A recent study from Lifeway Research revealed that the primary reason most church-going Americans say they left one church for another, and the top reason isn’t that they didn’t like the pastor’s preaching. The study surveyed 1,001 U.S. adults who identify as non-denominational or Protestant, attend church at least twice a month, and attend more than one church as an adult. Here are some reasons why churchgoers changed churches.

A residential move.

Researchers found that 60 percent of respondents changed their church due to a residential move. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, says the real reason churchgoers and pastors talk about those who switch churches is because it’s not a trivial number of people changing churches. Still, chronic church switching isn’t the norm.

The most significant group of churchgoers are those who’ve been at the same church their entire life, and the next biggest group are those whose church changes were required by moving too far to attend their previous church. The majority of study respondents said the main reason they switched their church was a residential move, but some minorities also mentioned other reasons unrelated to moving.

The church made changes.

Almost 29 percent of churchgoers said they changed congregations because their initial church changed in a way they didn’t like. A similar percentage said they left because they felt the church wasn’t fulfilling their needs. Another 26 percent said they became dissatisfied with their pastor, while an additional 26 percent said the disappointment was with the church.

Disagreements over teachings or politics.

At 22 percent, nearly a quarter of respondents highlighted disagreements over politics or other teachings that led them to leave a congregation. Almost 18 percent cited personal life changes, while 13 percent blamed COVID-19-related issues and the subsequent lockdowns. Two percent of respondents cited church closures and other issues like belief changes toward religion and church for leaving their church. According to McConnell, the average person changing churches has numerous reasons for making the change.

He said, broadly speaking, people leave a church when they are disgruntled or disagree with the church’s positions, or they disagree with a change, and he believes it’s less common to see people leaving due to their religious beliefs changing.

A decrease in church membership.

America is still a highly religious nation, with seven in 10 claiming affiliation with some type of organized religion. However, according to a 2021 Gallup analysis, for the first time in almost 80 years, fewer than half of Americans say they have formal membership in a specific house of worship. In his analysis of data from the General Social Survey of five-year time spans where individuals were born from 1965 to 1984, Ryan Burge, pastor of First Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, the data showed that younger generations raised in the church weren’t typically returning to church in comparison with members of the” baby boomer” generation.

For those concerned with church growth, Burge says this information should sound an alarm. He explained that many pastors are standing in the pulpit on Sunday and see fewer of their former youth group members returning to church when they move to their late 20s and early 30s. He added that no church should assume that this critical part of the population will return to active membership like their parents did.

The best ways to retain church members.

With fewer and fewer people returning to church each week, how can churches retain more members? The first step you can take is to offer a welcome to all guests. For most people, this is the most genuine moment they’ll experience at your church. So whether it’s a pastor or a layperson, introduce yourself by name and share something about yourself, like how long you’ve been part of the community, how you’re connected, or your role in the church. You could also carve out time in your service for other members to welcome guests and make them feel comfortable.

Another step you could take is to connect people with the heart of your church. Every church has a heart or a thing that they’re all about. It’s not only Jesus but how your church expresses itself in your community and the Kingdom of God. Share why you keep coming back to this church with your guests. However, if you or other members can’t answer that question, there’s an opportunity for self-reflection. You could also share your expectations. Your guests knew they were coming to church today, and they would hear about Jesus, so there’s no need to beat around the bush or mince words: give them Jesus.

However, your guests want to know their next steps and how, so spell it out for them. Don’t beg or give them 20,000 options. Instead, give them a straightforward step to take if they’ve enjoyed their experience. For example, you could tell them that you would love to hear about their experience and direct them to fill out a connection card and drop it in the offering plate. This method could vary depending on how your church collects contact information. Your church may prefer to call, email, or send a card. No matter how you get it, get their contact information and follow up.

At the end of your welcome message, answer the “why” or “what’s in it for me?” questions. This sets expectations and gives you another line of defense for getting information if they didn’t fill in the card. Greeters can also start establishing relationships with guests, which goes a long way.

Although the primary reason that some people change churches is due to a residential move, others feel that physically going to church is unnecessary. However, there’s something to be said about being gathered in a house of worship and praising God with other believers. If you’re having issues retaining membership, try using these methods and watch your numbers increase.

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