Intentional relational efforts and constant communication can prevent new members from becoming idle and re-engage those people who have become inactive.
Ready, set, action!
It’s Sunday. People attending worship at the local United Methodist church can sense the electric atmosphere in the sanctuary! Today the congregation is welcoming seven new members who stand at the altar, pledging to participate faithfully through their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. The pastor charges the existing members to “do all in their power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.” (United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I”). The joy filling the sanctuary overflows into the narthex as each new member is warmly greeted by dozens of people. Pictures are taken and posted on the bulletin board, along with a bright sign that says “Welcome, New Members!”
Ready, set, INaction!
The excitement of that day fades all too quickly. New posters soon crowd out the photo. Eventually, someone takes it down. The demands of everyday life pile on the new members. Of the seven who joined so enthusiastically, only three still attend worship each week. Before long, a few of the seven stop coming altogether. The heartfelt promises made on that membership Sunday are a distant memory.
This is real!
The scene described above is anecdotal, but typical. The 2010 Statistical Review reports that, on average, only 3 million of 7.6 million church members in the U.S. attend worship each week. Many members eventually become completely inactive. New members’ exits can be as swift as their entrances. One study found that 82 percent of the people who drop out of church do so in the first year of their membership, particularly in months 6 and 12.
So, how can we re-engage these once-excited but now disengaged members? Below are several practical ideas and steps to reach out.
Identify the "de-churched"
1. Create an opt-in buddy system
Unfortunately, many people won't have friends or family members who notice when they don't attend church. To avoid overlooking people in need, assign three households in the church to be aware of each other. If one household is missing, the others should call to find out if they just took a week off or if they need help. It would have to be an opt-in program because people assigned a task in which they don't believe may not be reliable.
2. Form a "Membership Connections Team" that is charged with overseeing and tracking member involvement. Team members must be persons of high commitment and character who can handle sensitive and confidential information and who will commit to pray regularly for those who have become inactive.
Use multiple reporting strategies to track member involvement. People may not sign an attendance pad during worship, but they might sign their child into the nursery. They may register their attendance or give an offering in Sunday school. If a person gives financially, serves in a ministry or attends a Bible study, report this information using church management software.
3. Develop accurate membership records. Far too many churches allow their membership rolls to become so outdated that they are virtually useless. Some United Methodist membership rolls list hundreds of people. However, they include people who have moved away or now have membership in heaven. Information is powerful only if it is reliable. Removal of members is a serious and lengthy process, and the Book of Discipline requirements must be followed. See Paragraph 228, “Care of Members.”
4. Identify inactive members and begin the work to contact them. The process outlined in the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 228) calls for the entire membership to be engaged in trying to make contact with the person.
5. Once an inactive member is "found," reach out! United Methodist Bishop Ken Carder said, “The first step in re-energizing inactive members is to know who they are and being attentive to their stories. People become inactive for multiple reasons, and the reasons have to be taken seriously. The reasons vary from mere apathy to outright hostility resulting from conflict and alienation. Behind every person who drops out of church, there is a unique story, or at least a unique twist to a familiar story. Meeting them where they are and taking their experiences seriously opens up possibilities for reconnecting to the community of faith.”
In its survey of people who dropped out of church, LifeWay research learned that 62 percent of inactive church members are open to the idea of returning to church; 41 percent said they would return if they were simply invited back! Consider creating an opt-in buddy system to address this issue. Basically, everyone who agrees has a buddy to check on them if they don’t show up for church. Read more about this system and more good ideas in the MyCom article Pastoral care tips: Avoid overlooking people in need.
6. Engage! As a relationship with an inactive member is reestablished, let what you learn from his or her story help you find ways to engage them in existing (or new) ministries. Bishop Carder told of one congregation that had a team whose sole focus was maintaining contact with inactive members. The team gathered “data and information about their interests, gifts and concerns; and informing the pastor and other leaders of relevant issues, concerns and ideas coming from the inactive members. The goal was to re-engage the inactive (person) in the life of the congregation where possible or to encourage them to be involved in another congregation.”
Missional engagement may reignite an inactive member’s commitment. A Barna Research study reports that 22 percent of young people who disconnected from the local church say that the church is “ignoring the problems of the real world.”
“From my experience,” Bishop Carder says, “nothing energizes people more than meeting God in those who struggle on the margins. I found that I could often enlist persons who had not been active in worship, Sunday school, etc. in providing service, such as working in the soup kitchen, assisting a shut-in … even visiting the local jail.” Through this experience of engaging in ministry with “the least of these,” Carder says, once inactive members were “re-energized to participate in worship.”
7. Ask questions! If all your efforts do not re-engage a member, try to find out if they are willing to share their reasons. Keep the following tips in mind as you talk with them:
- Tell the person that you are hoping to learn from his or her experience and listen to them. Don’t be defensive or interrupt. Take notes. Ask questions to gain deeper insight.
- Ask for permission to share what you learn with appropriate people to help the church improve.
- Thank them for sharing and offer apologies for expectations that were not met.
8. Improve! Use the data you gather for continual improvement. Bishop Carder encourages leaders to “identify common threads in the stories of inactive members. As a pastor,” he said, “I learned a lot about the congregation from those who no longer attended, and the learning often led to changes in the congregation and my own pastoral care.”
2009-2012 United Methodist Membership Records Manual