Why don't people come to church? A Texas pastor asked them

Ask any group in your church: "Why do people not come to worship? What keeps people away from church?" You might hear:

• "We need a better youth program."

• "We have to have a different style of worship service."

• "We need to advertise."

• "If only we had a nursery for young children."

The rallying cries will begin. Usually they center around programs. If the church could just provide better programs, or more programs, people would begin to come back to church. Occasionally you will hear about preferences — about the time or worship style. Then there is the question of staff: those who think that if the right person were pastor, director of Christian education or worship director, people would come flooding through the doors.

These are the answers that church people give when they try to figure out why people don't go to church. Friends, we could not be more wrong.


I recently spent a week using social media to "listen" to people who do not go to church — listening to their explanations for why they stay away. I didn't argue with them. I didn't defend the church. I just listened. And what I heard broke my heart.

The No. 1 thing that keeps people away from the church is the people who are in the church.

Outside of our doors, there is a multitude of people who have been hurt by people in the church. They have been judged for not looking the way we wanted them to look. They have been judged for making mistakes and for choosing to live lives that look different from ours. They have heard the people who worship on Sunday say hateful things on Monday. They have witnessed the followers of the Prince of Peace spreading malicious gossip against their "brothers and sisters."

It's not that people outside the church have low expectations of Christians. It's the opposite. They expect us to actually live out the things we proclaim on Sunday. They expect us to love our neighbor, care for the least of these and love our enemies.

They have high expectations for us, and we have disappointed them. Instead they have been insulted, hurt and broken by us.

Programs are at the bottom of the list for why people don't come to church. One step above that are questions of preference and style. But far and away, the top of the list is dominated by the behavior of people who bear the name of Jesus.

We can change the time of our worship. We can change the style of our worship. We can buy full page ads in the newspaper. We can add programs for youth and families and elders and couples. None of it will matter. Not one bit.

It will not make a bit of difference until we begin to live out the things we proclaim on Sundays. The church won't grow until we learn to treat one another with love and respect at congregational and council meetings.

The church won't grow until we learn to love and value people who look and sound different from us. The church won't grow until we begin to love others the way Jesus has first loved us.

There are people out there who are hungry for God's love but have been too hurt and disappointed by "church people."

And yet there is good news. There is hope.

The No. 1 reason people come back to church is also because of the people in the church. The No. 1 reason people begin worshiping with a new congregation is because they have been made to feel welcomed and loved by someone in that church.

If you and I are the problem, we are also the solution. The way forward seems easy and straightforward to me. It is also uncomfortable and unpleasant. But I will begin.

If you have been hurt by the church, if you have been made to feel unwelcome, if you have been judged, I am sorry. If by my words or by my life I've made you feel like you are unloved, or that you can't trust Christians, I am sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry.


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