Why are people leaving your church? Every church has a back door. But do you know why they are leaving? Have you ever done exit interviews? A number of years ago, Bill Hendricks wrote a book entitled Exit Interviews. It was a fantastic piece on the reasons that people might leave your church. His book is now out of print but Bill has given us permission to post two vital chapters from his book—Chapter 1—“The Back Door” and Chapter 20—“What Churches Can Do.” A PDF of the excerpt can be found below, as well as the footnotes that have been removed on this post.
Chapter 1—The Back Door
I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? (Psa. 42:4-5)
When I was a boy, my family belonged to a small independent church in Dallas, Texas. The dozen or so families that started the church put up a standard A-frame sanctuary and tacked a shotgun wing on the western end of it for Sunday school. After church on Sundays and prayer meetings on Wednesdays, everyone ended up mingling in the lobby between the sanctuary and the classrooms (only they didn’t call it a lobby; they had a church-word for it, the vestibule).
As a boy, though, I wasn’t a mingler; I was a carouser, a frolicker, a mischief-maker (some would say a terror). So it was that my pals and I often took off into the field to the west of the building, which brought us around to the back door of the Sunday school wing.
And there we’d always find him, a man I’ll call Mr. Walker. What fixes him in my memory was that he always seemed to be out the back door of the church, puffing on a cigarette.
Mr. Walker was lean and tall—at least he would have been tall if he hadn’t been stoop shouldered. Maybe he was born with a bent back; maybe he was wounded in the war. But I wonder if he hadn’t ruined his posture through his habit of bending over to light his smokes and then holding them in his hand rather than his mouth, so that he dipped his head whenever he took a drag.
It was a lonely spot for Mr. Walker. Everyone else was up in that vestibule, talking about whatever people in Dallas talked about in 1961. But he’d be out back in the Texas sun with his Camels, an occasional jackrabbit, and a gang of seven-year-old boys tearing by in search of adventure.
I wonder why he bothered to come to church? If he wanted privacy, he could have had it at home, or in a park, or on a golf course. If he wanted friendship (or fellowship), he wasn’t making much effort to find it; though amiable, he said very little, joined no committees, and mostly kept to himself. What was it, then, that kept him coming to church rather than go someplace else?
Only Mr. Walker could tell us for sure, and he’s gone—yes, the smoking finally got him. But looking back, I feel certain that he showed up week after week for only one reason: he wanted to get near God and he figured church was the place to do it. I don’t think he enjoyed his nicotine habit. He turned away when he bowed his head to inhale. I don’t say he was ashamed of himself, but he was alienated by his addiction. Nevertheless, he brought himself—smoking and all—to a place that stood for God. He wanted to be with God. And now he is (I believe).
Fast-forward with me three decades later to 1993. A great deal of noise is now being made about what’s going on at the “front door” of the church—not the church in which I grew up, but The Church, the universal church, the body of Christ. If you picture the church as a building (never a good thing to do), the front door represents one’s entry into the faith, the moment of salvation or conversion or, as many put it, of being “born again.”
A lot is happening today to get people near, if not through, the front door of the church, to get them saved—or at least “churched,” as the jargon now goes. In North America, both conservative and mainline churches are taking aggressive steps to recruit new members. The Episcopal Church has gone so far as to call the 1990s the Decade of Evangelism. Likewise, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has targeted evangelism and church development as its priority goals for this decade. Similar objectives have been set by other groups.
This new evangelistic fervor hopes to catch a perceived wave of renewed interest in religion now sweeping the land. If one believes the popular press, the United States is undergoing a virtual revival, led by Baby Boomers returning to the church. (Later we’ll examine the extent to which those reports are valid. But for now, let’s assume they are true.)
One survey even suggested that faith in God is now the most important thing in Americans’ lives, followed by good health and a happy marriage—an “astounding” result in the opinion of one sociologist, representing nothing less than a “cultural shift.” “The Age of the Yuppie is dying,” trumpeted the Associated Press.
As I say, a lot of noise is being made about what’s going on at the “front door” of the church. But hearing it all, I wonder: what’s going on around back? Not to take anything away from evangelistic outreach or attempts to make the church’s programs more “relevant” to a contemporary generation. By no means!
But I’ve known this building all my life, and I’m still a bit mischievous and contrary. So while others may celebrate newcomers in the vestibule, my instinct is to take off for adventures out back. And what do I find at the rear of the church? Something very different from the days of my youth. Instead of a solitary figure or two like Mr. Walker, I find quite a few people—leaving! It hardly makes sense. While countless “unchurched” people are flocking in the front door of the church, a steady stream of the “churched” is flowing quietly out the back.
Moreover, talking with people who are still inside the church—especially some of the old-timers who have been in the faith for a while—I find that a growing number have lost the energy and enthusiasm they once had for programs of spiritual development such as worship services, discipleship groups, prayer meetings, Bible studies, and so on.
