Increasing Your New Convert Retention Rate


The previous chapter described inactive persons and identified the primary motivations they cite for becoming inactive. Trying to design measures to prevent members from dropping out and attempting to make necessary changes to meet the concerns of inactives are surrounded by a number of questions.

The two most important questions are: “What motivates Christians to be concerned about individuals who become inactive?” and “Are some types of methodology employed to maintain membership not suitable for Christian people?” The previous chapter could persuade people to become very mechanistic and manipulative towards the inactives. Therefore, at the outset of this chapter, it is necessary to affirm that the church on earth is Christ’s body. It is Christ who is the Head of that body. Christ sets the agenda for the individual and corporate members of His body. It would be most unfortunate if the findings of all our empirical studies gave us the feeling that we can manage the crisis of Loss or potential loss of faith if we only do the “right things.” Such thoughts are the thoughts of sinful human beings who wish to supplant Christ as the Head of His body.

The language St. Paul uses in First Corinthians emphasizes that Christ’s body is an organism and not an
organization. Since in its theological nature the church is not an organization as it is in its sociological nature, in spiritual matters it cannot be controlled by human managers in the way that General Motors or American Telephone and Telegraph are controlled by human managers.

Yet as mainline denominations have approached the problem of membership decline they have tended to follow a managerial approach. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that the fortunes of the church can be controlled by human beings. There is an underlying hypothesis here which calls into  question the basic theological proposition that the church is God’s church and that He is finally in control of its well-being.

Having indicated the central issue, it is imperative that Christ’s people recognize that an important question that needs to be asked of the leadership of every congregation is, “What are we intentionally doing to minimize the number of people who drop out of our congregation each year?” While it is well and good to answer, “We have services every Sunday, the sacraments are administered; Bible classes and Sunday school classes are taught,” etc., these activities may or may not be effective in retaining membership. It is imperative that every congregation have as one of its explicitly stated goals the  retention of members, along with specific strategies which help accomplish that goal.

Theologically, the reason for concern to prevent dropouts has nothing to do with meeting local and national budgets or comparisons of denominations or congregations. Retention of members is a concern because Christian people care about the spiritual well-being of fellow members.

Christian Concern About Inactivity

Theologically, the issue of retention revolves around the conviction that in the life of the local church the
spiritual needs of people can be met only when the Word and sacraments are used by members. These means of grace are the conduits through which God communicates His wonderful plan of salvation. It is through these means of grace that individual Christians are initially called together and subsequently  maintained in the corporate life of local congregations.

The motive for being concerned about the church attendance of members is that provided by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, where in verse 25 of chapter 10 he exhorts his readers not to neglect to meet together in worship. Often, when this passage is applied, dire warnings are offered about the fact that absenting oneself from the assemblies of God’s people places one in spiritual jeopardy. This application of the text is certainly warranted when the verses which follow it are also considered. To become apostate means that a person has spurned the Son of God and has outraged the Holy Spirit (Heb. 10:29). Such a person will experience the vengeance of God (Heb. 10:30-31).

This concern is reflected in the often-used story told about the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody. As this story has it, Moody was asked by some person why it was necessary for Christian people to go to church. Moody did not answer the question. He merely went to the fireplace, took a red-hot coal out of the fire and placed it on the hearth, and left the room. When be returned later, the coal was no longer burning.
Separated from the other burning material, the coal had gone out. The person is alleged to have said to Dr. Moody that he now realized the answer to his question. Moody had offered him a very sobering truth without saying a word.

But this passage from Hebrews also has another emphasis that is less often perceived when the passage is explained or applied. In a number of places in the New Testament, particularly First Corinthians 12, St. Paul argues that spiritual gifts are offered to the total church through the gifts that God gives to its individual members. Not only do persons shortchange themselves and “make themselves vulnerable to apostasy when they forsake the assembly of God’s people, they also shortchange the other members of the local congregation. Christian people have been given both the right and the privilege of stirring up one another to love and good works. Christian people can provide meaningful encouragement to one
another. The spiritual gifts that have been given to them are for the edification of others. When they withdraw from the fellowship, their gifts are no longer available to their fellow Christians.

Thus there are at least two major theological reasons why church leaders are concerned about people dropping out of church. The first is the realization that people are incapable of edifying themselves. The second is that withdrawal means that people have a self-centered piety which fails to take seriously how important their gifts are for the well-being of the entire fellowship.

Numerous Christian writers have reminded their readers that the characteristic of Christians which impressed observers in the first century A.D. was the fact that Christian people loved one another. That love was impressive because it went beyond feelings to demonstrations of caring, sharing, and doing for one another. Such loving, caring, sharing, and doing includes being eager to take steps to prevent the cooling and/or dying of another Christian’s faith.

