Twelve Ways to Keep People from Joining Your Church
Lyle E. Schaller
“Why are you a member of this parish?” asked the denominational staff member of each of a dozen individuals who were gathered to talk with him about the evangelistic outreach of Trinity Church.
“My wife was a member here, and so I joined when we were married ten years ago,” was the first response.
“I guess I was born into this parish,” replied the next person in the group. “Both of my parents have been members here since before they were married.”
“We just walked in,” explained a third member of the group. “My husband and I both have been in this denomination all our lives, and since this is within easy walking distance of our house, we simply started coming here the first Sunday we were in town.”
“Well, I’ve been coming here for over twenty years,” responded Jeff Reynolds who appeared to be in his middle forties, “but I didn’t become a member until last winter when our new minister, Pastor Johnson, came and called on me and invited me to join.”
“You just became a member last winter!” exclaimed a woman sitting across the table from Mr. Reynolds. “Why, Jeff, I thought you had always been a member here. I know I’ve been seeing you around Trinity ever since my husband and I moved here, and that’s close to twenty years ago. How come you didn’t actually become a member until last winter?”
“Nobody had ever asked me to join,” replied Jeff Reynolds in a quiet voice.
Don’t Invite Them
This incident illustrates one of the most widely used techniques to keep people from joining the church. Do not invite them to unite with “our church.” While this may sound unbelievable to many parish leaders, some people do operate on the assumption that they are not welcome unless they have been invited. While they may drop in for worship without an invitation, they may not return unless they have been made to feel welcome, and they are unlikely to indicate any interest in uniting with this congregation until after an invitation has been extended by a member.
Today church growth is emerging as a top priority in many denominations and in thousands of congregations. Much has been written on how to encourage church growth and on the recruitment of new members. Workshops are being offered all across the country to train both the clergy and laity in the skills necessary to develop a growing church.
These are important issues, and they deserve the attention they are receiving, but the emergence of this high priority on church growth has obscured another related and very important skill that has been developed to a very high level of competence in thousands of congregations. This is the skill of discouraging church growth and the ability to discourage potential members from uniting with the church. Many congregations have spent ten, twenty, or even thirty years practicing several of these skills and have perfected them to the point that practically no “outsiders” with the possible exceptions of several people who got in by marrying a member and a handful of extroverted, aggressive, and very personable individuals who completely ignored the efforts to exclude them, have joined these congregations since the late 1950s or early 1960s. Church leaders who are interested in church growth, the evangelistic outreach of the parish, and the assimilation of new members, as well as those believe “our parish is already too large,” may find instructive to review several of these techniques and Several of these are even more subtle than the glue and the exclusionary principles described in the first two chapters. Unless they are identified and eliminated, they will tend to seriously inhibit potential church growth.
As described earlier, the most widely used technique to keep people from joining is not to invite them. This skill includes not inviting people who are not actively involved in the life of any worshiping congregation as well as the church shoppers who visit your church on Sunday morning, friends, neighbors, and people who associate with your members at work or in the various facets of community life.
The Impact of Short Pastorates
A second technique that is widely used, especially by many smaller congregations, to keep people from joining is to change ministers every two or three or four years. This is one of the most effective means of preventing church growth. Countless studies have demonstrated very clearly that pastoral leadership is a critical factor in church growth. In its report to the 1976 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church the Special Committee on Church Membership Trends declared, “Growing congregations . . . are characterized by stronger pastoral leadership,” and “The Church . . . must adequately recognize strong pastoral competence as a decisive factor for the vitality and outreach of a congregation.”
One of the means of reducing the positive impact of pastoral leadership is to change ministers every few years. Why is this true? First, there is overwhelmingly persuasive evidence that from a long-term congregational perspective, the most productive years of a pastorate seldom begin before the fourth or fifth or sixth year of a minister’s tenure in that congregation. Thus by changing pastors every two or three years a congregation has an excellent chance of avoiding those most productive years. While there are exceptions to this generalization, and the productive years of some pastorates do begin with the first or second year, these are sufficiently rare that a congregation usually can depend on avoiding the problems that result from rapid growth by changing ministers every few years.
A second reason that this is usually a reliable means of keeping people from joining your church is the natural response to the arrival of a new minister. Again there are exceptions to this generalization, but most congregations greet the newly arrived minister with a passive stance.’
We assume you brought your program with you, Pastor.—The first year of a new pastorate should be spent getting acquainted and building the trust level.—Go ahead, Pastor, and develop your program for this congregation and then tell us what you want us to do.
