Why do people leave the church?

I thought I would jot down some notes on this topic from Stan L. Albrecht, Marie Cornwall and Perry H. Cunningham, “Religious Leave-Taking: Disengagement and Disaffiliation among Mormons,” which is chapter 4 in David G. Bromley, Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy (Newberry Park, California: SAGE Publications, 1988).

The authors begin by noting that religious leave-taking has received far less attention in the sociology of religion than religious conversion, yet all religions experience this phenomenon, even growing ones like the Mormon church. Mormonism has a net advantage when one combines both conversion and disaffiliation, but disaffiliation nevertheless does occur. When people leave, they leave for various destinations: some go to another church, others terminate their religious involvement entirely, and still others cease public participation in the church but still on some level would self-identify as Mormon. In this chapter, the authors look at two processes: disengagement (decreased participation) and disaffiliation (loss or change of organizational identification). This chapter was based on two separate studies.


The authors measured disengagement along two different axes: behavioral (measured by attendance at church at least once a month) and attitudinal (measured by a feeling that the church is important in one’s life). This results in four groups: engaged believers, engaged nonbelievers, disengaged believers and disengaged nonbelievers. The final sample size for the study included over 1,800 members over the age of 18.

Projecting using life tables, they project that 78% of current members will experience a disengagement period of at least a year by the time they turn 65. Of every 100 members, 55 will become disengaged nonbelievers, 19 disengaged believers, and 4 engaged nonbelievers. This means that onlly 22 will remain fully engaged all the way to age 65 without experiencing a period of disengagement.

As disheartening as those statistics are, it is important to recognize that many of those who disengage will return to engagement. For instance, of the 55 who will become disengaged nonbelievers, 31 will return to active engagement status at some point. Based on their projections, by age 65, 66 of every 100 members will be active. Movement among these categories is very fluid and dynamic.

Age is a primary correlate of disengagement among Mormons, with the highest risk period being the late teens to early twenties (about 16 to 25). For adult converts, the highest dropout rate is during the first five years after conversion. The highest return rate begins at about age 20 and extends to 35, after which it drops off. This is correlated with the time when people marry and have children. Not surprisingly, parental socialization is highly correlated with whether children disengage over time; fewer people disengage who were raised in a religiously active home.

As for reasons for disengagement, the authors categorized the reasons given into six categories. Lifestyle reasons came in number one at 54%, with people wanting to spend their limited time and resources on other interests and activities. 40% indicated that they didn’t feel they belonged and 25% reported feeling it didn’t matter to anyone whether they attended or not. About a third gave contextual reasons (movement to a new community where they didn’t get involved, work schedule conflicts, etc.). 23% reported problems with specific doctrines or teachings, and one out of every five reported problems with other members of the congregation Some said the church demanded too much of their time and money, and others that it no longer was a help in finding the meaning in life. Female respondents in particular were affected by marriage to a nonmember spouse.

Of those who returned, more than half indicated a realization that something was missing in their life. Many wanted their children to have a religious background.


This part of the study was based on two state-wide surveys of general religious practice. 59 respondents were found to be former Mormons, which led to 28 in-depth interviews, which became the source for this part of the study. 39% expressed no religious preference, 18% were Catholic and 42% Protestant (heavily weighted towards those who considered themselves generically Christian or Baptist and were “born again” as opposed to mainline denominations).

It was apparent as they interviewed these people that they had always been somewhat marginal in the church. Most had stopped participating in their teen years. The majority was not raised in religious homes.

Typically, these people did not disengage because of a spouse, but rather their choice of spouse reflected the fact that they had already disengaged. In contrast, the decision to disaffiliate was heavily influenced by a spouse. Having children often raised difficult questions about which church they would be raised in.

Similarly to disengagement, doctrinal issues did not play a very large role. Because of their marginal status, most indicated that they really didn’t know very much about what Mormons believed. There was a greater tendency to reject the “norms” of Mormons as opposed to its doctrines: meetings too irreverent, not enough emphasis on Jesus and the Bible, lacking in Christian symbolism (no crosses). Many felt uncomfortable because they were not living according to the teachings of the church. More important than doctrine was a sense of social belonging.

Some conclusions: disaffiliation usually follows a long period of disengagement. Disaffiliation is in part related to a decision to join another church. Family issues and decisions about how children would be raised are paramount. Fellowshipping efforts by those of other congregations were also significant. Doctrinal issues were not central to the disaffiliation process.

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  1. My husband had surgery at the end of Oct and we have been going thrugh a disengaged believer period ever since. It is easy to get in to a habit of missing church, even when you truly believe the doctrine. I think we are about ready to come back to engaged beliver status; at least we both came away from church today with some positive feelings.

    My gut feeling is that this study is pretty accurate.

