Growth and Assimilation
By Flavil R. Yeakley
“The variety of elements which contribute to a successful incorporation strategy take much study and consideration. Yet, the dual tasks of creating sufficient roles for a growing membership, and then communicating those opportunities for involvement are certainly two important ingredients of a successful incorporation mix”
A growing congregation has a successful approach to reaching new people. But it also must have a workable strategy for keeping those new members active and involved.
What can we learn about the dynamics of incorporation from a study of churches successful and unsuccessful in this important task? To answer this question an analysis of 48 congregations was made. These congregations were selected on the basis of their net growth rate. Net growth rate was defined as the adult conversion rate minus the drop-out rate of these converts. Sixteen of the subject churches were in the top 20 percent net growth of a nationwide sample of congregations from a selected denomination. Sixteen churches were in the middle 20 percent net growth, and sixteen were in the bottom 20 percent.
It was interesting to observe, in preparing for the study, that the 16 congregations with the highest net growth rate did not actually have the highest adult conversion rate. In the high net growth rate group the adult conversion rate was 6.9 per year. The average drop-out rate of these adult converts was .33 per year — a drop-out rate of 5 percent. Thus the average net growth rate was 6.57 per year. Interestingly, in the 16 congregations of the medium net growth rate group, the average adult conversion rate was much higher — 9.12 per year. However, the drop-out rate in these churches was also very high — 4.26. That meant 47 percent of the converts dropped out. The net growth rate in these congregations, therefore, was only 4.86 per year. In the 16 congregations of low net growth, the average was 2.84 per year. The drop-out rate of these adult converts was 1.37. In other words, 48 percent of these converts also eventually dropped out of the church. As a result, the net growth rate was only 1.47 per year.
AN INVOLVED MEMBER
How did the churches in the various net growth rate groups compare in their involvement level of members? To answer this question, involvement level was measured and scored using the following measures:
1) the average percentage of members in attendance at regularly scheduled services of the congregation;
2) the percentage of members having a leadership role in the congregation;
3) the percentage of members having a specific work role, or task assignmnet;
4) contribution per member per week.
In the 48 congregations, the involvement scores ranked from a low of 120 to a high of 259, with 175 as the average. In the high net growth rate churches the average involvement score was 207. The average involvement score in the medium net growth congregations was 177. The average involvement score was only 142 in the low growth rate group.
SIZE AS A FACTOR IN INVOLVEMENT
In a separate analysis of almost 1,500 local churches, congregational size and involvement level were compared. A consistent correlation was observed: In very small congregations there was so little to be involved in that the involvement level was low. But the involvement level increased rapidly with congregational size up to a membership of about 200. After that, the involvement level dropped rapidly as congregational size increased.
One problem with this simplistic observation is that it did not explain the reason for the lower involvement level in larger congregations. Another problem is that it did not explain the numerous exceptions found to the rule. Some congregations had the ideal size of around 200 but had a very low involvement level, while some large congregations had a very high involvement level. Obviously additional research was called for.
THE RATIO OF ROLES-TO-MEMBERS
Why, in general, does involvement level decrease as church size increase? The most logical explanation, in my opinion, is offered by Roger Barker and his Behavior Setting Theory. In Baker’s study of big and small schools, he found that involvement levels decrease as school size increases. The reason for this, according to Barker’s research, is that the number of available roles to be filled by the students did not increase as fast as did the number of students available to fill those roles. In a small school there might have been more roles than there are students. In a very large school, however, there were often more students than there were available roles. Barker found that the key to a high involvement level was actually related to the roles-to ratio, rather than the actual size of the school.
In order to apply this hypothesis to the church, congregational leaders were asked to identify all the roles available to be filled in each of their congregations, and then list the number of members in their church. In correlating this data, it turns out that the ratio of available roles to members does affect involvement level much more significantly than the actual church size. The problem with many larger congregations with low involvement levels is that they have not been able to increase the number of task and role assignments fast enough to keep pace with their expanding membership. The involvement level is often low because there simply are not enough jobs to go around.
PERCEIVED ROLE-TO-MEMBER RATIO
From this and a follow-up study, however, emerged a fascinating, and perhaps even more important insight. The strongest correlation came in comparing the involvement level in each local church with the perceived role-to-member ratio. In other words, a large congregation might actually have more than enough specific opportunities for involvement, but the members might not be aware of the many ways in which they could be involved. In each of the 48 congregations, a random sample was taken of at least 10 percent of the members. They were asked to identify the number of specific roles, jobs, or task assignments they were aware of in their church. That figure, divided by the membership of that congregation was the perceived roles-to-member ratio. The figures given by all subjects in one congregation were then averaged and the resulting figure provided an estimate of the perceived roles-to-member ratio for the church.
When the perceived roles-to-member ratios were averaged for all 16 congregations in the high net growth rate group, the resulting figure was approximately .55 — meaning that these people were aware of 55 jobs for each 100 members in their congregation. The perceived roles-to-member ratio for medium net growth rate congregations was .43, or about 43 jobs for each 100 members. The average perceived roles-to-member ratio for the low net growth rate churches was .27, or 27 jobs for each 100 members.
The variety of elements which contribute to a successful incorporation strategy take much study and consideration. Yet, the dual tasks of creating sufficient roles for a growing membership, and then communicating those opportunities for involvement are certainly two important ingredients of a successful incorporation mix.
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. Growth and Assimilation. By Flavil R. Yeakley.
Flavil R. Yeakley is Professor of Bible, Director of Outcomes Assessment and Director of Center for Church Growth at Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas.