Albert O. Hirschman’s book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States is a complex work that defines the choices people have when the organization, state or firm no longer is operating to the expectations of its clients or consumers. Hirshman promotes three basic choices from the consumer. First, they can both exit and take their business or support elsewhere. Secondly, they can oppose the changes through dissent within the organization. Thirdly, they can remain loyal although they may still not embrace the changes.
There are several parallels between what Hirschman presents for organizations and church life. Over the past several years, research has proven that the church in America is in decline. Some would say steep decline. A study from churchleaders.com states,
“The actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40 percent the pollsters report. Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7 percent of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend.Another study published in 2005 in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler—known for their scholarly research on the church—backs up his findings. Their report reveals that the actual number of people worshipping each week is closer to Olson’s 17.7 percent figure—52 million people instead of the pollster-reported 132 million (40 percent).
If this research is accurate, then it makes Hirschman’s work even timelier given the fact that the recent past has put church attendance to closer to 40%. While Gallup still reports that number that has been relatively the same for the past 70 years, the concept of what true participation within the church has changed. It is no longer that weekly attendance is the norm, but rather monthly is the typical average. What this tells us is that people have migrated from the church, and it is an afterthought for many.
I think Hirschman’s book should make us take a sobering look at the church. Why are people exiting? Why are people dissatisfied with the church? This is the question that I think every pastor is trying to answer. Here is my crack at it and maybe it will help stop the exodus in your ministry context.
I believe the church has by and large stopped being the church. In others words we have traded our essential mission, making disciples, and have shifted to filling pews. In other words, we have stopped being life giving. We instead have become pop-psychologists. We no longer preach the inerrant word, but rather we use sermonettes that trade truth for opinion. When our approach is no longer life transformation, then we no longer are useful as an organization. As preachers we are to be Moses speaking on behalf of God to the people. When the people leave our churches they should know that they have come into contact with God either through Word or worship and hopefully both.
People are exiting because they can find what the church offers somewhere else. If they want pop-psychology, then Oprah and Dr. Phil do it better. If they want social justice, then they feel more useful at a secular institution. If they want political rants, then Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN have us beat. If we want to stop the exit and produce great loyalty, then we must have a fresh word of God for everyone who walks in the door weekly. Then and only then will we be able to stop the exit.