Looking at the Inactive Members
By L. E. Schaller
How do you activate the inactive members? asked George Bennett a member of the group in general and the resource person in particular. George was one of three dozen lay leaders from fourteen congregations who were attending a weekend workshop on evangelism and church growth. 1 don’t want to minimize the importance of reaching the unchurched with the gospel, and I agree that it is important that a Christian should be a part of the nurturing fellowship of a church, he continued, but we have a bigger problem. Before coming here this weekend I did some homework. During the past four years we have received thirty-nine new adult members. I’m counting only adults, not the children of members who grew up in the church or the youth who joined with their parents. Out of this list of thirty-nine adults who joined during the past four years, nine have moved out of our community, seven are very active members, twelve are moderately active, and eleven are either completely, or almost totally, inactive. Now, can you give me some help on that one? More than a third of those who still live in our community are inactive.
That’s a better record than we have at First Church, commented Glenn Frazier. I don’t have the exact figures, but my guess is that at least half of the new adult members we receive become inactive within five years after they join our congregation.
That’s high on our priority list, too, added Martha Thomas from Bethany Church. How can we strengthen the commitment of our members so we don’t end up with so many inactive members? And I’m also interested in what we can do about all who are now inactive.
I guess it’s the same all over, offered a second representative from the fourteen-hundred-member First Church. Many of the church organizations which used to have so much vitality and which meant so much to so many people simply aren’t attracting people today. We have a lot of members on the roll who are almost completely inactive. I guess everyone is so busy these days they don’t seem to have time for church activities anymore.
We’ve tried a half dozen different procedures, responded an older man from Trinity Church. Once a year we call on all our inactive members and urge them to begin attending church again, but it doesn’t seem to help. Two years ago we visited every inactive member during November and urged them to attend during Advent. In February of last year we went out again and called on every inactive member and invited them to attend every Sunday during Lent, but it didn’t do much good. Only a handful responded.
Let’s face it, declared a member from the Lake Avenue Church. We’re talking about people who don’t care. They simply want their names on the membership roll of some church, but they’re not interested in being a part of it or in supporting it. All they want is their names on the membership roster.
Let’s get down to the key issue, insisted a determined member of the Main Street Church. What’s wrong with these people who come forward and unite with the church in apparent sincerity and then drop out? Why do these people behave that way? What is there about people that causes them to want to join a church, but not be willing to take any responsibility? Why is it some people insist on being members of a church, but they won’t participate in any program or activity or group in that church?
The best response to these comments is that they are very, very poor questions. They are poor because the wording transfers the responsibility for the present state of affairs from us to them. That is a loser.
All we have direct control over is what we do or do not do. We do not have direct control over what they do or do not do. Therefore a better question to ask is, What did we do or not do that may have helped create this set of conditions? While this may be a very threatening question to raise, it can be a far more constructive approach than speculating about what is wrong with them. This can be illustrated by reviewing some of the most widely shared assumptions on this subject.
Assumptions About Inactive Members
The easiest approach to the question of inactive members, why they are inactive, and what can be done about it, is to focus on the faults of the inactive members. Why did they not take their vows of membership more seriously? Why do some people seem to be more concerned that their names are on the membership roll than about the obligations of church membership? Why do those people expect the rest of us to be willing to support this congregation so it can be here when they decide it is convenient to attend worship?
While this scapegoating approach may be an enjoyable hobby for many people, it tends not to be especially helpful or productive. It is an especially poor approach for the congregation that is seriously interested in the assimilation of recent new members. A better approach might be to look at the issue of inactive members from this set of assumptions.
1. We assume that every person who united with this congregation did so with complete sincerity and in good faith.
2. We assume that every person who united with this congregation and is now an inactive member has what is, from their point of view, a good reason for being inactive.
3. We assume that if each inactive member has a good reason for being inactive they will continue to be inactive until after that reason has been identified and eliminated.
(Therefore any effort to make the inactive members feel more guilty about being inactive probably will be counter productive.)
4. We assume that for us to speculate and attempt to identify that reason will be less productive than seeking to discover that reason more directly by talking with the inactive member.
