Monday, December 24, 2007

Why People Leave Church

Like many churches tonight, Trinity Cathedral was pretty crowded. We actually get quite a crowd most Sunday's, but in almost every church, Christmas really brings in folks who only attend once or twice a year.

I therefore thougt that the comments of Phillip Richter, and English scholar who looks at why people leave the church to be very interesting:

Up to 40% of the British population, according to recent Anglican statistics, are likely to make their way to church over Christmas. For many, it may be their only visit to a church all year. For others, it may be a chance to sample churchgoing again and give it another try. One of the messages of our new book Gone for Good? is that there are a surprising number of former churchgoers. Churches have not always been very good at keeping their members or encouraging them back. For our research, we took the trouble to listen to hundreds of church-leavers.

Most people have their own hunches about why the churches are getting emptier. Some people lay all the blame on loss of faith. Others berate the churches for just not being relevant enough. Gone for Good? checked out the actual reasons that people gave. And it was true that some people lost their faith and stopped churchgoing. But this was a factor for only a third of church leavers.

The research identified 14 other clusters of reasons and suggested that churches should abandon "one size fits all" strategies for stemming church decline. Over a third of church leavers drifted away because of changes in their lives - like moving to a new area, going away from home for the first time, illness, marriage break-up or increased family commitments. It wasn't necessarily the church's fault that they had left. And they reported that they might one day come back.

It's possible to predict, on the basis of this research, those most likely to reactivate their church-going. It all depends why they left in the first place. People who had left because of pressures of work, because they found it difficult to adjust the change in the church, because there weren't enough people their age, or because of changes in their lives, are all more likely to become returnees.

People leave, and sometimes return to, church for different reasons. So we advise a new "multiplex" model of church. Just as cinemas successfully reinvented themselves by offering different screens under the same roof, churches need to cater for diversity. But no one church is likely to be able to meet everyone's needs. Churches need to be more prepared to point church-leavers to another church that might suit them better, rather than risking them dropping out altogether.

Read it here.

This raises an interesting question for every church and every denomination. Do we find what we do really well in attracting one part of the population, and focus on that? Or do we try to develop a diversity of options to attract as many different folks back to the church as possible. In the Episcoapal Church, this decisaion often comes down to whether we should loosen our litergical focus. This research suggests that we should think hard before we do so.

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