September 7, 2015—Just about every year one of our doctoral students approaches me wanting to do a study on why church members leave their congregation. About half the time the motivation behind the study is soon apparent: anxiety from church leaders (the deacons) or anxiety from the pastor. My usual response is to encourage the student toward more interesting research questions and a more worthwhile study. My comment to them is, “People leave the church for 101 reasons. Fifty of them are bad ones and fifty-one are legitimate. In the end, it is their decision to make.”
Researcher and author John S. Savage did not ask my advice about doing research on the issue of what he called the “apathetic and bored church member.” And that is a good thing, because I might have talked him out of writing what turns out to be a helpful book: The Apathetic and Bored Church Member: Psychological and Theological Implications (Pittsford, New York: Lead Consultants, 1976). Savage used psychological and theological determinants in a statistical analysis model to uncover the reasons why once active church members become inactive, less active, or left the church. His interest and concern arose out the declining membership and level of activity in his denomination, but the issue is universal to all denominational bodies.
His model included three test groups from four United Methodist churches in the Western New York Conference. The psychological and behavioral factors used in the model were anger, anxiety, and individuals’ feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Among the theological determinants were the individual’s religious status as it relates to their faith-based decisions, view of God, and use of the Bible.
Even though the research is dated (1976), most of the questions posed remain relevant and contemporary related to the lack of participation in leadership roles in congregations. Savage’s findings indicate significant differences between active and less active church members. The less active test group members were older than the active test group members. They were, among other things, infrequent worshippers, served less on committees, had a higher frequency of change in worship habits, and had difficulty in articulating their faith. In addition, the less active members often did not base their decisions on faith, and held the Bible as a less important book in their lives. One can suspect the same or significantly similar factors to be reasons for the member inactivity today, as the current studies related to the “Nones” and the “Dones” seems to hint.
The author started with the premise that individuals who became inactive or left the church had forfeited their claim on the church and were guilty of sin “in the eyes of God.” However, his research caused him to change this view. He decided that persons who become inactive, bored, or even leave the church do so because they are hurting, angry, struggling, and feel helpless with situations that they perceive to be hopeless. Savage concludes that church leadership must become sensitize to what is going on in the life of the congregants. He recommends training in the areas of team building, listening skills, and a change in the ministry practices as promising remedies to reach inactive church members.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.