Recovering Inactive Members


“I’m glad we’re getting a new pastor,” she said.

“Yes,” her friend replied. “Maybe she can get some of our inactive members to come back.”

Most newly arrived clergy know that wish is part of the landscape. Lay leaders hope he or she is the pied piper who attracts back their church’s long list of inactive members.

That hopeful expectation is mostly myth. A few recent dropouts return. That behavior by a short list of inactive members causes some clergy and lay leaders (a) to buy into an unearned guilt trip and (b) waste
time that they should expend reaching out to people who have not yet attended or joined their church.

Why Do They Drop Out?

Pioneering research by John Savage indicated. that most dropout flights start taxiing toward the runway due to a specific incident on a specific day. Called the “anxiety-provoking event,” their church relationship begins deteriorating. Their attendance becomes irregular or stops. [John Savage, The Apathetic and Bored Church Member (Pittsford, New York: LEAD Consultants, 1976)] Subsequent research by Savage and others identified other inactivity causes, not all of which start with an “anxiety-provoking event.” [Steve Clapp, Overcoming Barriers to Church Growth (Elgin, Illinois: The Andrew Center, 1994)] Several thousand surveys from “formerly more active members” have added additional drop-out causes.

The typical inactive-member pattern originates from one or a combination of at least twenty causes (not listed in order of frequency):

1. Conflict with the pastor (or traumatic loss of the affectionate bond). Church members want a warm, positive relationship with their pastor. In small congregations, that relationship may involve personal contacts during home visits or socializing occasions. In large churches, that positive relationship may only involve handshakes after worship and rubbing shoulders at weddings, funerals, and fellowship
dinners. Either way, if something happens to destroy that relationship, the member starts feeling uncomfortable about attending that church.

2. Conflict with another church member. Disagreements with key laypersons who occupy positions of authority are the most common examples.

3. Feeling unaccepted by other church members. After joining, some people begin feeling that they do not share the needs and interests of other members that they had anticipated. Other new members feel
rejected because no one ever asks them to serve on a committee or in a ministry. Still others feel unappreciated because nobody seems willing to listen to their ideas.

4. Assimilation failures. Most people who remain active (a) are involved in a regularly meeting church group of some type and (b) carry some sort of church responsibility. When these two bonding mechanisms fail to happen, many people begin feeling that they do not fit here and drift away from regular attendance.

5. Change in pastors. Some people join the pastor first and the church later. If the pastor moves or retires soon after they join, such persons may feel emotionally disconnected or betrayed and withdraw from attendance.

6. Insufficient friendship formation. People who remain active usually have six or more friends in the church. Members who become inactive usually have two or fewer friends in the congregation.

7. Feeling neglected during or after a personal tragedy. The absence of caring signals from other members becomes especially obvious during times of personal pain. When that happens, many people disconnect from attendance.

8. The overworked, burned-out syndrome-too much, too soon. Highly capable people who work themselves into a heavy level of involvement sometimes become trapped there. Feeling they can more easily say no to church attendance than to requests for volunteer service, they drop out.

9. Too little change in the church. Some people get so frustrated that they prefer disappearance to the unending irritation of a paralyzed-progress plateau.

10. Conflict with a family member. A marriage on the rocks sometimes causes withdrawal from church life. In-law problems are another version of this cause. When members of a family tree have a falling out, some of them may fall out of the congregational tree.

11. Various forms of life crisis. This distress list includes personal financial problems, death of a spouse, serious illness, errant children, alcoholism, depression, and unemployment.

12. Various forms of life change. In addition to the damage negative experiences do, positive changes can, also disconnect people from churches. Upward job mobility that increases hours per week or demands weekend travel can thrust people out of the church attendance orbit.

13. Moral problem. When people of high principles engage in moral or ethical indiscretion, their guilt feelings sometimes lead to withdrawal from church attendance.

14. The failing band-aid syndrome. Couples sometimes try to avert divorce by joining a church. If that fails to solve their problem, they may drop out several months later. Sometimes a person under psychiatric treatment joins a church as a source of self-medication. If this does not work, he or she may exit from participation.

15. Cultural differences. Some people find that they do not “fit in” because their economic or professional status is too far above or below that of most other members. Cultural differences such as ethnic background, language, or national origins can also cause feelings of “social distance” that seem unbridgeable.

16. Lack of shared theological values. Because they like the pastor or their teenager likes the youth group,, some people allow that “halo effect” to override their theological reservations about becoming
members. Later, when reality sets in, they recognize that they cannot live with the chasm between their cherished biblical convictions and those of this congregation.

17. Lifestyle incompatibility. Some newcomers, after getting acquainted with several leaders, find their values and lifestyles abhorrent. This is often a problem with conservative Christians who join a more liberal congregation. “Getting to know you” sometimes becomes “not being able to stand being around you.”

18. Control failure. Women sometimes think they can change a man’s habits by marrying him. Similarly, a few people who join small churches expect to change them by becoming active leaders in them. When that fails, ecclesiastical divorce happens.

19. Fear. When fearfulness of conflict takes them beyond their comfort zone, some people find it more practical to disappear than to cope with their uneasiness. Some such people, in times of sharp congregational disagreement, slip overboard.

20. Angry unwillingness to rebuild broken relationships. A few irascible individuals cannot or will not forgive and forget, even though months have passed since the incident that precipitated their hostility. For them, it is easier to depart than to restart. Unlike the person whose fear drives them away, this person departs loudly rather than quietly, doing as much damage as possible on his or her outbound trip.