  2. I wonder if the situation is different today. We are in a recession and I have heard missionaries say that people are more humble and receptive to their message. On the other hand, most members are waiting longer to get married and could therefore be reducing their chance of returning to active engagement status.

    I have met priesthood leaders who would likely deny that 6 out every 7 members who becomes less active will eventually return to church activity by age 65. If they believed this were true, they would likely spend more time working with less-actives. Has the reactivation rate changed over the last two decades?

  3. “There was a greater tendency to reject the “norms” of Mormons as opposed to its doctrines: meetings too irreverent, not enough emphasis on Jesus and the Bible, lacking in Christian symbolism (no crosses).”

    To me this indicates that the missionaries are “converting” too many Protestants and Catholics into members without actually converting them in faith and belief to Mormonism. Then, the Church fails to deliver a Catholic or Protestant experience, which is what these members are looking for, and they are disaffected by it.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, this study is a bit long in the tooth at this point, and some things have changed (such as the church’s growth rate flattening out). It would be great if there were some follow up research.

  5. This study certainly reflects my experience. When I was a teenager attending a priesthood meeting on general conference weekend the speaker asked for everyone that had been inactive for a year or more to please stand. About half or more of the adults in the stake stood up. I have thought a lot about that over the years and I realized faith is alive. It is not that you believe or not and there are times that truth really isn’t the issue it is more about what you have the energy to do. Your engagement is key to belonging.

    Jeff I don’t believe this lack of Christ in the church is coming from converts. I know of a many who have left because of this and they were all born into the church. In the last 2 years after large discussion with inactives and members of other faiths I started to keep track of the number of testimonies that addressed a belief in Christ that lasted more than 1 or 2 sentences and have had 3 testimonies presented. 3 in 2 years that is not very many. A counselor in our stake presidency gave a lesson on how we believe in Christ. He talked about how much we know about Jesus because of Joseph Smith. His lesson was great but he closed with his testimony and never mentioned Jesus at all only JS. Very few people would visit my last 5 wards and walk out with any belief that we were Christians unless they knew we were when they walked in the door.

  6. Natalie B. says:

    I think the distinction between being disengaged and disaffiliating is a very useful one to draw. At some periods of my life, I have longed to take a break from the routine of church, but I don’t feel that Mormons have a way of breaking from the routine without being seen as automatically “inactive” or no longer believing. However, during these moments I did not cease believing; I just felt that the familiarity of the routine was preventing me from growing and feeling the spirit. Note, I never have taken a break from church, but I have thought about why have not acted on the desire to.

    #5 – I tend to agree that Christ is rarely mentioned in church (and, I confess, on this site). I have actually been thinking lately about how I could write posts that focused more on Christ. During the periods when I have wanted to temporarily “disengage” with church, it has always been because I felt somehow threatened by the social norms that exists within Mormonism or frustrated by the social values we currently preach, but spending time on my own reading about Christ and the relative simplicity of his message has always brought me back. It helped me to refocus on what really matters.

  7. Would any church leader ever consider “attends once a month” to be a true threshold of activity? (No matter what our statistics say?)

    Consider all of the non-Sunday events that the Church schedules that (I would assume) a “once-a-month-attender” would not attend.

    Often, RS presidents consider non-enrichment attendance as a measure of inactivity. Youth who don’t attend seminary or youth night are in the same category, often.

    I’m not questioning the value of the study — from what’s been presented, I think the numbers and the analysis are interesting. But I’m not sure about the quantification of behavioral engagement.

  8. I think this study seems to reflect what I have observed and experienced in the church. It’s interesting to have the data.

  9. As for reasons for disengagement … 23% reported problems with specific doctrines or teachings, and one out of every five reported problems with other members of the congregation

    Some conclusions: disaffiliation usually follows a long period of disengagement. Disaffiliation is in part related to a decision to join another church. Family issues and decisions about how children would be raised are paramount. Fellowshipping efforts by those of other congregations were also significant. Doctrinal issues were not central to the disaffiliation process.

    I think these 2 statements are particularly interesting (I chopped the first one to highlight one part). It suggests that people don’t leave the Church because of our stance on homosexuality or gay marriage, but that they might leave over the behavior of members regard to Prop 8 and political concerns…

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    queuno, they had to draw the line somewhere, and I believe that for some purposes the church itself uses the once a month standard to define activity. Also, this was one study in a collection of studies on religious leave-taking in various religious traditions (such as Catholicism), and it is possible that they all used the same standard to facilitate comparing and contrasting info across traditions. (I don’t know, as I only read the Mormon chapter.) But you’re right that many Mormons would draw the “inactive” line at a different place.

