It must grieve our heavenly Father to see people stop attending church. The parables of the lost sheep…the lost coin…the lost son in Luke 15 illustrate the emotions of distress, sorrow, pain that come with losing something of great value. God must feel those same emotions when people leave a community of faith.
As caretakers of Christ’s Church, I believe we should seek to be the best possible stewards of the people over whom we have been given spiritual charge. Most churches can do a better job of integrating newcomers into the family so that those new members grow as faithful practitioners of God’s message of hope and love.
I was involved in a fascinating study of people who stopped attending church. One curious thing we found was that of all the people who drop out of church, 82% leave in the first year of their membership! The first 12 months are apparently a very critical time in the life of both the new member and the congregation.
Upon further study, however, we learned that it is not a random pattern in which people leave during the first year. There are two definite “spikes” when an inordinate number of new members stop attending. The pattern looks something like this:
Our curiosity, of course, was aroused. We interviewed 36 people who had stopped attending their church after six months; then another 36 who had stopped attending after a year. “What happened?” we wanted to know. “Could you tell us your story?”
Later, we listened to the recordings of these conversations for common themes…and found some! New members, it turns out, are asking questions. Often they are not even aware of their concerns at that moment. But upon later analysis, the issues became readily apparent…
The questions your new members are asking in the first six months
1. “Can I make friends in this church?” One study found that new members who stay in church make an average of seven new friends in the first year, those who drop out make less than two.
2. “Is there a place I can fit in?” The more people your new member finds in the church who are “like me,” the more that person is likely to stay. Common age, marital status, family status, special needs, interests, concerns all help newcomers feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Birds of a feather flock together.
3. “Does this church really want me?” After the warm words of welcome and reception into membership, do you actively invite your new members to participate in the roles and ministries of your church?
If new members conclude that the answer to these questions is “no,” many leave after five to six months. If their answer is “yes,” they stay around…for another six months. But they’re still asking questions.
The questions your new members are asking in the second six months
1. “Are my new friends as good as my old ones?” The issue is not so much a matter of quantity of friends, now, as it is one of quality. New believers, in particular, feel increasingly uncomfortable with their old behavior, old habits, and old friends. That’s good. But they’re also unconsciously assessing the value and depth of their new relationships in your church.
2. “Does the group meet my needs?” They may have found a young single’s group, a senior adult group, or a Sunday School class with people like them (see the first 6-months question). But 7 – 12 months later, they’re asking whether the benefit of involvement is worth the cost of time, inconvenience, social discomfort in this new setting.
3. “Is my contribution important?” The question now is not one of involvement, but of significance. Do they feel like they’re doing kingdom work…or just busy work? “I wanted to have an impact on people’s lives,” one drop-out told us. “But all they asked me to do was set up chairs for the all-church dinner.”
So, how can churches—your church—do a better job of integrating newcomers? My answer is this: “Do everything you can to ensure that your new members give a resounding ‘YES!!’ to these six questions. If they do, you will see them actively involved in your church for years to come.
NOTE: I will be teaching an 8-week online course this spring entitled, Newcomer Integration (CONG 525), if you would like to learn more about the fascinating dynamics of welcoming and assimilating newcomers into the local church. (Enrollment is limited.)