Retention Through Careful Initial Assimilation

In recent years social scientists have helped church leaders appreciate the importance of assimilating new members into the congregation. In many communities a congregation cannot assume that the assimilating forces present in ethnic, rural parishes are also present in its community. In ethnic, rural]
congregations or ethnic congregations in stable metropolitan neighborhoods, family ties and close community relationships provide the means for individuals to become assimilated to parish life. Baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, weddings, wedding anniversaries, and funerals-and the parties or gatherings which accompany these events-help to assimilate individuals into the congregation and assist people in retaining active membership. In highly mobile, metropolitan congregations  individual nuclear families are cut off from such assimilating forces.

Therefore preventive maintenance programs must include means of assimilating new members into the congregation and including new members in some meaningful support groups(s). Most members can be retained only if they can be helped to be more than members in name alone. Planned approaches to assimilate new members into the mission and ministry of the congregation are critical if the congregation is going to be serious about retaining members. Without assimilation the congregation will
find that its open doors only lead to backdoors through which new members quickly exit.

Retention Through Emphasis on Positive Forces

Just as there are types of people and specific motivations that seem to encourage members to drop out of congregational life, there are also types of people and specific motivations that help members to remain active. A realistic preventive maintenance program at the parish level needs to maximize the holding power of these elements while at the same time realizing that such maximization may cause alienation among those who do not fit the categories. The needs of these latter people for inclusion may be met by using other methods, which will be presented later.

A family tradition of membership in the same congregation is a solidifying force. When second and third
generations of the same family are members of a specific congregation, there will be less likelihood of withdrawing. Individuals who stay fixed in one place long enough so that second and third generations can be members of a given parish may well be in the minority of the total U. S. population. Yet the solidarity of many small rural parishes depends heavily on this motivator.

When families do move from one geographical location to another, if they join a congregation of the same denomination they are less likely to become dropouts than if they were to join a congregation of a different denomination. Considerations such as denominational loyalty, the likelihood of homogeneity within the denominational group, familiarity with worship patterns and hymnody, having similar expectations as other members concerning what constitutes a good sermon and positive parish life may all be components of the social, psychological, and theological glue that helps such individuals remain active.

Denominational loyalty seems to make it possible for people to “weather” certain storms in their personal or congregational lives which would cause the average person to stop participating in the life of a congregation. This denominational loyalty may be created by attending a school or college supported by the denomination, or by having relatives who are loyal clergy serving in the denomination’s ministerium and on national or local boards or committees of the denomination and its auxiliaries.

There are a number of ways that the retaining power of denominational loyalty can be helpfully employed. Many people drop out of church life because as they move from place to place they do not take the time necessary to transfer membership to congregations in their new communities. The transfer of membership can be facilitated if the congregational leaders of the former parish: (1) inform the persons or families concerning the names and addresses of congregations located in the vicinity of their new residence, (2) communicate with the leadership of these congregations and advise those leaders of the names and addresses of the persons taking up residence in their area, and (3) communicate with the families once they have moved and encourage them to visit a church in their new community. In turn, the congregations in the new community must follow through on these leads.

Follow-up activities on the part of both the former and new congregations are time-consuming. Yet a program of responsible soul care makes this operation absolutely necessary. No other program designed thus far by denominations (based upon changes of address for national church publications, etc.) is as effective as the care that can be manifested by local congregations. Personal letters sent by congregational leaders to former members two or three weeks after they have moved (with carbons sent to the pastors in the new areas), encouraging them to visit the new local churches, and personal letters to the new pastors asking them to call on the persons (with carbons to the former members) are powerful tools to motivate the former members to activity and the leadership of the area congregations to responsible action.

The need for quick action in regard to individuals who move to a new location is substantiated by the findings of Walrath. If congregations in the community to which people move do not relate quickly to the newcomers, the newcomers will feel isolated and will conclude that the congregations truly accept only natives of the community. Walrath found that newcomers will relate to the churches in their new community very soon after they relocate. If the congregations give the impression that their ministries  are only designed for natives, newcomers will tend not to join such congregations.

A second opportunity may arise for the newcomers to move toward one of these congregations if sometime later the newcomers need help in working through a crisis. If the crisis comes long enough after the move and the newcomers have been able to develop other support groups, the newcomers may not need the ministry of a congregation even in times of crisis.

Another aspect of using denominational loyalty for membership retention is the need to continue establishing new congregations. Perhaps the vast majority of congregations in the United States have begun as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, etc. Christians have asked their national bodies
through local judicatures to start new congregations to meet their spiritual needs. In a time of ecumenical activity which discourages competition and an era of shortages of building funds coupled with high land and building costs that make church planting, as we have come to know it, difficult at best and impossible at worst, almost all mainline denominations have cut back on the number of new parishes that have been started. These cutbacks have negatively affected church growth and have  strained the denominational loyalties of certain people as they have moved into areas where their former denominations are not represented at all or are underrepresented.

