Why People Don't Go to Church

In my experience, there is often a profound confusion among church leaders about why people don’t, or do, go to church. Here are some necessary points of clarity.

First, God designed humans with primal, basic needs. This was the main thesis of much of Abraham Maslow’s work several decades ago. You need to embrace this fact. Really. This is the most important fact of this essay. Understand this: people—you and me—Christians and non-Christians—are constantly making choices in life because it meets at least one need.

Why don’t people come to your church? Because you don’t meet their needs.

Why do people stay in your church? Because you are meeting their needs.

I absolutely guarantee it.

How do I know it? Because that’s how humans are wired by God. I didn’t design humans; I didn’t make this up.

What is so shocking is how overwhelmingly oblivious church leaders can be concerning this fact of human behavior. We humans make choices every single day to get our needs met.

Ask yourself: Have you accepted reality that people make decisions to get their needs met?

Second, there are needs people know they have and needs they don’t know they have. And it is crucial to understand both. For example, my son doesn’t know he has a need to study hard now in fifth grade so that he will do well in high school and university (even though I’ve told him that several times). My son doesn’t know that’s a need, of course, because he can’t grasp the future as a child.

He has this need; he’s just not aware of this need. He is aware that he has other needs, like eating, sleeping, drinking, etc.

The same is true of those who go to church. We can tell non-Christians all day long until our nose bleeds that they “have a need to know Jesus and be forgiven and join our incredible community of believers…” The only problem is, they don’t care. In general, they are not aware of that need. They really don’t care about those supposed needs.

Maybe you’re still in denial about this. But you need to accept it…and fast. Previous generations held a general sense of morality and doing the “right thing.” In general, the younger generations in our country (at least) do not believe in universal morality. They do not fear judgment from God. They don’t believe in God. They’re not living in guilt or shame. They deliberately hang out with other people who behave like they do, feel complete social acceptance, and continue to behave how they want. They are not guilt-ridden. They are not seeking grace. They are not looking for “religion.” (I just heard a few days ago—again!—how this person “hated religion.”)

And just like my son and his homework, we can tell people they have needs all day long. It doesn’t mean they are really aware, and really feel, those needs. Why does my son do his homework? Because I can discipline him if he doesn’t. He respects my authority. He’s afraid of being grounded. I guarantee you it’s not because he feels a deep need to prepare for his adulthood. And we have no authority over the non-Christian like that. You can threaten them hell…but that only works for a small minority of people. (Not to mention how absurd that “marketing campaign” would be!) When we threaten people with a “you’ll be sorry if you don’t!” message to get them to our churches, you’ll just scare them off and aver their attitude toward the Church they already have.

Ask yourself: Are you aware that the people who come to your church have needs they are aware of and needs they are not aware of? What are you doing to address those needs in each category? Are you desperately trying to convince them of their needs? How’s that working?

Third, you could (a) list several needs that are common to every human, and (b) list certain needs that particular generations have. Let’s think about both points:

(a) What are some common human needs? This is where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is so helpful (even if you might nuance each category differently). Maslow never used a pyramid. Yet, the pyramid picture is helpful because it reminds us of how fewer and fewer people achieve the “higher order” needs.

(b) And while there are numerous needs common to all people, there are also specific needs to different generations. And, I know…I know…of course, generalities and stereotypes exist whenever we talk about what an entire generation of people think or feel. So, I’m aware that not every single person fits these categories. Yet, these categories are still helpful. (Here is a helpful overview.)

Here’s some quick examples for church work: Those born before the 70s and 80s (called “The Silent” generation and then the “Baby Boomer” generation) have the needs

  • To build institutions that last (which means they love buildings and pews and chairs and rooms)

  • To leave a “legacy” (which means they love placards and bricks with their names on it; and to tell younger generations about what they’ve built)

  • To follow social etiquette established by their parents and authority figures (which means they can feel very guilty if they break the “rules” within the church, like “not running” or “not wearing your Sunday-best clothes” or “not being completely quiet and still during the sermon”)

  • To feel safe by establishing stability, traditions, and patterns

  • To be identified by their involvement in a peer group (especially peer groups that are respected—the more “institutionalized” the better)

  • To be certain in what they believe and a sense of having it “figured out”

Those born during and after the 1980s (called Generation X, then Y, then Z) have the needs

  • To question the usefulness and integrity of institutions (which means they have no loyalty in maintaining or paying for the very institutions their parents and grandparents built—seen any empty church buildings lately?)