  11. StillConfused says:

    This is an interesting post and one that I will re-read. I am definitely in a disengaged status right now. My reasons follow along very well with the ones given – lifestyle reasons – three hours of meeting is torture; definitely don’t feel like I belong (professional single mom); definitely not missed; doctrinal issues – mostly the polygamy/polyandry stuff but also the inability to accept different personalities and lifestyles. (don’t have any issues with anyone so I guess that doesn’t matter) For me, the big hit was when I spoke with someone at the local Jewish Community Center (community organization, not religious, so that may be a factor). There was genuine interest there in me and my family; a sense of belonging, a sense of caring, a sense of interest.

    I have not yet attended a Jewish service, and after reading this, that may be because I am not interested in disaffiliation yet.

  12. Kevin – I agree, you have to draw it somewhere. Do the same observations hold if we consider why Brother and Sister X only comes to Sacrament Meeting once a month, but not anything else?

  13. Once per month is standard in religious sociology studies.
    The findings seem realistic. Doctrine never matters much in actual studies of joining or leaving.
    My friends mostly seem to have disaffiliated because their identity as thoughtful participants in urban elite life was much stronger and more natural than identity as Mormons. Some also felt that guilt-shame rhetoric had been toxic in their lives. As poorly as I fit in (and as much as I do fit in as an urban Progressive) I could never shake the sense that God wants me Mormon. I still can’t.

  14. DisengagedButNotDisaffiliated says:

    The reasons for disengagement obviously allowed for more than one reason to be given by each interviewee, as the percentages add up to way more than 100%. I wonder what the answers would have been if those who become disengaged had to identify one main reason?

    And with regards to those who become disaffiliated, it would appear that folks who disengage at an older age, never really disaffiliate. Particularly if one grew into adulthood as an active, believing member. At some point does one cross a threshold where you will always consider yourself a Mormon, no matter what your level of engagement? A cultural Mormon, if you will, like a non-religious Jew?

    I am now a middle-aged adult who no longer believes in the central tenets of Mormonism, but having grown up very active, with a still very active extended family I still consider myself Mormon to some degree. And I’m still interested in much of the cultural and intellectual aspects of Mormonism. And as long as I don’t formally remove myself from membership I wouldn’t answer a survey calling myself a “former mormon.” But I am a disengaged nonbeliever.

    So it would appear to me that that the first listed conclusion needs a caveat; disaffiliation usually follows a long period of disengagement if that disengagement begins when young. But the section on disengagement states that ~60% of disengaged unbelievers return to engagement. What happens to the 40% who don’t? What percentage remain disengaged unbelievers, and what percentage disaffiliate?

  15. Interesting study–thanks for sharing. The statistics pretty much line up with what I’ve seen in my life in terms of when and why people leave, and why they come back (though I do know a few people who left in part over doctrinal issues).

    Kevin–I know at least one former RS president who considered someone active if they participated quarterly.

  16. Interesting. We had some friends who said they were leaving the church rather vocally about five years ago, for very specific and well-articulated doctrinal issues, picked up specifically from an evangelical group. However, it was obvious that some social dynamics had not played out very well either. Surprisingly, they have gone back to church. Originally they said it was for their son to have a religious community, but they are fully engaged, accepting callings and looking to go back to the temple. I’m still dazzled by what appears to be a miracle.

  17. jjohnsen says:

    My wife and I had a year of disengagement early in our marriage. We were in a ward that everyone was at last 5 years older than us and every activity seemed geared toward families with children. So we took some time off.

    The break was awesome, though being active is awesome too.

  18. Kevin, you’re right that the study is a bit old. I’d speculate that the rise of the internet might have increased the importance of what you’ve discussed as doctrinal concerns, as people who for whatever non-doctrinal reason start feeling a bit negative toward the church can now efficiently and easily pair that feeling with a list of rationales — a situation that may well make otherwise transient moments of disaffection more lasting. Obviously, data would be needed; it seems that this study exists on the other side of a generational divide that may mark a turning point in causal patterns.

  19. clarkgoble says:

    Like Kevin I’d love to see a followup given that by the late 90’s many trends had changed. Likewise the relatively recent focus on maintaining members probably would have an effect.

    Also I’d second those who ask for why. I’ve not been to Church since January because my kids have been sick and my wife is Primary President and has to go. So I get stuck taking care of the kids. (Although I was the one sick yesterday) Am I inactive? I don’t think I am, but I wonder how the statistics go.

  20. Thanks for the brief synopsis. I think reading about studies like this can also help people move away from the mentality that people leave the Church because they sin, or want to sin.

  21. Kevin: I’d be interested in your opinion as to what this study means in terms of who to target for activation efforts and home-teaching among the inactive. Do you feel like there are any key-indicators one could take away from this study as to where to place retention efforts?

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt, I think one take-away point is the need for social integration, whether of new converts or new move-ins. We don’t pay nearly as much attention to this as we should.