This “dark side” of church growth is not something that has been either widely reported or carefully studied. But it’s there. In fact, I believe it is growing. Despite glowing reports of surging church attendance, more and more Christians in North America are feeling disillusioned with the church and other formal, institutional expressions of Christianity.
That’s not to say that these “back-door believers” have given up on the faith. On the contrary, they may be quite articulate regarding spiritual matters. Indeed, some have remarkably vibrant spiritual lives and touchingly close friendships with a kindred spirit or two. But in the main, they tend to nurture their relationship with God apart from the traditional means of church and parachurch.
“Impossible!” some will reply. “One simply cannot grow as a Christian unless one is part of a church, a local body of believers.” So conventional wisdom would have it. But as we’ll see, many who are leaving churches have given up on conventional wisdom. There was a time when they participated in a faith community for all the reasons given for participation: worship, instruction, fellowship, service, community, accountability, and so on. But now, for a variety of reasons, they look elsewhere to meet those needs.
Actually, the issue is not really church attendance, though I don’t want to discount what “going to church” means—or is supposed to mean—for Christians. The issue is something toward which church attendance points—the nature of spirituality in a deeply secular age. Bill Moyers describes it well: “The search for meaning is the most stubborn trait of humanity. … The real story
This book attempts to tell part of that story. If significant numbers of Christians are growing disillusioned with churches and ministries, if they are looking elsewhere to meet their deepest spiritual needs, then someone ought to examine that. Someone needs to ask, What’s going on here?
Of course, the best people to ask are disillusioned Christians themselves. That’s why this is a book of interviews, a collection of stories told by individual believers about their experience in the faith. That is the most direct way to gain understanding. I agree wholeheartedly with Boston College professor William Kirk Kilpatrick that we not only need stories in our lives, but that life is a story, that the best way to interpret and explain a life is in a narrative way.
However, this book does not pretend to tell the whole story. Indeed, it cannot. Were we to talk with two dozen other believers, we would hear different accounts. Yet always we would come back to that larger story of which Bill Moyers speaks—of people searching for what it means to be spiritual today. The search, or journey, that my interviewees are on has led them outside the programs and away from the structures. That’s because they didn’t find what they were looking for or what they expected in the communities of faith of which they were a part.
But is it really necessary to dwell on this subject? Sure, there may be disaffected people in the church. There may be problems. But what? Hasn’t that always been the case? And won’t it always be? Why dredge up something that puts a negative face on Christianity? As believers, shouldn’t we dwell on the positive, on the edifying things that God is doing among and through His people?
Yes, but the questions assume that nothing edifying is taking place, when in many cases that’s exactly what is happening: God is doing His marvelous work in someone’s life, even apart from the church—believe it or not. I don’t want to be accused of implying that believers don’t need churches. They certainly do. And in fact, none of the people with whom I spoke wanted to do away with the church or parachurch. But like most of us, they found themselves in the gap between the ideals of the New Testament and the realities of actual groups of Christians. After languishing for a while where they were, they chose to get out and find a better way. Less than ideal? You bet.
As for edification, I believe their stories stand to help the body far more than hinder it. After all, God always wants us to deal with reality. He tells us to consider “whatever is true.” Truth may be positive or negative, we may like it or dislike it, but whatever the case we need to face it squarely. Otherwise we walk in darkness, as unwise people.
So if many of those who traditionally have been among the churches’ most loyal members are now turning elsewhere to meet their spiritual needs, that ought to give all believers pause for reflection. That’s a truth that we dare not ignore or deny.
Perhaps I can illustrate why by changing my metaphor of the church from a building to a business (again, not the best thing to do; the church is not a business, and evangelism is more than marketing; nevertheless, churches ignore the principles of business and marketing to their peril).
It is not enough for the church to attract new “customers.” It must also hold onto the ones it has. Why? Because that’s the purpose of the church—people development. The church exists “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
In other words, attracting new customers (outreach and evangelism) is vital, but to use sales guru Carl Sewell’s term, the church is also in business to cultivate customers for life (discipleship and spiritual maturity). The loss of even one previously satisfied customer is worth examining, because it suggests a breakdown somewhere, a disappointment of expectations. Such an examination, painful as it may be, might hold crucial clues as to how the church can improve its core business of bringing every believer to maturity in Christ.
But let’s return from analogy to reality. The church is neither a building nor a business, but a body—the body of Christ. We are members one of another. The tragedy is that in most cases when people put distance between themselves and the body, no one bothers to find out why. Dr. John Savage of L.E.A.D. Consultants has studied the problem of “dropouts” and advised churches in this area for more than seventeen years. In 1973 he studied the dropout patterns of four congregations, each with between 400 and 800 members.
Dr. Savage found an interesting phenomenon. After someone decides to stop attending church, she typically waits for about six to eight weeks to see if anyone will come visit her to find out why she has left. She stays in a sort of “holding pattern,” not reinvesting time or energy in other areas but waiting to see how her former church will respond. If no one contacts her, she eventually crosses off her old church and looks for other options.
What stunned me in Dr. Savage’s research was the finding that 100 percent of the inactive members he intervi