Beef up outreach. Emphasize evangelism. Plant more churches. Polish the marketing.

None of this is reversing the overall trend of church decline. Even when a church attracts new members it doesn’t grow. Why?

It can’t add people fast enough to make up for the legions slipping out the back door.

They are the Dones–those who are done with organized church. New research reveals the enormity of the back-door effect. Sociologist Josh Packard, as a follow-up to his book Church Refugees, conducted a new national study through the Social Research Lab to determine the size, make-up and motivations of the formerly churched population in the United States.

The survey results are stunning. Some 31 percent of the entire U.S. adult population was once churched and now has dropped out and disconnected from any organized church. That’s a population of 65 million adults.

With that kind of exodus, it’s difficult for any church to back-fill, much less show a net gain. And this phenomenon affects churches of all sizes and types. Even megachurches, long cited as models of numerical growth, deal with the gaping back door. Few of these church leaders reveal their attrition numbers, but they quietly talk about the revolving door effect. One who has spoken out is Mark Batterson, senior pastor of the large National Community Church. He has admitted that his church sees 40 percent turnover per year. “We have to grow 40% to break even,” he said.

ColanderChurches are facing a colander effect. They can attempt to turn on the faucet of incoming members. But if the people are draining out the bottom at a fluid rate, those colander churches can’t keep up. All of the local and national chatter about outreach and evangelism may be well-intended. But until churches sincerely address the back door problem, overall attendance gains are unlikely.

Leaders in the business world face similar issues. They often consider customer health and potential in two buckets–acquisition and retention. They will tell you that acquisition of new customers is typically far more expensive and difficult than retention of existing customers. And the better they do with customer retention the more likely they are to see overall growth. That’s why successful businesses are passionate about knowing their customers, their attitudes, and, if they leave, what caused them to walk away.

Exodus of the Religious DonesSociologist Packard has quantified why some of the church’s most active and generous members are leaving. He describes the reasons in Church Refugees and in the new research report Exodus of the Religious Dones. Here’s the good news: these reasons for leaving are fixable. If a church is willing to seriously address them. They’re factors such as teaching style, stifling bureaucracy, and excessive judgmentalism.

For church leaders who wish to slow the flow of people out the back door, here are some suggestions:

Drop the defensiveness. Stop blaming the Dones, or labeling their concerns as excuses, or dismissing them as consumer shoppers, or trashing them as “nominal” Christians. None of this defensive finger-pointing will change anything; it will only distract you from making changes that can make a real difference.

Learn why people are leaving. Read the research mentioned above to understand overall attrition trends.  And contact your people who drift away. Conduct exit interviews with them. Listen, without defending. The object is not to bait them into returning. The object is to learn and prevent future defections.

Make healthy changes. Address those factors that are causing people to walk away. Fix these things before investing in more new member acquisition tactics. Healthy disciple-making starts with those in the flock.

Packard’s new research also uncovered another chilling reality–the large number of active churchgoers who say they’re “this close” to leaving. I’ll describe them and their characteristics in my next article.