Retention Through Improved Worship Experiences

Worship is the expression of the spiritual Life of a congregation and is the focus of much feeling and commitment on the part of members.

Congregational leaders and clergy can do something about the worship practices of the congregation. Since uninspiring worship is often cited as a reason for dropping out of church, worship issues are important to consider. Worship properly understood is comprised of those actions which God’s people do for God. In worship, people are the actors, and God is the audience. Worship celebrates the goodness of a loving God. Worship ought not be something which we “grind out” week after week. Worship ought to be fun, exciting, exhilarating, and positive. Liturgical worship can possess these qualities if the  worship leader understands the nature of worship and avoids the rut of deadening routine.

Stott has written: “We need worship services that express the reality of the living God and joyfully celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death. Too often routine supplants reality, and the liturgy (if any) becomes lugubrious. I think public worship should always be dignified, but it is unforgivable to make it dull.

How a congregation feels about worship seems to be an indication of its internal climate. Congregations that are growing, and have a positive self-concept, have positive feelings about worship. However, in declining churches the subject of worship produces controversy.

As leaders of congregations try to stem the tide of backdoor loses, the evaluation of worship services within those congregations is a matter of importance. It is imperative that the reactions of members concerning worship be solicited, studied, and evaluated, and that necessary and constructive changes be made. At the same time, leaders should note the caution that if their congregation is declining in membership much more is probably at stake than how the worship services are being conducted. In such cases, conflict management skills may be even more important than making changes in worship patterns and practices.

Retention Through Improved Preaching

Since many dropouts are critical of the preaching they heard in their former parish, the improvement of preaching is an important concern.

This is a multifaceted issue. Members tend to respond more positively to preaching if it comes from clergy who are judged to have genuine love and concern for the members of the parish. Such love and concern are manifested when the pastor knows everyone by name, is willing to minister to people in
every condition of life, and lives his life in congruity with what he preaches.

From a Lutheran vantage point, good sermons must set forth Law and Gospel properly distinguished from one another and must give the Gospel predominate emphasis. Dr. Robert Kolb’s book, The Theology for Evangelism, in this series gives expression to this emphasis in very helpful ways.

Preaching does not exist in a vacuum. Good preachers are able to relate the faith to the realities of life at the particular point in history where they are. For example, the 1970s have been called the “Me Decade.” All kinds of popular self-help psychology’s attempted to confront the guilt that people naturally feel as sinful people. But no amount of rationalizing or exclaiming that people are inherently okay will meet their spiritual needs. Finally it is only the forgiveness that God makes available in the death and resurrection of Christ that empowers, strengthens, and affirms His people.

Sermons need to convey in a helpful manner God’s wonderful plan of freeing people from feelings of guilt and insecurity and must provide realistic suggestions concerning how God’s people might respond to God’s good news. Preachers need to help their listeners see Jesus as the only Savior of mankind. Then, as a logical outgrowth of hearing and appropriating the good news, preachers need to assist Christian people in perceiving how their lives might be lived in service to the God who has granted them salvation.

Stott has observed: “Evangelical preaching tends to be biblical but not contemporary, liberal preaching contemporary but not biblical. Why must we polarize? It is the combination of the two that is so powerful. It is a rare phenomenon. It is Biblical-contemporary preaching which helps maintain the commitment of people to the church, because such preaching applies the power of the Gospel effectively to the conditions in which people find themselves day in and day out.

Retention Through Effective Pastoral Care

The ministry style of pastors is an important issue for causing a limited percentage of people to become inactive.

Denominational leaders and bishops who have the major responsibility for assisting congregations in making decisions about calling or contracting of pastoral leadership are often only intuitively aware of concerns that need to be addressed. Generally speaking, pastors are likely to be most effective when they are able to serve in congregations and live in communities which most closely parallel their abilities,
interests, perceptions, and values. During the late ’60s and early ’70s much was written about the need for pastors to play the prophetic role rather than the shepherding role in congregations. If one’s assumption is that effective pastors have the responsibility to make the comfortable uncomfortable and the uncomfortable comfortable, then the general principle stated above may need to be modified a bit.

Second, pastors are more likely to be effective if they attempt to meet the needs of their members and of their community. “Meeting the needs of people” and “working with people where they are” are cliches in the helping professions.

Yet all too frequently pastors arrive on the scene with their programs, which they get their new congregation to adopt during the honeymoon period, and then they find that the adopted programs do not produce the expected results. Pastors conclude that the people are not really committed, for if they were committed they would be much more responsive and the newly adopted programs would be more productive. What pastors fail to realize is that the congregation was made up of people before the pastor arrived and many of those same people will still be members of the congregation after the pastor leaves to take on new responsibilities. In the same way, those members will remain in the community long after the pastor has departed. Therefore the parishioners have a sense of history and of the future which serves as an internal gyroscope and causes them to recognize almost intuitively what approaches will or will not be effective.