These are some of the statements that are frequently used to describe that first year. Each of them has a built-in acceptance of a passive stance by the members. This passivity often is reinforced by the various forms of grief over the departure of the predecessor. Some members may spend the first year of a new minister’s tenure grieving over the predecessor’s departure, deciding whether or not they want to risk all the hurt that accompanies the loss of a close friend by building friendship ties with the new minister, and by watching to discover what radical changes the new minister may suggest.
When a congregation has had only one or two ministers stay longer than four years since before World War I this passivity often reappears if and when a minister reaches the fourth year of his tenure in that congregation. Everyone knows the pastor soon will be moving on to greater challenges.
A passive congregation rarely attracts new members. Thus by changing ministers every two or three years a congregation can regularly practice its skills of passivity and thus not encourage new people to unite with that church.
Perhaps the most important reason that changing minis¬ters frequently is an effective means of discouraging church growth is that increasingly life is being perceived as primarily relational. If one takes a purely functional view of the role of the minister it is easy to justify short pastorates. From this perspective the emphasis is on what the minister does, not who he or she is. At least 85 percent of the lay people in the typical congregation tend to think primarily in relational, not functional terms, however.2 When this is coupled with the assumption that a basic characteristic of a growing church is that the members are enthusiastic about their faith, their church, and their minister (see Preface, assumption 7), it becomes apparent that one way to prevent church growth is to encourage a frequent change in pastors. It is difficult for most lay persons to be consistently enthusiastic about their church and their pastor if there is a change in ministers every two or three years.
Finally, dozens of surveys have demonstrated that rapidly growing congregations tend to be churches with long pastorates, and stable or declining congregations tend to have short pastorates. While these surveys do not prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship, the statistical relation¬ship is sufficient that changing ministers frequently is one of the most effective means of keeping people from joining your congregation.
The Impact of Financial Subsidies
A third technique for reducing church growth has been tested and proved in literally hundreds of congregations from many different denominations. This is to provide a substantial long-term financial subsidy from the denomina¬tion. This technique has been used widely with new missions out in suburbia, with long-established inner city churches, and with congregations in changing or transitional com¬munities. Frequently it is necessary for the denomination to subsidize these ministries at a critical stage in their development. Usually the short-term financial subsidy, if continued only for a period of one to four years, does not have a major negative impact on church growth. When this subsidy is continued for several additional years, however, it frequently helps to create or to reinforce conditions which tend to discourage church growth. One condition is the “welfare syndrome” or sense of dependency. Another is low morale. A third is a low level of congregational self-esteem. Another is passivity. A fifth is a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the destiny of the congregation. A sixth is a fostering of the belief that a larger subsidy and more money will solve all problems. Another is focusing attention on the congregation-denomination relationship rather than on an evangelistic outreach.
This pattern can be seen very clearly by contrasting the relatively large financial subsidies provided The United Methodist Church or the United Presbyterian Church to its home mission projects with the relatively modest financial subsidies provided by the Southern Baptist Convention to its new home missions and examining the growth rates of these missions. Within specific denominational families the congregations that have been receiving a long-term de¬nominational subsidy frequently have a significantly slower growth rate than similar congregations that have not had the “benefit” of a long-term denominational subsidy.
Criteria for Evaluating Potential
A fourth technique for keeping people from joining your church is to keep the focus on real estate when discussing how many more members a congregation can accommodate. Unquestionably the most common example of this is the debate over whether a congregation should change its to include two worship services on Sunday or to continue with one. (Sometimes the actual is to change from two back to one, but the basic the same.) “Why should we change to two services e never fill the sanctuary for one service?” is a response to a proposal to offer people a choice worship experiences on Sunday morning. Without to detail on the advantages and disadvantages of two services, this comment illustrates the tendency to use space as the basic criterion for determining a congregation can accommodate more members.
The result of this chain of reasoning is that there are thousands of churches where the leaders are when the congregation fails to attract more new s and to grow in numbers. After all, there is plenty for more people at worship, there are several school classes which could easily accommodate double or triple the current attendance, and there may be even empty rooms which could be used for new classes. Why does this congregation not attract more people and grow?
While this response does not apply to all such cases, there are at least three reasons why some of these congregations with many empty or half empty rooms do not attract new members.
The most common reason is that the church is under-med. The size, scope, and variety of the program is to accommodate only the current number of Closely related is the fact that many of these lions with an excess of physical space are under-‘he current number of program staff members may n adequate when the congregation was composed homogeneous collection of individuals and when there components of the glue (see chapter 1), which absent, were present to help weld this large of people into a cohesive and unified congregation conditions, however, the congregation is now understaffed.3 A third reason that many of these congrega¬tions, which appear to have room to grow, do not succeed in reaching many new members is the limited range of choices offered to people. In an age when the culture is encouraging people to express their individuality and to expect a range of choices, many congregations insist on offering people only three basic choices, (a) take what we offer, (b) stay home, or (c) go somewhere else.
