Evaluating Church Inactivity By New Converts
By K. C. Haugk
In the beginning was the Word, the apostle John says. God turns out to be a definer, and a pretty good one at that (to no ones surprise). You want to know what I’ve meant all these eons? Very well. And God speaks the Word made flesh. God utters Jesus! This is what I mean, says God.
Human beings are definers, too, again no surprise. Created as we are in Gods image, it is an entirely likely turn of events that we should start at the same beginning in the same way.
Q. How do you define inactive members?
A. Here is the definition of inactive members I like to work with:
Inactive members are individuals who have chosen not to participate in the worship life, financial support, and program activities of the congregation.
Basically, individuals become inactive at the point where they begin to detach emotionally and physically from the congregation. This may mean reduced attendance or continued absence from worship services; it may mean reduced giving, or no giving; it may mean a reduction or stoppage of participation in church program activities.
Q. How do you distinguish between inactive and unable?
A. The criterion is freedom of choice. The inactive person chooses not to be involved; the unable person has no choice in the matter.
There can be many factors that deny choice. A person might be physically limited in mobility because of age or other disablement. But emotional incapacity is a very real fact of life, too. People with phobias or panic disorders, for example, are just as much without choice as the person who is bedridden. One estimate suggests that as much as 5 of the population suffers from phobias of one kind or another. One type of phobia, agoraphobia, defined as fear of open spaces, shows itself in several ways. Agoraphobics are afraid of being trapped in public places from which they would be unable to escape without embarrassment if they should experience a panic attack. Victims of this irrational dread may not be able to drive across bridges, and if the only way to get to church is to cross a bridge, they can’t do it.
People who have such emotional struggles are likely to be very private people because they experience shame about their situation. They are leery of talking with people who won’t understand how they can be totally incapacitated by a circum stance or exposure that is utterly mundane to everyone else. Your ministry to these people is different, but starts from the same basis of compassionate understanding you need with inactive members: Have a heart.
Those who are separated from church by distance because they are serving in the military, for example, or attending college in another city are likewise obviously unable to attend their home congregation. So is the person whose job requires being out-of-town during the worship time.
By contrast, the inactive person could come, but chooses not to. You will find out very quickly in talking to an individual which category he or she belongs to.
Q. How long should a person be gone from the congregation to be considered inactive?
A. Length of time is not the main criterion. In fact, a person might not be gone at all, and yet still be someone at risk. The chief factor to look at is whether the person is emotionally moving away from the congregation, starting to pluck out the life supports. An individual could conceivably be gone for weeks or even months, and yet if there is a good reason for that, if the person still feels a part of the congregation, inactivity is not the issue. On the other hand, a person could theoretically be gone only one week and yet be one who is emotionally separating from the congregation. That latter individual is either inactive or in the process of becoming inactive. Special keenness to early signs is vital. A person might be in attendance every Sunday and yet be what I call preinactive.
Q. You mention choosing not to take part in worship, financial support, and programs as the criteria. But there are a number of people in our congregation who worship regularly and are pretty consistent in their giving, and that’s it. They might take part in a few special functions. Are they inactive?
A. No, I would not consider them inactive. In some ways, you could argue that anyone who isn’t spending 20-30 hours a week in church-related affairs is inactive. That is not what I mean, however, when I use the term. One individual with whom I shared this question said:
I would have been overjoyed if my father had chosen the level of church involvement described in this question.
If a person is participating in all three areas worship, financial support, and programs however minimally, I would prefer to speak of levels of activity rather than inactivity. Probably it would be better for these individuals to be more involved they are people still on the threshold of God’s home but at least they are involved.
Q. Isn’t the term inactive member quite negative?
Q. Is there a better term to use than inactive member?
A. You might like the term better after you’ve had a chance to hear some of the alternatives. These are some of the terms in actual use that I’ve encountered:
Absentees Delinquent Christians
Apostates (or just Delinquents)
Back door Christians Disaffiliates
Backsliders Estranged church members
Black sheep Christians Fallen brethren
Bystanders Fringe members
C and Es (Christmas Lapsed members
and Easter attenders) Marginal members
Casual attenders Parish dropouts (or Dropouts)
Casual Christians Slippers
Deadwood Suspended animation
The problem with most of these terms for me is the offensive connotations they carry. They are basically judgmental rather than descriptive. Inactive member is much better because it is descriptive, it refers to peoples activity level, not their character.
Think of it from the point of view of the inactive member for a moment. Can you imagine such a person saying, Last year I was a lapsed member? Or how about, I was a delinquent for six years? I can’t.
Inactive member is the term that many people who are or have been inactive actually choose when they refer to themselves and their church involvement. They don’t cringe when they hear that term. Here is what one formerly inactive member said:
I like the phrase inactive member because it’s just matter-of-fact. It doesn’t sound like a put-down or an insult directed at me because of my past status. Neither does it make me feel like I have to defend the inactive people I presently know and love when I hear the phrase used.
I’m always ready to use a more precise term in place of a less precise one, but short of reciting not-currently-participating-in-worship-giving-and-programming every time the need arises, the term inactive member seems to be the most caring one to use. By the way, this is not to say that you should use this terminology when you are talking with inactive members. If the subject comes up that they haven’t been worshipping for a while, or haven’t been taking part in programs, then those would be the words you would use, not inactive. You would not be relating to an inactive member, but to a person with a name!
Q. Why do members suddenly become inactive?
A. it may look as if they suddenly become inactive, but in the vast majority of instances there is nothing sudden about it. Typically the final movement away from the church completes a long-term process with multiple causes at work.