It is no small task for subjective people to be objective. Pastors also suffer the burden of subjectivity. There is a fine line between arrogant subjectivity and critical insight. Pastors who are unable to distinguish between legitimate caution and a foot-dragging abstinence will cause themselves and their people much needless pain.

Third, some pastors have a special propensity for attracting people with spiritual and emotional problems. Often these problem-riddled people are highly dependent on the caring ministry of their pastor. One liability of this pastoral emphasis is that these problem-plagued people will not be able to assume leadership roles in the congregation. There is obviously a need for ministry to troubled people. Christ’s own ministry demonstrated that truth clearly. However, the liability of such a ministry is that other commonly expected aspects of ministry can be undercut and ignored, which causes the less-troubled members to feel dissatisfied. A second liability is that when such a pastor resigns or leaves to take on other charges the problem-plagued people often become dropouts. Their membership in the congregation is dependent on their relationship to the pastor involved. The crucial message here seems to be that pastors should make a caring ministry possible, yet not be dominated by the need to do the majority of that caring ministry themselves.

In the fourth place, there are pastors who demand to be involved in everything that happens in the congregation. Their personality, or their concept of ministry, or their need to dominate, or whatever, causes them to become indispensable for everything that transpires in the congregation. Where such
pastoral leadership is provided, the membership of the congregation does not get organized enough, is not experienced enough, and becomes passive enough so that, when the pastor leaves the congregation, the congregation falls apart. People from these congregations appear among the statistics of those who became inactive when their pastor left the congregation. Such congregations also tend not to develop social cohesiveness between their members. Therefore, because such congregations lack organization and social cohesiveness, there is a much greater likelihood that members will become inactive during pastoral vacancies or when less dominant pastors begin to employ their own styles of ministry.

Finally, pastors who found new congregations and who maintain control over them will discover that such a congregation will grow only as large as the number of members the pastor is able to serve effectively. Thus, if a given pastor can only effectively serve 250 members, the congregation will remain at 250 members. As new ones are gained, older ones drop out. The congregation’s system and the ministry style of the pastor can accommodate only 250 members.

Much more could be written about how styles of pastoral ministry can affect the dropout rate. We hope enough examples have been included to highlight the nature of the question. Conscientious pastors need to reflect on their styles of ministry to try to determine how their approaches to ministry may be contributing to the number of people who are becoming inactive. Such reflection should not be done to produce guilt.

Perhaps such reflection should not even be done for the purpose of changing styles of ministry, although changes may be appropriate in some situations. But such reflection should be done in order to evaluate whether pastor and congregation are suitably matched in personal attributes and commitments. Since
human beings are notoriously subjective, an “objective” outside consultant or an “objective” evaluation instrument may be of assistance in collecting and evaluating germane data.

Retention Through Christian Education

Many social scientists and denominational statisticians have noted that in the mainline denominations of the United States the number of infant baptisms declined during the late 1950s and 1960s. What caused this significant decline in numbers is still under study. During this period there was an even  greater percentage of decline in church school enrollments. The church school enrollment is a very reliable predictor of what church membership will be in five to ten years.

An analysis of the data reported in the 1980 Statistical Yearbook of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod demonstrates the nature of the problem. There were 72,756 babies baptized in LCMS congregations in 1966. Of this group of babies, 51,092 or 70 percent were enrolled in Sunday school when they were three
years old. Then 40,926 or 58 percent of these babies were confirmed at the completion of their confirmation instruction, normally done at age 14. Finally, 13,092 or 17 percent of these 1966 babies participated in Sunday morning Bible classes after confirmation.

These data agree with the data produced by national surveys conducted over the years which have demonstrated that there has been a decline in the percentage of the American population who have received some religious education during childhood. Between 1952 and 1965 the decline was slight. But
between 1965 and 1978 the decline was precipitous.

Another important bit of information which is impossible to collect, but which would be interesting to know, is the number of 1966 babies born to LCMS members who were never baptized and so were never reflected in the numbers presented above.

These data suggest areas of intervention by the leaders of local congregations. Systematic follow-up is needed to ensure that all babies born to members of the congregation are  baptized. Once these babies are baptized, concerted efforts need to be expended to encourage parents to enroll the children in  Sunday school. Careful instruction and care of the children by Sunday school teachers and professional ministers of the congregation should enable the congregation to confirm a high percentage of these children at age 14. A positive, energetic, program of youth ministry, capable of encouraging spiritual
maturity, is essential to retain the children who have been confirmed.

Obviously, the retention of young members through programs of soul care and Christian education is very important. The Southern Baptist Convention has centered much attention on the Sunday school. A study done by the Methodist Church suggests that perhaps as many as 70 to 80 percent of its new members are children of church families. Sometimes church growth authors call this retention process “biological growth.” Whatever the name used, it is clear that efforts must be applied to children in order to retain them.