  • To be involved in “causes” that help (like orphans, endangered animals, widows, AIDS victims, homeless, etc.) regardless if those causes are related to a church at all because it gives them a purpose and meaning in life (and because it’s “cool” to support causes)

  • To be accepted just as they are (which means they really, really disdain any hint of judgment or condemnation)

  • To be adaptable to the culture at large (This is crucial! They are more influenced by social media and Hollywood than churches or institutions; being “uncool” or not modern is very embarrassing)

  • To experience things (i.e., more feeling than simply thinking about, which is why they are more open to charismatic traditions; for more click here)

  • To express their individuality, even if they do have some need to be in a peer group (which also means they are supremely confident that they can “find God” or meaning/purpose apart from the Church; they believe they can do “spirituality” all on their own)

  • To doubt what they believe/not have it all figured out (For statistical proof of what I’m saying, see here; also read the book, Generation iY)

(**If you didn’t already, now you see why the generations squabble over the style of worship? Each side approaches the issue with different needs to be met and judges anyone else who doesn’t see it their way. You could say the same about paying the bills on the building, the color of the carpet, whether or not your preacher wears a tie, and on and on the generational battles rage. The real sad part of the battles is this: every generation dies off. Is your church headed for complete closure in 10, 20, or 50 years because of your refusal to adapt at all to the different generational needs?)

Ask yourself: Could you list common human needs? Have you ever gone over them with your staff? Volunteers? Are you aware that the different generations in your church, while they have commonalities in their needs, also have radically different needs that are effecting the direction of your church? Are you aware that the needs of your people significantly affect the kind of people they accept into the church? Does your church’s vision represent those needs? Does every single sermon explicitly address those needs at some point?

Fourth, people might come to your church to meet certain needs; but they might stay in your church to meet other needs. This distinction matters much (at minimum in the way you market your church!)

Much could be said about this, but here’s a quick example. Using point #3 above…

Younger generations chiefly come to a church because they were invited by someone who was “cool” or “normal,” or they were seeking out meaning/purpose/God (all related to them), or they wanted to join a cause associated with the church. (This means they do not usually come because of a sense of social obligation, because they want to leave a legacy, because they have such a positive view of the church or Christians, etc..)

They will be intrigued by their visit if they feel (1) safe/not judged (i.,e., accepted as they are; not expected to change their clothes or whatever to be accepted; they will call this “friendly” if you ask them); (2) entertained by their experience (i.e., their senses are tantalized by modern visual images and logos, modern-sounding music, etc.); and (3) hear a message from a preacher that sounds inviting, speaks of meaning and purpose, and addresses their real-world issues they face every day (like divorce, relationships, money, job struggles, etc.). They need to understand how God, the Bible, the Church interacts with their daily routines and with real issues in the world. (For statistical proof of what I’m saying, click here.)

If all of those things happen, and finally, they make some honest-to-God, authentic relationships with people, they’ll stay. Once they get involved in the church, they will discover their sin and need for forgiveness. All the while, their generational needs never go away. They have just come to realize all the other needs they have that are only met within Christianity (like the need to receive forgiveness, the need to worship God, the need to receive moral accountability, etc.).

So, in general, why do people join a church? Because it meets certain needs they feel they have. So, in general, why do people not join church? Because they do not believe the church will meet their needs. (It doesn’t matter if they can articulate their needs! They have them whether or not they can articulate them.) To say it once more: to outside people, churches are just irrelevant. They get their needs met in other ways.

So…

If you’re stuck in a church that continues to squabble about whether or not they call it “Sunday School” or whether or not the music is a “rock concert,” then your situation is dim indeed. It might mean that your church, and perhaps its leaders, are unaware of the role needs play in the church's life. Worse still, it might mean that your church has become irrelevant.

What is your church doing to address the needs of your people?

What are your needs? How are you getting them met at church?