5. We assume that since all our inactive members are normal human beings they will respond like other normal human beings and offer excuses rather than reasons when we first approach them. (If we accept their excuses as reasons or if we try to dismiss these excuses as unimportant, we may never discover the real reasons behind the excuses.)
6. We assume that we can learn more by listening than by talking, and therefore our approach to our inactive members will be one of active listening. We can expect this to require at least several hours of active listening with each inactive member or inactive family.
7. We assume this listening process is more likely to require six to ten hours, rather than two or three hours, if we are serious about getting beyond the veneer of excuses and discovering the basic reasons why this member is now inactive.
8. We assume this process will probably require several visits, and it is unlikely to be accomplished in one or two visits. (Frequently the first visit produces a series of excuses and guilt responses by the inactive member, the second visit releases a variety of hostile comments, and not until the third or fourth visit is the caller able to hear the basic reasons why this person is now inactive.)
9. We assume that the longer we wait after a member has become inactive, the more difficult it will be to help that person become an active member of this congregation.
For an extended discussion of this type of listening call see Those Blinking Red Lights in Lyle E. Schaller, Hey, That’s Our Church! (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), pp. 116-25.
10. We assume that few, if any of the existing classes, circles, organizations and face-to-face groups in this congregation are completely effective in caring for the members of that class or group, in listening and responding constructively to their hurts, anxieties and concerns, or in being sensitive to the needs of persons not in that class or group. Therefore we need a backup system to reach and minister to the people who are not cared for by the face-to-face groups, or we will always be faced with the problem of inactive members.
11. We assume that the person who has become an inactive member often has greater difficulty in coping with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger, hostility, anxiety, or neglect than do the more active members of the congregation. Therefore it is of critical importance that (a) the inactive member be called on before these feelings have become deeply ingrained and (b) that the caller be the type of personality and possess the skills which will not further intensify and enhance these feelings of inadequacy and guilt, will rather help the inactive member overcome these feelings.
12. We assume that the vast majority of inactive members send a signal to the church when they experience an anxiety-producing conflict or sense of helplessness. If this signal is ignored, the member may enter into a period of inactivity to further test whether anyone really cares about me. After the end of this test or probationary period that person becomes an increasingly rigid, inactive member. Therefore it is very important that (a) every congregation have some system for identifying the early signals sent to the church by the potentially inactive members and (b) a system for quickly responding to these signals, such as a cadre of trained callers who regularly make listening calls.
Unquestionably the best resource on this subject is John S. Savage, The Apathetic and Bored Church Member (Pittsford, N.Y.: Lead Consultants, P.O. Box 311, 1976).
Schaller, Hey, That’s Our Church!
13. We assume that the spiritual needs of some members change as the years go by. Therefore some of our longtime members who may appear to have become inactive or who are shopping for a new church home should be identified, not as bored or apathetic or hostile or disinterested, but rather as potential graduates from our congregation. These are the persons who have benefited from everything our congregation has been able to offer them, and as graduates are seeking a postgraduate level of challenge in terms of their own personal religious experience and discipline. If our church cannot or does not offer this, they will look elsewhere. (This migration is both from the liberal churches to the conservative churches and from the conservative churches to the liberal churches. One of the reasons this migration baffles many people is that many of the pastors of liberal churches have been part of the conservative-to-liberal migration while today many lay persons are in the liberal-to-conservative migration pattern.) A constructive response is for the congregation to be prepared to offer a new and varied assortment of events and experiences for the personal and spiritual growth of the members.
14. We assume that in establishing meaningful communication with inactive members we are faced with two challenges. One is to listen (see item 6 above). The second is to be aware of the assumptions we bring to the conversation with the inactive member and to recognize which of our assumptions may be counterproductive.
15. Finally, we assume that while we do not have direct control over all the many factors that may cause a member to be inactive, we do have complete and direct control over the assumptions on which we build our response to the inactive member as well as over what we do or do not do that causes members to become inactive.
For a very provocative elaboration of this concept see John E. Biersdorf, Hunger for Experience (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975).