Thus one tried and tested method of keeping people from joining your church is to focus the discussion on building space when the question arises as to whether or not this congregation is prepared to grow. The larger the building facilities, the more effective is this technique!
The Impact of Architectural Evangelism
What appears to be the opposite of this last factor is actually a fifth technique that has been widely used as a means of keeping potential members away. This can frequently be found in the many congregations which either have relocated from a former downtown site to a new and promising location out in a residential area and/or the congregation founded in the 1950s or early 1960s. In each case the plans called for construction of a very large facility for corporate worship. For example, if the congregation was averaging 185 at worship with a peak of 300 on Easter, the new sanctuary was planned to seat 500 or 600. “If you build a large, beautiful, and worshipful sanctuary, people will be standing in line to get in when it is completed” was the promise implied in the vision of what could be if only people had more faith in the future and in their leaders.
Eventually the new building is completed, and the attendance at Sunday morning worship now averages 175. The members come together every Sunday morning to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and experience a psychological defeat as two-thirds of the seats are empty. In simple terms, one very effective means of keeping your church from growing is to place your trust in architectural evangelism rather than in person-to-person evangelism.
The Impact of Self-Image
Closely related to these last two procedures is a sixth approach that has been used by thousands of congregations to avoid the challenges and changes that usually accompany church growth. This is to perpetuate the small-church self-image. This technique requires the leaders to identify their congregation as a small church and to function as what Carl Dudley has described as a “single-cell church.”4 This means the congregation functions as one large small group. Instead of seeing this as a congregation of groups, organizations, classes, circles, task forces, boards, commit¬tees, departments, and individuals, the leaders perceive it as a congregation of individuals and try to operate on the premise that it is one large circle or cell. Usually the congregation is too large to function as a healthy small group, and thus it is in effect a supersaturated solution with more members than can be absorbed into one group. These congregations usually are able to assimilate replacement members to take the place of members who move away, drop out, or die; but rarely are they able to grow. Church growth becomes possible only if and when these churches change from a single-cell to a multi-cell style of congregational life. Thus a very effective means of keeping potential members from uniting with your church is to function as a single-cell small church. This technique has been used with many congregations which have as many as four hundred to five hundred members.
The Impact of Intercongregational Cooperation
While this seventh approach to avoiding church growth runs counter to the natural inclinations of many people, including this writer, there is an increasing accumulation of evidence that church growth and intercongregational coop¬eration are incompatible goals.’ Or to state it very bluntly, the congregations that are receiving an unusually large number of new members tend to be the churches that are not actively involved in intercongregational cooperative ministries. This is a descriptive statement of how the world appears to be, not a value judgment of how it should be.
To discuss why this appears to be the dominant pattern means moving this discussion from the descriptive level to the level of speculation, but there appear to be at least seven responses to the question, Why? First, congregations with a high level of self-esteem, where the members are enthusias¬tic about their church and where there is a clear identity of role and purpose (three common characteristics of growing churches), rarely participate in cooperative ministries. Sec¬ond, the time and energy of both the clergy and laity that are devoted to the cooperative ministry often means that much less time and energy is available for reaching unchurched people. Third, cooperative ministries rarely have a strong, overt evangelistic dimension. Fourth, for any one of the participating congregations to place a major emphasis on reaching prospective members through the cooperative program might appear to be unfair to others and therefore often is de-emphasized. Fifth, by its nature a cooperative ministry tends to de-emphasize the distinctive assets, strengths, program, and ministry of the participating congregations and to highlight the ministry of this inter-congregation effort—and people unite with congregations, not with cooperative ministries. Sixth, some of the leaders, both lay and clergy, become so enthusiastic about the cooperative ministry that they fail to communicate to people outside any church an equal enthusiasm for what is happening in their own congregation. Finally, and perhaps most significant, there are some responsibilities that can be accomplished most effectively by an intercongregational approach and some that can be accomplished best by a unilateral approach. Issue-centered ministries, the theologi¬cal education of the next generation of ministers, and administration of a pension system for church employees fit into the first category. Corporate worship, maintenance of a meeting place for the worshiping congregation, Sunday school, and evangelism usually can be accomplished most effectively by a unilaterial approach. Key 73 demonstrated that an effective effort in evangelism can be implemented only by individual congregations, not by a cooperative approach. So, if you want to keep your church from being bothered by a lot of people wanting to join, place a heavy emphasis on intercongregational cooperation.
