There has been a lot of conversation about trying to close the back doors of our churches. Most of these discussions revolve around the ideas of assimilation and discipleship. Sticky Church, a book by Larry Osborne, senior pastor of North Coast Church in California, is by almost all accounts a helpful book on this topic. Pastor Osborne’s primary idea in Sticky Church is that sermon-based small groups play a vital role in making a church “sticky.”1
While Pastor Osborne’s book is helpful, the reality is that closing the back door is not easy. If it were, the problem would have been solved some time ago, and Sticky Church would be unnecessary. Likewise, this article will not be the end of the “back door” discussion. However, I hope it does shed light on what causes the back door to swing open in the first place.
The Church of the Nazarene Research Center has a survey instrument called the Nazarene Missional Church (NMC) survey. The survey is designed for use by local churches and offers a comprehensive evaluation of a church’s ministry by those currently attending the church. Over the past 18 months, 4,876 people in 102 Nazarene churches have completed the survey. This article looks at how these individuals responded to the question, “Have you seriously considered leaving this church in the last year?”
The good news is that, overall, 71% responded “No” to the question (see Table 1). Obviously, this percentage changes from church to church. At the low end of the scale, only 33% of the respondents of one church indicated that they had not seriously considered leaving during the past year. One possible conclusion one may draw from this is that it’s possible no matter how bad things get, 1 out of 3 people will not leave their church. Perhaps they feel they own the place--this may be as much a part of the problem as it is an expression of faithfulness on their part.
At the other end of the scale, there were two churches in which 100% of the members responded that they had never seriously considered leaving; one of those churches had 105 people complete the survey!
Have you seriously considered leaving this church in the last year?
Seventy-one percent was also the median (half lower and half higher) within all churches. That is, in the average church, 71% of attendees have not seriously considered leaving the church in the past year. This also means that in the average church, three out of every ten members have seriously considered leaving at some time over the course of the year. That may sound like a wide-open back door--especially when you consider that these are the people who have stayed thus far; however, we need to look at whether or not their reasons for considering leaving are due to factors beyond the control of the church.
The first factor to consider is mobility. People leave churches because their jobs or lifestyles take them elsewhere (i.e., they retire, begin or finish school, want to be closer to family, etc.). According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, 12% of the population moved between 2007 and 20082. That’s not bad considering that in 1993-94, the total was 17%. Since 1994, the figure has been steadily declining.3
It is also interesting to note that age is a major factor in mobility. Those between the age of 1 and 39 all have above average mobility rates. From age 40 on, the mobility rate is lower than the national average. The highest rate is for those in their 20s, where the mobility rate is around 30%. The mobility rate for those in their 30s ranges from 20% down to 15%. The highest mobility rate among children and teens is for those between ages 1 and 4 (before schooling starts), where the rate is over 21%. These age groups (families with young children) are often the most difficult for churches to attract and keep. On the other hand, less than 5% of those 60 or older move each year.4
You might expect that if 12% of the population moves each year, 12% of your church attendees will also move; however, according to the NMC surveys, only a little more than 2% of respondents thought about leaving their church because they were considering a move. It could be that employment or lifestyle changes that prompt a move happen quickly, and that the NMC survey is catching only those who did not follow through with a move. Whatever the case, there is very little a church can do to combat attendee mobility, and the more important consideration for a local church is how to reach those moving into their neighborhood.
The NMC survey question included several other reasons for considering leaving that relatively few people chose. Very few considered leaving the church because of a disagreement with Nazarene doctrine (0.8%) or Nazarene expectations of behavior (also 0.8%). Slightly more considered leaving because they were having difficulty finding a place to serve (2.0%). More people indicated that they were struggling spiritually (4.5%) and that this had caused them to consider leaving the church. It is interesting to note that those who considered leaving because they were struggling spiritually were less likely to agree* with the statement, “I often experience a sense of God’s presence during our worship services” (only 60.6% agreed compared to 86.9% who agreed, but did not consider leaving).
