Four Principles to Membership Retention

Four Principles to Membership Retention
Thom Rainer

Closing the back door with a four-legged stool.

In almost every consultation I conduct through my company, the Rainer Group, and in almost every church I research, the issue of assimilation arises. “If we could just keep the people who join our church, our attendance would be twice as high,” church leaders often lament. Is there a “secret” to retention? Is there some type of process that can close the back door?

While there is neither a secret nor a neatly-packaged process, there are four key principles to membership retention and involvement. Our research has shown that if a church improves in all four of these areas, assimilation will likely improve, and often dramatically improve.

Many times when I speak I am given a stool upon which to sit. Since I usually speak for a lengthy time, I appreciate a stool where I give my fallen arches an occasional break. These wooden stools have four legs. Most of the time the legs are balanced and even. Sometimes one leg is off balance, causing a wobbly stool. But if any one of the legs was missing, the stool would immediately collapse.

Assimilation is built on four key principles. Our research had not been able to identify any one principle as more important than the others. We do know, however, that a church weak in one of the areas will have some degree of assimilation problems.

The first principle is expectation. A few years ago, our research team conducted a two-year study of churches with effective assimilation rates. We were surprised to learn that one of the key commonalities among the churches was a sense of expectation of members and prospective members.

Church membership was not the placement of a name on a roll; the clear expectation was that the member was to make a difference through the ministries of the church. Giving was not touted as optional but expected among church members. And membership or inquirer classes were often the place where these expectations were most clearly articulated.

The second principle is ministry involvement. If a church member does not become meaningfully involved in some type of ministry in the church, his or her drop-out chances increase dramatically. But the church leadership cannot delay in moving new members to places of ministry. If more than six months lapses between the points of new membership to ministry involvement, the person will likely be already moving toward inactivity in the life of the church.

Probably the most often cited principle is relationships. What many church leaders do not realize is that the development of these relationships with new members, best takes place before the member joins.

If the new member has no relationship with a church member when he or she joins the church, it is exceedingly difficult to create relationships. Such is the reason why it is critically important for church members to become highly intentional about developing relationships with un-churched persons before that person ever visits the church.

The fourth of the principles is small-group involvement. There are many venues for such involvement: discipleship groups, home cell groups, ministry teams, and choirs and praise teams, to name a few. Our research shows that the most effective assimilation group is the Sunday school, which is the open-ended small group that typically meets on the church campus. A person involved in a Sunday school class is five times more likely to be active in the church five years later, than a person who attends worship services alone.

These principles are not mutually exclusive. Indeed they often complement or even support one another. But they are all critical to the assimilation and discipleship health of the church. How is your church being strategic about keeping each of the four legs balanced and strong? What is taking place with intentionality to monitor progress in these four areas? Conceptually, the process looks simple. In reality, it is often laborious and never-ending.

But, in God’s power, these four principles have been used by thousands of churches across America to close the back door. In our consultations, we often check the strength of each of the four legs of the stool, and we get an immediate, and usually accurate, assessment of assimilation in the church. Our desire is to help churches win more people to Christ.

But it is also our desire to see these new converts and new church members become truly effective disciples for Christ. These four principles often accomplish that goal and help the church to close the back door even more tightly.

Thom S. Rainer is dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The author of 14 books, he also serves as president of the Rainer Group and Church Central Associates.

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.”

This article “Four Principles to Membership Retention” by Thom Rainer was excerpted from: web site. August 2009. It may be used for study & research purposes only.