The above comments, although well meaning, are perhaps too simplistic because the major contributors to childhood religious experience have less to do with congregational programming for children than with the powerful influence that parents have on their children’s religious training. The religious influence that parents have on children depends on the faith of husband and wife, the building block upon which the nuclear family’s faith commitment depends.

The data reported in Chapter 1 demonstrated the importance of a spouse’s effect on the other spouse’s religious response. This insight does not need to strike terror in the hearts of the leaders of congregations or cause them to feel that the task before them is hopeless.

In his study of lapsed church members Rauff found that, particularly among Roman Catholics, participation in Marriage Encounter events had helped to bring adults back to the church. To a lesser degree Rauff learned that Marriage Encounter also had similar effects on people who had dropped out of other denominations. Most of the people indicated that they had given up on the church prior to the weekend when they experienced the Marriage Encounter. However, the profound impact of the Encounter experience caused them to take another look at the church. The Encounter experience had caused them to recognize that the church had something to say about a very important, personal aspect of their lives.

The marriage enrichment movement in its many manifestations throughout the United States does more than make a contribution to the happiness of various couples. Marriage enrichment programming in the context of local congregations attests to the fact that the church has something to say to the most fundamental building block of all society and of congregations, namely the family unit revolving around a devout husband and wife who take their commitment to God and to one another very seriously.

Retention Through Ministry to Young Adults

Congregations that are serious about stemming the tide of backdoor losses must address the staggering losses that particularly mainline denominations have experienced from among young adult members. Dudley has asserted that the absence of young people “is the cause of declining church membership.”
Numerous studies have documented the fact that young adults who have attended college are very likely to possess values and wish to live life-styles that are very different from those of older adult members of mainline congregations. In fact, during the late ’60s and ’70s every survey taken by sociologists of  religion suggested that the gap between the values and attitudes of young adults and older adults grew with the passage of each year.

These data imply that those congregations and denominations whose memberships do not contain many college-educated young adults have not suffered the same kind of defections among the young as did those congregations and denominations who had a much higher percentage of their membership attending and graduating from college.

These data also suggest that mainline denominations will continue to experience difficulties retaining their college-educated young adults as active members in their congregations. Dudley states that “these young people represent the lost members of mainline churches.

There are at least two major proposals concerning how congregations might wish to prevent the exodus of so many of their young members. One major proposal is that congregations should become willing to be more open to diversity within their midst and grant to young people the option to pursue the values  and commitments they and their age group have adopted. In the words of Niebuhr, this option is almost “The Christ of Culture” approach. Christ and culture are judged to be synonymous. This cal] to permit diversity is certainly problematic. From the vantage point of this author, some of the values being espoused by many younger adults-such as the permissibility of premarital and extramarital sexual relationships and abortion on demand-are clearly not Biblically acceptable.

The other major approach moves across the spectrum. It is the position of “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” In this approach the advice given to congregations and denominations is that a youth culture which has evil and godless values and commitments must be exposed as such. Hutchenson argues that such a message is not only the proper one to convey; it is also the message that works. In support of this contention he cites the successes of nondenominational evangelical youth organizations. Included in this approach is the emphasis on enrolling elementary and secondary students in Christian schools and encouraging college students to attend evangelical colleges.

Clearly these two approaches stand in stark contrast to one another. In many ways each proposal] allows the leaders of congregations and denominations to give expression to their theological and ideological commitments and assumptions. The march of history suggests that neither ideological extreme is the panacea. Each position has strengths and weaknesses. Yet since the most recent experience of mainline denominations has tended toward the liberal end of the spectrum, it is not surprising that the call is now going out to move toward a more conservative position.

Only the passage of time will determine if the actions taken now and in the near future will be corrective or if they will be reactive and produce a climate in which other abuses will be accented and new problems created. The issue of retaining young people as members of mainline denominations is complex and will not be addressed adequately with simplistic actions and programs.

Retention Through Positive Interpersonal Relationships

Since social dislocations are a part of modern urban life, there is an ongoing need for members of congregations to satisfy their yearning for close interpersonal relationships. In the late 19505, ’60s, and into the 70s many books on the subject of congregational renewal tended to poke fun at or even lambaste all the fellowship activities going on in congregations. One pundit suggested that in some future age when archaeologists would excavate our churches they would conclude that cooking was part of the Christian religion because of all the elaborate kitchens they would find in churches. Spaghetti suppers, potlucks, and a whole host of other activities were lampooned because they were judged quasi-religious activities. Many pastors tried to redirect women’s guild programs, men’s clubs, fellowship clubs, couples’ clubs, etc., into more specifically religious activities like Bible studies and prayer  groups. Hindsight suggests that these changes may have eroded the social, psychological, and theological glue that helps people remain active in congregations.

