A friend asked me why people leave churches in Africa. My 14 years in Africa is a very limited perspective, but my friends from around the world can perhaps add to my weak thoughts. Remember, my thoughts are reflective of urban areas, not small villages.
1. People leave churches because of urban growth and sprawl.
Live in any city in Africa, and the urban explosion is crazy. So is traffic. Increasingly, professionals who are working long hours all week no longer want to make the long drive back into town on the weekend to attend a city church.
Recently Mavuno Church in Nairobi moved quite a ways down the highway. A large group didn’t move with them. Physical realities often determine where people go to church. The Ocean International Community Church moved away from a major hub on public transport and we saw a 15% decrease in people. Location, Location, Location.
2. People leave because they want more than 3 sermons.
In every church gatherings, there are 3 groups of people. Non-believers, new disciples and older believers. Yet with the evangelical focus on conversion, there is little emphasis on life and growth in discipleship. Marriage, family, finances (other than admonitions to tithe), what Paul calls “The full counsel of God” are not part of the spiritual diet of the church and it leaves long term believers hungry. Yet Salvation, prayer and Baptism in the Holy Spirit seem to be a large part of the spiritual fare. Throw in “blessings” teachings and that’s about it.
One reality is that many times in urban areas, the education level of the many congregants exceeds that of the pastor. If the pastor is consistently growing and developing, that isn’t an issue. However, when the people are growing and the pastor is not, a disconnect is created. The great creeds, the fundamental beliefs and other areas of deeper teaching are neglected for rapid growth.
3. People leave because of entrenched leadership.
Our church was a very young church. Consistently, one of the complaints I heard from these passionate young people was that older leaders did not make room for them at the top in other churches. I think the reality of the “priesthood of all believers”-including young ones- is missing in some areas.
4. People leave because of sin.
The African church can sometimes be harsh, but sin is often more publicly dealt with. Like anywhere, believers will often flee from rebuke rather than embracing it. Others that I know left churches because of the double standard that wealthy people lived under. Because of their financial influence, leadership would overlook clear sins issues. In one example, a church failed to discipline an elder who was publicly known to have a mistress. The elder was able to continue to serve communion.
Honestly, this isn’t an African issue. This is a global challenge.
5. People leave because they are drawn to personalities.
Western church is not the only place where there is a cult of personality, not focused on Jesus but rather flamboyant preachers.
When the presence of God isn’t real, believers follow personalities instead.
6. People leave because God wants them elsewhere.
Local churches are not the end goal. Local churches are part of the larger Kingdom of God, and sometimes God clearly reassigns certain people to different areas of ministry.