID.

COVID has surely created new patterns for your parishioners.
Many have gotten used to participating online and have not returned to physical worship.  Many stopped volunteering for safety reasons and haven’t come back.  Financial constraints have affected giving patterns and organizational spending.
From supply chains to Sunday School, COVID has affected everything.
As you look around your congregation, you undoubtedly miss some faces that used to be staples.  Maybe names and faces come to mind at random times throughout the day and you wonder, “Whatever happened to ___________?”
When you ask around, you find that some people moved.
But not all of them.
A lot of people have just drifted away, without an announcement.   You’re left with “why” questions, but you’re also wondering what to do.

What do you do about the people who have left?

While you’re wrestling these big cultural questions, how do you respond to the members who have just become disengaged or have drifted away?
Here are four suggestions.

#1 — Resist taking it personally.

Yeah, this is easier said than done.
Because when you pour your heart and soul into people, and they leave, it’s hard not to take it personally.
You’re not alone here.
“I tried not to take it personally, but I usually did. I tried not to be discouraged, but I was. And when pastor colleagues started leaving the pastorate, too, it began to eat at me,” writes Ian McFadden.
So maybe “resist taking it personally” isn’t the right advice.
Maybe it’s to not stay here.
Maybe it’s to find a safe place to process those emotions and not let them lead you to question your calling.

#2 — Pastor the people you still have.

People have left your church.
Others are there, but not 100% there.
It’s tough to figure out exactly what happened.
But you still have some faithful attendees.  You still have a core of committed members.  There are still people giving, serving, praying, and leading.
The flock might be smaller; the flock might feel confused.  But they are still your flock.
So instead of focusing on all of the people you have lost and wondering what you can do to get them back, what if you decided to pastor the people who are right in front of you? 

  • What would it look like to make sure your current roster of volunteers were the happiest and healthiest people in your church?  (This might help.)
  • What would it look like if your donors felt appreciated and inspired about what they have already done?
  • What would it look like to give more of your time to the leaders who have the most influence in your church and community?

Whether God has entrusted you with five talents, two talents, or one talent, embrace your stewardship opportunity and pastor the people God has given you.

#3 — Check in on people.

One consistent piece of helpful advice I’ve seen throughout COVID is “check on your friends.”
A quick text, a random phone call, or even a drop-by might feel like you’re stepping somewhere you weren’t invited, but since you never know what people are dealing with, it’s worth the risk.
If God brings someone to your mind, check on them.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen someone in a while, it’s okay to ask.
You will want to do this with every bit of pastoral sensitivity, but checking in with people is a good thing.
One of the most pastoral things you can do for people who have left your church is encourage them to find a new community of believers.

#4 — Revisit your purpose, mission, and strategy.

There are many reasons people leave the church, and it’s not helpful to categorize them by what you feel are legitimate reasons or not.
But if people leave because the church wasn’t a fit for them, it might not be that your church needs to change.
Instead, you should revisit who you are and what you do.
There’s a classic business story told about Herb Keller, the Founder of Southwest Airlines.  Here’s how Alexander Kjerulf tells it:

“One woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.
She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.
Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s [Kelleher, CEO of Southwest] desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’
In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’”

Southwest Airlines knew who they were trying to reach, so it wasn’t disheartening that the wrong kind of customer wasn’t a fit.
This story isn’t permission not to care or listen to people.  And you certainly shouldn’t use it as an excuse to dig in your heels or resist healthy change.
But do let it help you refine your mission and strategy.
When you truly understand who you are and who you are trying to serve, it gives you a bedrock sense of confidence that will outlast any cultural change.

Take a Next Step

One of the most important things you can do with your staff, leaders, and even key volunteers is to create a written ministry plan.  This sounds like a daunting exercise, but the template we’ve created for you is just two pages.
In fact, we creatively call it The Two Page Plan.
Use our template to get clear about your purpose, mission, vision, values, strategy, profile, distinctives, ministries, events, metrics, processes, goals, and outlook.
Yes, all of this fits on just two pages.
And we’ve got videos to walk you through it plus tons of real-church examples to inspire you.
Learn more here.