Questions for Self-Examination
1. List the actual operational assumptions for the response of your congregation to new members. How does that list compare with the fifteen assumptions suggested here? Which ones may require changing? What are the major obstacles to changing these operational assumptions in your congregation? How will you overcome these obstacles?
2. You may want to ask the members of the committee or group in your congregation who are responsible for the assimilation of new members to spend a few minutes on this exercise.
You have just returned from a group interview with seven adults who have united with Faith Church during the past three months. Faith is a nine-hundred-member, family- oriented congregation founded in 1953, and today over one-half of the members live more than one mile from the church building.
Herbert Stone, age 49, and his wife Helen, age 46, moved here four months ago from another state. During the discussion Herb said, One reason we picked Faith is that it’s a big church. Helen and I have been members of four different churches in the twenty-five years we have been married. They were all in the two- to five-hundred-member category, and we both became very active in each of the last three. Our youngest child graduates from high school next June, and so when we moved here we thought we would look for a big church we could get lost in and let some others carry the load for a while. Helen and I both feel we’re due a vacation for a year or two. Herb and Helen rarely miss worship on Sunday morning, but they are not active in any other area of the life of Faith Church.
Betty Lyons is a twenty-six-year-old, single adult who has an excellent job as a legal secretary in the largest law firm in the county. She came here seven months ago because she wanted to live in this part of the country. She commented, The only thing that disappoints me about Faith Church is there is no drama group. I love to help with amateur plays. I can do anything direct, work backstage, act, or whatever is needed. I just love the theater. For the first few months at Faith Church, Betty attended the Pairs and Spares Sunday school class, and it was because of the friendship ties she developed through that class that she decided to transfer her church membership to Faith Church, despite the fact that this meant changing denominations. Lately, however, she has begun to realize that this class is primarily for couples and for persons whose spouses are teaching in the Sunday school or are in the choir and who miss Sunday school because of the extended warm-up period for the choir before worship. Now Betty rarely attends Sunday school but is usually in worship.
Jim and Dottie Wingard are a young married couple in their mid-twenties who have found a home in the Pairs and Spares Class. Dottie also is a member of the young mother’s circle in the women’s organization, and Jim soon will be asked to serve on the Christian Education committee next year with the hope that he will help the youth program. Both have been active in churches since childhood, and while they moved here only five months ago, they are highly enthusiastic about everything at Faith Church.
Mrs. Charles Parker’s husband died eleven months ago. She is sixty-eight years old and decided to leave her friends behind and move two hundred miles in order to be near her son and his wife and three children. This son married a very devout Roman Catholic girl seventeen years ago and today is a very active and committed Catholic. This means that every Sunday morning Mrs. Parker comes here by herself from her apartment two miles west of the church. After visiting here for three months, she was formally received by letter as a member of Faith Church. She never misses Sunday morning worship and never participates in any other program at Faith.
Mrs. Melvin Sparks is a twenty-two-year-old bride of thirteen months who is now eight months pregnant. She comes from a very active church family, but married a man with no church affiliation. They moved here from another part of the state eleven months ago. After trying for several months to persuade her husband to join with her, two months ago she gave up and transferred her membership from her home church to Faith. She has missed worship only three Sundays in the past eleven months (her husband came with her twice several months ago), but is not active in any other aspect of the life of Faith Church.
Ask the members of your group, after they have had the chance to read this material, to discuss these five situations.
First, which of these seven recent new adult members of Faith Church are likely to become completely assimilated into this congregation, to feel a strong sense of belonging, and to become active workers and/or leaders at Faith? Which ones are not likely to become more actively involved in the total life and program at Faith Church? Ask each respondent to give specific reasons for their predictions on each person.
Second, what is the only safe assumption one can offer about all seven?
Third, a total of twelve recent adult, new members were invited to this group interview. Those invited included three couples, two single men in their twenties, one widow, two single women, and one woman (Mrs. Sparks) who belonged, but her husband did not attend because he is not a member. One of the couples, the two single men, and one of the two single women did not attend. What is the only safe assumption one can offer about why these five recent adult new members did not attend?
Fourth, were these seven members sending the church a signal by their non-attendance?
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.