    When I moved into the area where I currently lived (a long time ago), the ward had a thing called “dinner groups,” where every other month we would get together with maybe a half-dozen other couples for dinner in someone’s home. There were always two groups, which rotated, so you had a base of people you got to know really well and over time you got to meet everyone in a social situation outside of church. That really greased the skids for our integration into the ward. I think that sort of thing is much more important than flogging people to do their hometeaching of hard core inactives, which is a misplaced allocation of scarce resources in my view.

  23. If the unit is small enough, and if you move in from far away, it’s always possible that you/your family will be in a demographic dead zone–that there really will be no one like you/your family. It may not be possible to truly integrate into the branch/ward, and you need to find other reasons to go. It’s nice when people are nice to you–don’t get me wrong–but there is no substitute for those who are in the same lifespace and share your tastes and politics.

  24. Red Emma, so true! It’s also, of course, a function of your family’s own demographics. The farther you are from the “median Mormon,” the more likely the experience you describe, I think.

  25. I’m with J #18, I believe the Internet is likely to have changed a lot of things in the decades since 1988. I think this study is more than long in the tooth, I think it’s so out of date as to be mostly no longer useful. It would be really interesting to replicate it now and see how things have changed. I wonder if this study could still be published today, by BYU professors anyhow?

  26. Natalie B. says:

    #16 – Right. One of my initial questions about the survey is what kind of overlap there is between people who leave for doctrinal reasons and people who leave because they don’t feel they “fit.” I suspect that these issues often go together, but I wonder if people are more comfortable articulating one than the other.

    I would echo the remarks others are making about the need to integrate people into each ward. My periods of strongest engagement have definitely been a consequence of feeling appreciated in the ward I attended. When I feel unwanted, I stop trying to contribute. I guess the message is to move to wards where the people are like you!

    One concrete suggestion that I head expressed yesterday was to have more adult-only activities for ward members. Adults often have very few built-in opportunities to socialize as a group without the presence of children outside of RS activities (which only covers the women!). But, I think adults are in need of friendship, too. I know adult-only activities are hard on people with kids, but only doing activities that include kids excludes those without them just as much.

  27. Natalie B.,
    While I get what you’re saying, why does it have to be an either-or choice? We recently had a very successful ward activity–a dance for adults with babysitting provided in the nursery. By 9:00 pm, most of the kids had migrated into the dance. Nobody seemed to mind, and it gave me some time with my kids (in the nursery room), some time with my wife and other adults (in the dance) and some time with all of the above.

    Frankly, we don’t have a lot of low-price options around here for babysitting. Frankly, I’m not going to waste my limited babysitting money/karma on a ward activity–if I have a babysitter, we’re going to a nice restaurant.

  28. Many other denominations have no such expectations of membership. People come, and go, and find someplace they like to worship. When that place changes, the move on to some other place. The common Mormon attitude is that “the church equals our church.” Other denominations have an attitude closer to “the church equals all the believes in Christ.” We mormons tend to be so hung up on the exactness, that we don’t see how someone could be only focusing on the core of the gospel (i.e. Christ’s atonement). In fact, we often find it odd when an entire meeting would focus on Jesus Christ, instead of some other gospel principle or church behavior.

  29. Thomas Parkin says:

    While I strongly agree that there isn’t enough emphasis on Christ, or His gospel, in the week to week conversation of the church, there is a lot more to understanding Christ than in saying “Jesus” a lot. When we are talking about His doctrine, and especially faith, repentance, etc. we ARE talking about Him.

    I attended a block this last week in which Jesus’ name wasn’t mentioned more than handful of times, if that. But the conversation in all three meetings was marked by teaching principles that are in Christ, and were accompanied by the Holy Spirit and the eye and heart opening and edification that implies, and so to my mind we were conversing about Christ even if that wasn’t constantly made explicit.

    The problem is in keeping the center at the center. All the speculating, grousing, wondering, hurting, entertaining, all of it that goes on in the bloggernacle, is beneficial, and wonderful, if we understand and are living the gospel and keeping that central. If the kind of things that the bloggernacle does becomes central, then the battle is already lost. ~

  30. Natalie B.: “Have more adult-only activities for ward members. … I know adult-only activities are hard on people with kids, but only doing activities that include kids excludes those without them just as much.”

    I agree that adult-only activities are probably a welcome change of pace for most people, and of course the reason it doesn’t happen as often is babysitting logistics. But I don’t see how with-kids activities excludes people without children to the same degree that no-kids activities would exclude people with children. If someone decides not to go to a with-kids activity, it might be for reasons of discomfort or disinterest, which can hopefully be ameliorated by support and a positive attitude. But if someone decides not to go to a no-kids activity, it seems most likely that it’s because they can’t—they don’t have the money or means of leaving their kids for an evening.

  31. I guess my point is, I can see why we tend to default to with-kids activities.

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