Participation in Bible study or prayer groups encourages church members to remain active. From the vantage point of Lutheran theology one would expect that if members are recipients of the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, then such people would experience the active power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Active involvement in worship and continued reception of the means of grace are aspects of the sanctified life. From the vantage point of social science theories one would expect such individuals to remain active because the group in which they participate has become integral in their understanding of themselves. Because of the discoveries about how small groups can Contribute to the overall strength of the large group, the importance of groups for maintaining church members’ sense of well-being and identification in the congregation has been highlighted in recent years. The Church Growth Movement has been especially vocal in its support of small groups within the life of the local church.

However, there are groups and there are groups. Small groups are most beneficial when their leaders understand the purpose of the group activity and how best to fulfill that purpose. Group theory offers helpful insights here. Depending on which theorist one reads, one gets varying descriptions; but most theorists have agreed that after considering the purpose of any given group there are basically four major types of leadership styles that are appropriate for group leaders. These leadership styles have been named: (1) High Relationship and Low Task, (2) High Task and High Relationship, (3) Low Task and Low Relationship, and (4) High Task and Low Relationship.

The high relationship and low task style may be very appropriate for a couples’ club in the local congregation. It emphasizes the relationships between people. However, a task-oriented person who wants to do more than relate with other members may feel frustrated and complain that “nothing ever gets done” by the couples’ club. If he persists in trying to get the couples’ club to do something, like a mission project, he will alienate himself from the members whose basic needs for a group emphasizing high relationship and low task are being met with the club’s original programming

Groups that can be described as high task and low relationship depend on a very directive leadership style. This approach works best with a group that is in the process of development or one that does not know what its purpose is. But it is not helpful in mature groups where the groups sense of purpose is accepted by all.

Newer groups need leadership which emphasizes high task and high relationship goals. This leadership style becomes inappropriate when the members have taken responsibility both for the health of the group and for the tasks it has set out to do.

Mature groups who are meeting relationship needs and fulfilling group tasks are best led with a low task and low relationship style of leadership. But new groups would find this style frustrating, weak, and ineffective.

All the above factors illustrate that while active groups in a congregation can be positive and helpful in maintaining allegiance, groups which are improperly led or organized can actually be a liability and produce feelings of conflict and hostility which contribute to individuals becoming apathetic or bored and finally inactive.

Certain skills help people to function in group settings. Verbal skills are very important in many aspects of life, including participation in groups. It is not surprising, then, that people with well developed verbal skills are less likely to be church dropouts than those who have less-than-average verbal abilities.

Retention Through Significant Experiences and Personal Investment

Individuals who have had a significant experience happen to them while they are members of a congregation are less likely to withdraw from that congregation than those members who have not had such a significant experience. Baptism, confirmation, marriage, and the funeral of a relative or a close friend are examples of such significant experiences.

When people have made a sizable positive investment in a congregation, they are less likely to withdraw. They have “earned” their place in the parish because of their activities. Dudley suggests an annual homecoming event for small congregations. Such events have some value for former members and older members of the congregation, but the primary value is that new members are included in the planning and carrying out of the event. This helps the new members to identify with the congregation, assists older members in accepting the new members, and makes retention of the new members much more likely.

Another way of helping old and new members of a congregation accept one another has to do with how new members are helped to appropriate the unique history of a congregation. New members can be “brought on board” through older members’ telling of the congregation’s informal history. This storytelling may be facilitated if it is done informally after a meal, using slides and photographs along with short, interesting anecdotes told by some older members of the congregation.

Because congregations are large enough and enduring enough, they become highly institutionalized when compared to some ad hoc groups that form to meet a particular short-term need and then disband. Because of the pressures to institutionalize, leaders of congregations often forget that God did not put people on earth to make them fodder for institutions; rather institutions are formed by people in order to serve people. When the proper understanding of the nature of institutions is lost, the members of such institutions feel they have become means to the end of institutional development, and they feel a sense of conflict between themselves and other members of the institutions and with the institutions themselves. Members who are distraught by the conflict they have experienced and members who feel used often drop out of congregational life.

Retention Through Conflict Resolution

Chapter 1 placed emphasis on the important role unresolved conflicts in interpersonal relationships play in causing people to withdraw from congregations. Because conflict destroys congregations, leaders of congregations need to possess conflict-resolution skills.

In an article entitled “Seminarians Unprepared for Parish `Give and Take,'” the author wrote: “Managing, inspiring team work, and resolving conflicts are not course titles at most seminaries, but they should be, according to a study conducted by The Alban Institute. . . . The scholarship and theory of seminary training does not prepare pastors for the frequent and unexpected responsibility for resolving conflicts,’ said project director Roy M. Oswald. . . .”

