Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Where’s the exit: Speaking Up or Leaving the Church

Written by: on October 16, 2013

A couple of years ago a church in our area had a pastoral change. The new pastor brought fresh energy and a desire to reach out to the community. Within a few weeks of taking the role, people became uneasy about his preaching style. It was more topical; less focused on scripture and did not match the perceived depth of the precious pastor. The so-called outreach focus left many unsettled. Some people began to look elsewhere. Then it was announced that the church was going to do a Halloween event for the neighborhood. Children came with “spooky” costumes that were unnerving for some of the children and parents of the church, many began to leave. Some visited our church for awhile. A couple became friends. They tell me some have settled into new churches, but many a floating without a church home. This is so common. Church members become unsatisfied and go looking for another church. It is the dilemma of whether to speak up and have a voice in the church, whether to exit. It tests of loyalties.

The questions this raises are, what holds organizations together? Why do some people complain so loudly when something seems amiss and others keep quiet? Why do some just quietly disappear? These are vital questions for any organization. When it comes to what holds the church together, they cannot be ignored.

In so may congregations in the U.S. there are large transitions going on. Changes are happening in the middle of both complaint and approval and compromise. Week after week we have new guests check out our church. They have chosen to leave their previous church that has changed in ways in which they do not approve. So they go looking. None come complaining but most exit as soon as they come. Why do they not stay? We as a church may need to improve in some areas. But more likely they want a church that we are not. How do I know that? They have told us. Some have stuck around and have said what they didn’t care for in their other church. I have said, “We will never be the church you were, but if you feel called to help us be the church we sense the Lord has called us to, then please join us.”

Then there are those who have voiced complaints about the church. Most of this has happened before I have some. Why did they complain? Why did some exit? After reading the book Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States by Albert O. Hirschman some clarity came to mind. My conclusion is that people with the most invested in the church are the most likely to speak up. Hirschman states that, “loyalty holds exit at bay and activates voice.” (78) Those who are just checking out the church will either stay of make a quiet exit. But there does come a point for the loyal attenders when “enough is enough” and they leave.

But a bigger question arises. Why do people in churches settle for less than optimum potential? Why do people live with the boredom of a church in decline? Hirschman states that this is because they feel they do not have to. Until there is a critical decline, where the pastor(s) leave or the church declines to the point of impending demise, real change does not happen. Voice of complaint may be raised, but not about keeping the church healthy and engaging but steady and unchanging. In my present church, the naysayers about music style, preaching content or declining numbers have either exited or kept their voices quiet. Partly, this is due to an increase of attendance and partly because of a new atmosphere of care.

What is a part of any church, Hirschman notes, is the tendency to organizational slack. Slack is “continuously being generated as some sort of entropy characteristic of human, surplus-producing societies.” The reaction to slack is often to try to retrieve an ideal from the past life of the church instead of negotiation for the future health.

Today for consumer minded churchgoers, exit is increasingly becoming the norm. A Lifeway research project from 2006 stated that 42% of people leave church because another church had more appealing options. (See below) Church leaders are alarmed at the increasing number of young adults that are taking the exit option. David Kinnaman calls them “Nomads”, young adults adrift with no faith community they call their own. Young people, according to a recent Barna report, leave church for reasons from churches being overprotective to unfriendly to those with doubts.

There is no room for slack. Loyalty has shifted from past generations where exit was less acceptable. Many people are loyal for consumer reasons. Church is viewed as being a “need-meeting” organization. But, despite all of our consumeristic tendencies, relational connections and an inclusive environment can generate loyalty again. What we cannot do is slack in the essentials of what Christ called us to be. The command to “love one another” still stands and challenges us to move past a feel good religion to one that cares for its members. Why people are exiting the church may be posed wrong. It can start with the church and church leaders focusing on church preservation. At the You Lost Me Conference young adult leaders as pastors and business people were given voice. One particular young lady who was in business expressed what I found a very telling thing. “Don’t view us as a statistic or a problem to be fixed. We do not want to be the target of a new strategy. We want to be included, valued and loved.” Now that resonated with me.

Question: How do we do this? Perhaps if we give them more voice they will not exit.

USA Today, July 31, 2007. “Dissatisfaction, Yearning make church goers switch.”


Patheos Blog, December 23,2011. Barna Survey on Young Adults Leaving the Church


About the Author

Fred Fay

Leave a Reply