It is no secret that when parents look for a church, a major concern for them are the programs for children and youth. This initial filter may be the reason why only 2.5% of respondents considered leaving the church because they were dissatisfied with the children’s program. Dissatisfaction with the youth program--to the point of considering leaving--was slightly higher (4.0%), but age does make a difference. Between the ages of 15 and 18, 12.3% considered leaving because of the youth program. And they must tell their parents, because there is another jump in the percentage that considered leaving because of the youth program at ages 35-44 (7.0%) and 45-54 (6.4%).
More people indicated that they considered leaving because they were dissatisfied with the worship service.
More people indicated that they considered leaving because they were dissatisfied with the worship service (7.6%). While this question does not tell us in what way they were dissatisfied, cross-tab analysis with other questions reveals the following: Those who considered leaving are far less likely to say, “I cannot imagine a time when I will not be a Nazarene” (only 18.6% chose this description, compared with 46.4% of those who did not consider leaving). In addition, these individuals are more likely to feel, “I have not been given an opportunity to use my spiritual gift(s), but I wish I had been” (15.5% selected this description, compared to 4.8% of those who did not consider leaving).
Furthermore, those dissatisfied with the worship service to the point of considering leaving are far more likely to disagree* with the statement, “A good match exists between the pastor and the people” (35.4% vs. 5.3%). They are also far less likely to agree* with the statement, “I am proud to invite my unchurched friends or relatives to this church” (31.8% vs. 84.5%), and less likely to strongly agree that, “I often experience a sense of God’s presence during our worship services” (7.2% vs. 42.4%). Finally, those who have considered leaving in the past year had more of a preference for a “traditional” worship service than those who have not considered leaving (41.1% vs. 27.1%).
Still, dissatisfaction with worship is not the leading cause of the back door being pushed open. Dissatisfaction with church leaders was indicated by 7.7% of respondents and being frustrated by conflict in the church was indicated by 8.9%, the highest of all options listed. Once again, the survey question doesn’t tell us why people are dissatisfied with their church leaders; however, those dissatisfied are much less likely to agree* with the statement, “A good match exists between the pastor and the people.” Only 28.5% of those who considered leaving agreed with this statement, compared to 83.6% of those who did not consider leaving.
It is conflict that pushes the back door open more than anything else.
It is conflict that pushes the back door open more than anything else. In a study from Faith Communities Today, 69% of the congregations reporting any conflict also reported losing members because of the conflict. The author of the study report, David Roozen, when discussing how various faith traditions deal with conflict, amusingly writes, “To overstate slightly, one could say that member mobility is a preferred ‘Other Protestant’ response; rotating leadership is a preferred Catholic/Orthodox response; and withholding money is the preferred Oldline [Protestant] response.”5 More seriously, he concludes that the single item most correlated to congregational numeric growth is the absence of conflict.
One surprising finding from the NMC survey data is that the people who considered leaving because of conflict tended to be long-term attendees: 68.6% of those who considered leaving had been attending the church for eight years or more, compared to 52.6% of those who had not considered leaving. It’s possible that long-term attendees were the ones who stuck with the church even though the conflict made it difficult, while short-term attendees left and therefore were not around to complete the survey. Whatever the case, conflict is a major reason for the back door opening up.6
Keeping the back door of the church from swinging open requires paying attention to the forces that can push it open. This may not be easy, but while the local church has little or no control over things like denominational doctrine or population mobility, there are many things the local church can manage that would help keep the back door from opening quite so wide. The use of a tool such as the NMC survey is a way to listen to those within the congregation, thereby discovering where “drafts” are starting to appear. There are other ways besides the NMC survey of listening for and feeling drafts. The important thing is having a communication process able to detect a small draft before it becomes large enough to give the church a cold!
2. Geographical Mobility: 2007 to 2008 Detailed Tables, U.S. Census Bureau Website, http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/migration/cps2008/tab01-01.xls (Release date: April 2009).
3. Jason P. Schachter, Geographical Mobility: 2002 to 2003, U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports (March 2004), 20-549.
5. David A. Roozen, Faith Communities Today, American Congregations 2005, Hartford Institute for Religion Research (2007), 20.
6. The Fall 2004 edition of Leadership magazine contains an interesting section on conflict in the church, including a survey of pastors. The survey looks at the sources of conflict, how conflict was dealt with, and the outcomes of conflict–both positive and negative