Found over on InternetMonk, written by Mike Bell:
First of all a confession. The title is really just an attention grabber, and a weak attempt to get Miguel to sputter coffee through his nose. Although a second confession would be that in the eighties and nineties, I did read all I could get my hands on from the Church growth movement. There are a couple of interesting things that I learned from that time, and I wanted to present a sort of random stream on consciousness on the topic.
The numerical growth or decline of a church is strictly related to number of new people entering a church versus the number of people leaving a church.
People leave church for primarily one of three reasons.
- They die.
- They move away (primarily vocation, or education based).
- There are some other factors that cause them to become uninterested in being part of a particular local church.
Number 1 we know all about.
Number 2 was my experience at a Church in Ottawa, Ontario. It was located near a military base and probably had a 20 to 25% turnover each year. They got very good at assimilating visitors in the life of the church. If they didn’t, the church would die in very short order.
A couple of thoughts about number 3. I read a study a LONG time ago that surveyed first time visitors to a series of churches, and then surveyed them again two years later. There was an extremely high correlation between continued attendance and the number of significant relationships they had made at the church. If I recall correctly, less than five relationships and they did not tend to stick around.
For those who do leave the church and subsequently return, a recent study showed that the encouragement of family and friends was a significant factor in them coming back. (More on this later.)
If your church is in decline there are generally only to things you can do about it. Decrease the outflow, or increase the inflow. I would say that in terms of decreasing the outflow the primary thing that you can do is to help build relationships among those in your church.
In terms of new people coming in, I would group them into five general categories:
- Bedroom evangelism, or in other words New Babies! As one commentator expressed on this site. Those who have Christian parents are most likely to find themselves in a church. (Typically this strategy does not work where the congregation is older.)
- People who leave one church for another. A.K.A. Sheep stealing.
- New visitor attraction/assimilation. Similar to number 2 but referring more to people new to the area. Again it is a question of what is it about our church that would cause someone to come here rather than go somewhere else. In our Ottawa church, is was our strong emphasis on relationships. In recent years the Ottawas church has distinguished itself as becoming a home for new immigrants.
- Church returners. Typically family or friends who used to attend church at some point in their past, who no longer do, but are being encouraged to return, either through relationships, or because of life changes.
- New converts. In a region of the country, if at least some churches are not bringing in new converts, then overall the churches in that community will start to decline and die. Especially if the death rate exceeds the birth rate in your church congregation.
Where do I stand in terms of the five areas.
Well, I am well past number one. All joking aside, a church that depends on it would end up being very inward focused.
Number two. Pastors who lose people tend to call it sheep stealing. Personally I find that people generally have pretty good reasons when they leave a church and don’t do it lightly. Ask yourself, “Was it an easy decision when I left my last church?” Yes, there are church shoppers, but there are also a lot of hurting people.
Number three is my strong suite. When attending church in my late twenties, I would introduce myself to any new visitor of similar age. Introduce to about 5 or 6 others. As a group we would then invite them to join us for lunch. Ninety percent of our visitors came back the following Sunday.
Number four is where my heart is. I have seen too many leave our church: friends, acquaintances, family, or family of friends. When I look at my neighbors many of them have “church memory”, both good and bad, and no longer attend. These are the people that my heart cries out for. Most are not church returners but have to potential to become church returners. Just because the church they grew up in doesn’t work for them doesn’t meant that mine won’t, and vice-versa.
Number five is where my current church’s leadership wants to focus their efforts, and have done so to the detriment of groups 2, 3, and 4. I really don’t know how I feel about this, but feel that there is a balance missing. I also wonder if they are so narrowly focused that they can’t help but have the decline continue.
Other than talking about relationships, I have avoided proposing solutions. Almost every website that talked about closing the back door had proposals quickly led into “church growth speak.” Instead I am going to listen to our readers.
What have been your experiences in people coming and going from your church or churches? Many at Internet Monk are in transition. Where do you personally fit in this picture?