For those individuals who do suddenly become inactive, and there are some, the cause most often relates to a crisis in their lives internal or external. An internal crisis may be some emotional tidal wave that snaps all the moorings one had. An external crisis may be a family upheaval, for instance, that saps ones energies for anything but survival. Even in instances of crisis, however, individuals are more likely to become inactive if there are other causes at work.
Q. What are the biggest misconceptions people have about inactive members?
A. There is a whole collection of misconceptions, most having to do with prejudging what goes on inside inactive members:
1. They are all lazy.
2. They have lost their faith.
3. They are all apathetic.
4. They don’t want to come back.
5. They want to be left alone.
6. They will come back on their own.
7. They will come back if you bully them.
8. They only need to be reminded of duty.
9. They will come back after a brief telephone call.
10. They need to be told what to do.
11. We don’t have to deal with their feelings or try to understand them.
12. Whatever the problem, it’s �their responsibility, not ours.
Every one of these assumptions is hasty and presumptuous. A lot of listening and care has to be invested first, before any assessments can be made. Certainly, there are some inactive members whose faith has weakened. (There are also some active members whose faith has weakened.) Sure, there are some inactive members who have become apathetic, or want to be left alone. There may even be a few who are genuinely lazy. For the vast majority, however, each situation will prove to be much different than any or all these misconceptions put together. Your job is to find out how the situation differs and then to be the most compassionate, caring person you can be.
Q. How do you discover who inactive persons are?
A. One person I shared this question with said: This question really surprises me. It never occurred to me that congregations would have any difficulty with this. In our congregation we just look on the membership list, and whoevers not in church, that’s the list of inactive members. But I can see how in larger congregations where people may not be known so well, it could be more complicated than that.
Well, it is and it isn’t. First of all, the question has behind it a deeper one, which is, How do we detect inactivity in the earliest stages? And secondly, even small congregations would benefit by some forms of organization that would ensure that no one slips through the cracks. All that said, here are some practical ways to discover who inactive members are:
1. Pastors and other church staff can note who is and who is not attending. (The pastor of one church I know always checked off attendance against a membership list even before he disrobed, while it was still fresh in his mind.)
2. One or more leadership groups can occasionally go over the membership list, pooling their corporate awareness to determine who might be inactive.
3. Denominations that have frequent communion along with registration cards for communion have a very convenient means of taking attendance.
4. For pledging members, the pattern of their contributions may change. Those who record and deposit contributions might pass along their observations of these changes to the appropriate individuals the pastor or members of an inactive member ministry team. Please note, however, that a decrease or a cessation of giving should never be the subject matter of a visit, though it may be what prompts a visit. (See the question and answer on pages 181-182.) That is, don’t go to the possibly inactive member and say, We noticed your contributions are down. What’s up? No matter how you phrase it, the person is going to be convinced you’re only interested in the church finances.
5. Some congregations have instituted a rite of friendship that includes passing a sign-up sheet up and down the pews. This can be an excellent way of determining changes in patterns of attendance.
6. Some churches have shepherding/deacon/zone plan programs where certain members are designated to keep in touch with other members.
7. Through listening to people themselves, really listening to them, you can pick up many indicators of early inactivity.
8. The grapevine can be a source of leads on people who might be in the early stages of inactivity. Especially keep a preventive eye on those who are undergoing various life crises. They are prime candidates for inactivity.
9. Computers can help you keep track of important information. Statistical programs that will help you identify changes in patterns for individuals are among the most valuable you can have in your computer. Your output might be lists of those whose patterns of attendance or contributions have changed. And by the way, for churches in the computer age, those knowledgeable individuals who are willing to volunteer time for data entry are to be treasured as much as bookkeepers and counters.
All these nine suggestions are ways to gather data. None of them is any guarantee that the data, once gathered, will be used. Data is useless until it has been turned into information, which is data rendered intelligible to a human being. Don’t just gather data for its own sake, but allow it to guide and direct you to begin ministry and outreach efforts.
Q. I could imagine approaching someone as inactive and having the person be insulted by the suggestion. Isn’t it normal for people to wax and wane in their enthusiasm? Or is that a failure of the church?
A. You don’t have to be absolutely sure someone is definitely inactive, or heading in that direction, in order to approach him or her, because you are not going to start your conversation by saying, So, you’re not that interested in church anymore, eh? Instead, in all likelihood you will start with a simple question: How are things going with you? Generally no one objects to being sought out with caring concern, so your attention will be appreciated, not scorned.
Fluctuations in members involvement is normal. To have 100% of the people in a church 100% eager to be involved in the ministry and programs of the church 100% of the time this would be a very pleasant state of affairs for church leaders and staff to face. Unreal, but pleasant.
The reality in congregations is different. People do wax and wane in their availability for involvement and service, and that’s okay. Peoples lives change. They start new jobs, go to school, have children, retire. Some of these changes will influence people to be more or less involved with the church.
Of course, everyone should continue to grow spiritually, should be stimulated and encouraged in love of the Lord, and should deepen relationship with God. Shoulds are terrible motivators, however. Where the church needs to upgrade its capabilities is in helping people see how their health and well-being depend on a continued deepening of their relationship with God. This is not necessarily a failure of the church, but just a part of the continuing challenge the church faces.
One way churches can better meet this challenge is by speaking the truth of the Gospel, the for-you-ness of the Gospel, in loud and clear tones. God’s love is a love meant for you. Jesus Christ died for you. Another important part of Gods plan for the structure of the church is the priesthood of all believers. When every Christian sees him- or herself as a minister with a sacred trust, and holy gifts to enable that trust, we will be much closer to the 100% dream I started out by sharing.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.