An important assumption of theorists in the field of conflict resolution is that conflict is an inevitable factor in all situations where two or more people must interact with one another. Therefore the issue is not whether there will be conflict. The issue is, “How shall the conflict be managed?”

There are a number of possibilities that may help to explain why church leaders and members are so inept in working through conflicts. Perhaps church leaders and members expect that among Christian people there should be no conflict. Since the love of Christ motivates His people, some faithful people seemingly conclude that conflict should not exist within congregations. Such reasoning is not founded on Scripture, for it relates examples of conflict between faithful disciples.

Scripture gives us an excellent example of wise conflict resolution in Acts 15. James wisely resolved the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers by appealing to the authoritative Scriptures, which were accepted by both factions.

Complicating the struggle that church members have with conflict is the anger that is so often present in conflict situations. Anger usually arises because people feel frustrated in meeting their objectives. Anger is a natural response to frustration. Discovering that one is angry is not necessarily a moral problem, but how one deals with that anger is definitely a moral issue. In Matt. 5:21-22 Jesus is quoted as saying: “Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgment. But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgment” (NEB). St. Paul in Eph. 4:26-27 wrote: “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” The point of both these passages is identical. The problem is not the anger. The problem is that sinful human beings tend to reflect upon, emphasize, propagate, encourage, and nurture anger to the point where it becomes all-consuming. The anger itself, if confronted and worked through, does not necessarily lead to the wounds which uncontrolled anger can produce.

When one gets beyond the point of simply ignoring conflict, or feeling a sense of panic because a conflict has developed, and begins to recognize that conflict is not only inevitable between members of Christian congregations but also can provide the climate for thinking through an issue, then some positive developments can transpire. Members of congregations should understand that Christians can easily mix their personal goals with what they perceive to be congregational goals. Sometimes personal goals and congregational goals are mutually exclusive! In addition, there may be organizational goals or denominational goals which conflict with the institutional goals of individual members. Therefore in every congregation there are literally hundreds of individuals whose goals for the congregation are  very important to them as individuals. Many church leaders are surprised when seemingly uninvolved or apathetic members of congregations attend meetings because specific congregational concerns interest them. Since even the most loosely attached members have personal goals for their congregation which they want to see it attain, they react when they see the attainment of those goals threatened. When such a reaction happens, a conflict situation has arisen.

Members may also have other personal goals which on the surface have nothing to do with their church, yet those personal goals can affect their behavior in the church. Examples of personal goals might be to be elected or appointed to a position of leadership, to persuade the congregation to buy property insurance from the company the person represents, or to serve as soloist in the choir. If the attainment of these goals is frustrated, the person may foment conflict.

Thus there are three types of goals that compete with one another within congregations. First, there are the goals that people have for themselves, and the local congregation is viewed as a means to attain these goals. The second set of goals are the personal goals that individuals have for the congregation as an organization. The third set of goals are those that are identified as those of the congregation or of the denomination. Conflict develops between the members within congregations because the specifics of these goals can be contradictory and mutually exclusive of one another.

Obviously the congregations which are Likely to experience the least amount of conflict situations are those which are composed of members who share a high level of conformity relative to individual personal goals, personal institutional goals, and institutional goals. This is one of the reasons why the homogeneous unit concept as highlighted in Church Growth literature works effectively, at least at one level. Homogeneous units usually are afflicted with less conflict than heterogeneous units. Yet it would be a complete misunderstanding to suggest that homogeneous units are not prone to any conflict. The conflicts that do arise, however, will generally not be conflicts concerning issues like race, language, or class differences.

Theorists who study conflict and have developed strategies to cope with it often talk or write about the creative use of conflict. This means that as a congregation gets to a point in its history where conflict arises, the congregation needs to help its members manage the conflict so that through the process of resolving it the members will: (1) experience emotional and spiritual growth, (2) discover new relationships and alternatives to solve the causes of the conflict, and (3) develop a sense of real cohesiveness and unity.

There are some principles which are very important to apply if conflict is to be managed in a creative way. Lewis suggests seven:

1. Church leaders can be useful in helping congregations manage conflict when the leaders are able to help the members of the congregation feel good about themselves as individuals and as a congregation.

2. Creative conflict management depends on the ability of people to listen to what others are saying. Such listening takes seriously the need to recognize that people speak out of their own experiences. These experiences make them unique as persons.

3. Conflicts are often fueled because people do not examine their own assumptions about the nature of given situations. Examining assumptions is no small task. One of the reasons that assumptions are so difficult to confront is the very fact that they are assumptions. People generally assume that their assumptions are givens which do not need to be tested or examined.

4. Conflicts are aggravated because people often do not know what they wish to accomplish. Determining the objectives or goals in specified situations in congregations is an important step in resolving conflicts.

