Perhaps the image many of us have of church dropouts is a person who was only marginally involved at the onset. He or she did not connect with people and ministries in the church, so that person became a dropout – a person who stopped attending church altogether.
But there are a number of persons who have been active in church life for years. They have had key leadership positions. They are considered some of the most faithful members. And then they are gone. Sometimes it's sudden; on a few occasions it is more gradual.
During my 25 plus years of church consultations, I have interviewed a number of these active-to-inactive persons. Most of them shared freely and openly with me what took place in their lives, and how it impacted their ultimate decision to stop attending church.
Though there are certainly far more reasons, I am listing the top seven reasons I heard from these formerly active members. For now, I will not make qualitative or analytical comments about their decisions. These top seven reasons are listed in order by the frequency I heard them.
1. Moral failure. The most common scenario is a sexual affair. The member who was once revered becomes intensely embarrassed and ashamed, so much so that he or she cannot face the members and friends at church.
2. Dropping out of a group. The church member stops his or her regular attendance in a small group or Sunday school class. It is almost inevitable that, without the accountability and fellowship a small group brings, that person is headed to be a complete church dropout.
3. Burnout. The church member is asked to do many things because he or she tackles them with such passion and faithfulness. But some of these very active members don't know how to say no. They burnout and leave church completely.
4. Traumatic event. A painful loss or some similar pain can cause many church members to lean on fellow Christians even more. But some react in an opposite fashion and leave the fellowship.
5. Dropping out of a ministry. The church member's primary point of reference and connection with the church is a particular ministry. If he or she leaves that ministry (or in a few cases was asked to leave), it is not unusual for them to see no reason to continue with the church at all.
6. Major interpersonal conflict. Marginal church members tend to drop out at the first hint of even minor interpersonal conflict. Very active members are more resilient, recognizing that no church members are perfect. But if the conflict becomes severe, some of the very active church members will leave as well.
7. Gradual withdrawal. Most of the time a very active church member will drop out rather suddenly. But, on a few occasions, they just gradually withdraw from involvement in the church. These dropouts had trouble articulating to me why they left, or why they slowly withdrew from involvement. As one lady told me, "It's like I woke up one morning, and I was no longer involved in the church."
Church dropouts sadly are all too common. But some of these dropouts were once among the most faithful in the church.