Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.– Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)
Picture this: you’re out on a Sabbath afternoon hike. As you’re walking along the main path, you see another path that trails up a steep incline. Your son begs you to take the alternate path, imploring that you could see all sorts of new exciting things along the way.
In that moment, you have two choices: take the path you can see – the path of least resistance, or take a path that you cannot see but that has untapped possibility. Which would you take?
According to research on retention, done by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (2014), over half (50.7%) of lapsed and former church members had attended the Seventh-day Adventist Church for five or more years before leaving. With this amount of time spent in the church, we must ask – why did church members who started off so strong in their relationships with the Church and invest so much time ultimately leave?
In a recent study (2013) conducted by the Center for Creative Ministry, former and inactive Seventh-day Adventists were asked what contributed to leaving the church the most. The top three reasons cited for dropping out of the Adventist Church were:
- No big issue – just drifted away (28%)
- Lack of compassion for the hurting (25%)
- Moral failure on my part (19%)
For over a quarter of those who left, there was no earth-shattering event that turned them away from the Church. They simply drifted away. They took the path of least resistance.
A study conducted by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research asked what event triggered former members’ decision to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The most significant reasons respondents gave for leaving were:
- Perceived hypocrisy in other church members
- Marital difficulties
- Lack of friends in the church
- Family conflicts other than within marriages
- High level of conflict in local church
- Personal conflict with local church members
For many Seventh-day Adventists, their local church did not prove a loving and supporting community. When they experienced conflict or difficulties, they stopped attending church—and often nobody noticed they had left.
We are not promised an easy road when we become Christians. Jesus is clear about this when He says, “The road is narrow.” However, what is our responsibility as members of the body of Christ in creating guardrails for our fellow members to keep them from drifting away? Knowing that about one quarter of those leaving the church perceived a lack of compassion for hurting people, what could we do to shift that perception? Further, what could be our part in helping someone who recognizes their failures to make the changes they need for reconciliation? How can we support those who are struggling morally or facing marital difficulties, ensuring that they are not isolated? What can be done to train our members to resolve conflicts in a Christ-like way? Let us remember that Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). It should be our mission, too.
To read further:
Survey of Former and Inactive Church Members
2015 General Conference Session Report: Membership Audits and Losses (PDF)
2015 General Conference Session Report: Membership Audits and Losses (PowerPoint)
Retention and Reclamation: A Priority For the World Church
Leaving the Church
Created in collaboration with the Institute of Church Ministry.