5. Conflict cannot be managed effectively if it is impossible to identify the primary issue that caused the conflict. Every party in a conflict situation needs to agree on what the issue is that has created the conflict. Until this step is achieved much heat but very little light will be generated.

6. Once the issue has been identified, it is time to look for the possible alternatives that are available so that all parties in the conflict can feel that their needs and concerns have been met.

Authors have suggested various ways to resolve conflicts. One approach is to talk about the four c’s, namely: capitulation, compromise, coexistence, and collaboration. The first three ways to resolve conflict capitulation, compromise, and coexistence-by definition do not give the conflicting parties the feeling that their needs and concerns have been met. However, in the collaborative approach to resolving conflicts most, if not all, of the needs and concerns of the conflicting parties are addressed. Collaborative efforts at conflict resolution are initially time consuming, but the collaborative approach saves time in the long run because people will feel that the conflict has really been resolved, and they are enabled to feel good about themselves, their fellow members, and the resolution that was developed.

7. Finally, the process of managing conflicts should be adopted by the congregation for use at the required times and should not be recreated or reinvented each time a crisis develops. If, particular process is identified and institutionalized at a time when conflict is not apparent, then when the process is needed later and is applied, conflicting parties are less likely to feel that the process was designed to get them to conform, but rather that the previously agreed-upon process is as objective a way to confront the conflict as subjective people are able to create.

Lewis proposes that congregational conflict management should be placed into the context of liturgy. He has written: The elements of this liturgy intentionally parallel a Christian liturgy for worship.

Thanksgiving: I am an intentional person created by God with goals and a purpose. . . .

Confession: I seek the fulfillment of my goals, even at the cost of the well-being of others and myself.

Absolution: God affirms and loves me in spite of the destructiveness of my will and actions.

Intercession: Because I experience affirmation and transformation, I am open to and care for the needs and goals of others.

Service: I will invest my creative energy in the midst of conflict to search for alternatives that lead to the fulfillment and wholeness of all persons.

Retention Through Encouragement of Volunteers

People who feel good about their involvement as volunteers in the life of the congregation are also people who drop out less frequently. As indicated in chapter one, some people who drop out of a congregation’s life do so because they feel used. Seemingly the issue is not how many hours one spends in volunteer work but how one feels about the work. People who feel positive about what they have done and who receive positive feedback from others about what they have done are less likely to drop out.

This observation is supported by evidence from empirical studies which suggest that on the average the members of congregations who feel they are encouraged and enabled to influence how the congregation carries on its affairs will feel more satisfaction than those who are unable to exert such influence.

Retention Through Increased Congregational Warmth

Another group of people who tend to remain active are those who work in professions or occupations which make it necessary to meet and work with strangers. In a time of high mobility some people cope well with their own mobility and the mobility of others. Their personality, training, and experiences do not limit them to a relatively small circle of lifelong friends. Such people are more likely to be stayers in a congregation’s life, for they are able to adjust to things, particularly the changing nature of fellow members. If indeed people who are willing to meet strangers are more likely not to drop out, their very willingness may be a real help to those who do not have the ability to meet strangers. The 1978 Gallup data indicated that unchurched people were more likely than churched people to agree with the statement that the church is “not warm or accepting of outsiders.”

Retention Through Responsible Social] Action

Congregations that wish to retain members and continue to grow will need to provide some means for their members to be involved in social action activities. This is a complicated issue because social action programming can have positive or  negative effects. Some social action programming enhances commitment, while other types of programming diminish commitment. For example, the congregations highlighted in Unique Evangelical Churches all have strong programs of social ministry. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has not been noted as a denomination which is highly involved in social ministry, but Missouri Synod Lutherans do have a long-standing commitment in special education, particularly with deaf and handicapped people. More recently LCMS congregations have responded positively to sponsoring refugees from Southeast Asia, providing day care services for working parents who need loving care for their preschool children, and encouraging members to become donors of body organs by completing and carrying on their persons organ transplant donor cards. These activities have allowed Lutherans to give expression to their personal concerns about people who are less fortunate than they.


Genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of fellow members is the primary motivation which causes congregations to take seriously the need to try to prevent their members from becoming inactive. Such concern for fellow members of the body of Christ is an outgrowth of the Gospel message. Because of God’s love, which is conveyed to us in the Gospel, we who are forgiven and beloved people of God are empowered to love all the other people whom God also loves. To reflect God’s love for us by loving others is an important part of the Christian life.

At the same time God has made His body here on earth responsible for ministry in His behalf. God has given us minds to assist us in analyzing what is happening around us. Because of the insights provided to us by empirical studies conducted by social scientists, we have an increasingly accurate perception of how specific factors contribute to or detract from people’s participation in the life of parishes. Many of these factors can be influenced and even controlled by the leaders and members of the local congregation. What is needed is the willingness of congregations to take decisive action in regard to these factors so that fewer people will feel nudged toward inactivity.