Why Do People Stop Going to Church?

Robert Hampshire

Christianity.com Contributing Writer
Updated Mar 02, 2023
Why Do People Stop Going to Church?

If you have stopped attending church, today is the day to deal with your reason or excuse and find your way back. If you know someone that has stopped attending, don't give up on inviting them.

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In the year 2020, many governments around the world put out a mandate to churches and other religious groups to close their doors in response to a new virus circulating the globe.

Fast forward two or three years, and most people have moved beyond being constantly worried about the negative consequences of getting together to sing, pray, and study.

However, the repercussions of those several months that people stopped gathering are still being felt today — mainly in declining church attendance and involvement.

But from my own perspective as well as the perspective of several pastors that I know, the church shut down” did not necessarily cause people to leave the church or stop their spiritual disciplines. Instead, it gave many people on the fringes an excuse to leave or become uninvolved.

In turn, many churches greatly suffered from the attendance decline, and other churches fully closed. One study found that less than half of churches were back to their pre-pandemic” attendance. But again, I would argue that the shutdown cannot be blamed for church closures. If anything, it just expedited or accelerated a process that was already in play.

I can make these statements with confidence because, as a pastor who has been in the ministry trenches for nearly 20 years, I have seen people leave the church on a regular basis. I have seen teenagers leave the church once they get a drivers license, start a sport, or get a job.

I have seen young adults leave once they graduate high school and experience freedom. I have seen couples leave the church almost immediately after they get married. I have seen spouses leave after a divorce. I have seen adults leave because of work and hobbies.

I have seen people leave because they didn't like the pastor, didnt appreciate the music, preferred a different service time, had to worship in a different room, lost interest in serving, and countless other reasons. I havent seen it all — but I have seen a lot.

Truth be told, this has been a concern for the American church for many years (and long before my time) as the outside culture becomes less and less comfortable with Christianity. In fact, I have read multiple books and heard multiple messages at conferences about this very topic.

Church gurus especially talk about how to fill the gap caused by young adults leaving the church, how to reach husbands and fathers, how to connect with millennials instead of just baby boomers, and more.

Hopefully, many of the people that leave the church are not actually unsaved Christians” (as Dean Inserra calls them) and will eventually come back to their church family. And hopefully, they continue in other spiritual disciplines, such as reading the Bible and praying while they are gone.

Nevertheless, people leaving the church is an all-too-common issue that almost every pastor or church leader has to deal with. But the reasonings behind someone leaving is not too mysterious. In fact, I would say that there are normally just five reasons why people stop going to church.

1.  They Are Out of the Habit

Their work schedule changed, they got hurt or sick, they had a big life event like a birth or death in the family, or they moved to a new town. As a result of that life change, they missed gathering with their church family for a few weeks, months, or even years.

They got out of the habit of waking up, getting their kids dressed, meeting with a small group, serving in a ministry, and all the rest that comes along with being part of a church.

In the absence of their church attendance habit, they built new habits, such as sleeping in, golfing, watching TV, going to the lake, or working another shift at work.

2. They Are Scared to Go Back

Getting emotionally or physically hurt by other people is an all-too-common reality for many people at school (or on the bus ride home), at a job, at home, or even at the place that should be the safest: church.

Some people have their feelings hurt by well-meaning people, while other people were attacked by people with malicious intent.

Sometimes the person that hurt them was the pastor or a church leader, and other times it was just someone else in the church acting out on their own hurt and brokenness (because, as I have heard and said many times, "hurt people hurt people").

But while some of the places we get hurt, we have to return to because they are mandatory (school), we are paid to be there (a job), or we feel like we have no other place to go (our home), church involvement is entirely voluntary.

Not only that but there are also an overwhelmingly large number of options for most people. Because of that, when someone thinks about attending again or is invited by a friend, the pain that they remember from their past church experience can cause enough fear in the present that they stay away.

This is why having different and fresh expressions of church is so helpful — because a completely different environment, such as a small home church in a neighborhood, a lunchtime Bible study at a restaurant, or a church that meets in a non-religious-looking space (such as a theater, school, or community center) can be disarming enough and seem safe enough to someone with pain in their past associated to a typical-feeling church.

3.  They Are Upset or Bitter

Something happened in someone's past experience with a church or a Christian, which resulted in feelings of pain that they are either unwilling to deal with or do not know how to deal with.

But in contrast to the second reason, often people are bitter not because someone hurt them but because something did not go their way.

This is the most stereotypical reason why people stop going to church (especially in the South) and it seems too often related to insignificant changes such as the carpet or wall color being changed, the seating being rearranged, the service time being moved, the music started sounding different, or the pastor did not meet up to their expectations.

This may be the hardest reason to overcome because someone's opinions and bitterness can become so tied to who they are and how they live.

4. They Are Embarrassed

Often, someone does something wrong or sinful, which results in feelings of shame, regret, and embarrassment that build a barrier between them and other Christians and the Church.

The difficulty of dealing with this reason is that although God and mature Christians are willing to forgive someone's sin, someone stuck behind their shame may not confess, repent, and give others or God an opportunity to forgive them.

This reason is also difficult to deal with because, many times, someone's actions were not wrong morally or biblically; instead, they were just unacceptable to a certain church, denomination, or group of Christians.

For example, someone may stay from church because they think they will be judged for their tattoos, family's reputation, disability, style, or even lack of church experience.

These things are in no way sinful or biblically wrong, but sadly some churches would not accept them — so they assume no church will.

5. It Is Not a Priority for Them

Life can be described as a game of time. Everyone has the same amount of time in the day and week. What we do with that time is directly connected to our priorities. In reality, church attendance and involvement are simply not priorities in many peoples' lives, and this is evidenced by the fact that they do not go regularly or at all.

This could be the result of one of the previous reasons on this list; it could be because the motivation they used to have is gone (such as parents or a spouse or social pressure), or it could be because they do not have a relationship with Christ, so the Holy Spirit is not compelling them to go.

As I like to say, we all do what we believe. But if I do not have a core belief that gathering with other believers is important, then I will not do it.

If I do not believe that my church family does not need my involvement and service, then I won't get involved or serve them. If I do not believe that I can make a difference by sharing the gospel, then I won't do it.

Some people that stop going to church may never get involved again — probably for one or multiple of the same reasons.

However, some people will eventually come back and get involved as a result of a personal invite, a new season in their life, or even a tragedy that reminds them of their great need for God and other Christians in their life.

If you have stopped attending church, today is the day to deal with your reason or excuse and find your way back. If you know someone that has stopped attending, don't give up on inviting them, but even more, don't give up on praying for the Holy Spirit to draw them back in.

For further reading:

Does the Pandemic Still Affect Church Attendance?

Why Should Christians Attend Church in an Online Age?

Does the Bible Say Christians Have to Attend Church?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/ehrlif

Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.

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