The Impact of the Cutback Syndrome
An eighth widely used approach to avoid church growth can be described very simply by the term cutback syndrome. This is reflected in such frequently heard comments as these:
Last year we combined the two evening circles in our women’s organization into one. —We are in the process of merging- two of our adult Sunday school classes. —The attendance at our first worship service on Sunday morning has dropped to an average of thirty five, so we have cutback to just one worship service. —So few young people were coming that we combined our junior high youth group with the senior high group.—We decided the best way to increase our choir membership was to combine the youth choir with the adult choir. —We tried going to two worship services on Sunday morning for a year; and while our total attendance increased, it seemed to many of us that we were dividing the church and creating two congregations, so we have gone back to only one service. —We felt our teachers deserved a vacation so we cut out Sunday school for the summer.
These comments illustrate some of the many facets of the cutback syndrome. There are at least five major reasons why this is one of the most effective means of discouraging church growth. First, by reducing the number of groups in the church, this reduces the opportunities for new members to find a place of entrance, acceptance, and fellowship. Second, the more sensitive any organization is to the needs of people, the more complex and diverse its organizational structure. By reducing the complexity of the congregational program structure, that church becomes less able to be sensitive and responsive to the diverse needs of people outside any worshiping congregation. Third, a reduction in the organiza¬tional and program structure reduces the need for additional leaders and workers. Thus the old-timers can carry the load. New members are not needed and do not feel a sense of being needed. Fourth, by reducing the range of choices available to members, the range of events and experiences to which members could invite non-members is reduced. Finally, expectations do influence performance. Adoption of the cutback motif tends to create a self-perpetuating cycle which largely eliminates the possibilities for church growth.
The Transfer of Responsibility
The ninth technique on this list is probably the easiest of any to implement, and it usually works. It can be summed up in the often-repeated observation: “We’re here every Sunday morning at the same time; if they are interested they should be able to take the initiative. The doors are wide open. If they want to come to church, all they have to do is walk in, and they’ll find we’ll welcome them.” The “they” variously refers to people who are not active in the life of any worshiping congregation, to newcomers to the community, and to anyone who might be described as a prospective member.
It is difficult to reconcile this position with Matthew 28:19, but it is easy to equate it with the doctrine of original sin, and it is one of the more effectve methods for keeping people from joining your church.
Subversion of the Agenda
A tenth technique that often has proved to be a useful means of preventing church growth is somewhat more difficult to describe because it comes in many different disguises and frequently is not easily recognized. In general terms it can be described as shifting the focus of the congregational agenda from ministry to institutional mainte-nance. The means to an end becomes an end in itself and crowds the basic purpose of the church off the agenda.
A comparatively highly visible example of this is the congregation which launches a major visitation-evangelism effort because more members are needed to help raise the money necessary to repair the roof. Equally effective, perhaps more common but less visible, is the decision to maintain the status quo for the next several years so the present pastor can finish his ministerial career here without any disturbances or intrusions before retiring. A third example is placing the top priority in the allocation of resources on the maintenance of the meeting place. A fourth example is the congregation that reduces the program staff in order to pay for a building renovation effort that must be completed before the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of that congregation.
The Impact of the Literalists
Another technique to keep your congregation from being overwhelmed by new members can be illustrated by two congregations, both of which place a heavy emphasis on visitation evangelism. The procedure at the first church was explained in these words:
We try to call on every new family in the community within ten days after they move here. Our callers have been trained to be able to identify the good prospects in one visit. In that first call we try to identify the needs of that family and to match them with the appropriate group or class or organization in our church. If they don’t respond to that call, we write them off. If they’re interested in the church, they’ll respond. If they’re not interested, there’s nothing we can do by continuing to call on them.
This congregation reached its peak in size in 1953 and has been on the decline ever since, although the rate of decline has been slowed since they began this visitation-evangelism program in 1971.
Slightly more than a mile away is the meeting place of another congregation of the same denomination. The lay volunteer in charge of their visitation program described it in these words:
Our goal is to have one or two of our members call on every newcomer to this community within ten days after they move here. The primary purpose of that first call or two is to build a relationship between our members and the newcomers. With a few rare exceptions we never even consider whether we should continue calling on the newcomers until after we have completed seven or eight calls at that home. Many of our most active members said no when we first invited them to our church. Our building is so large and so impressive that it tends to scare a lot of people away. Besides that, most of the people moving in here are working-class people and they tend to see us, partly because of our building and partly because of our history, as a prestigious, upper-class church. We interpret those first two or three negative responses as meaning, not-yes, now. We can’t afford to take a no literally!
This congregation peaked at 1800 members in the early 1950s, dropped to less than 300 in 1968, and now includes more than 900 members, most of them recent newcomers to that community.
In other words, an effective way to keep your church from growing is to interpret that first No literally. (This also is an effective means of increasing the proportion of new members who will drop into activity. For details, see chapter 7.)
Rifle or Shotgun?
“How can you suggest that we focus our evangelistic efforts on any one group?” asked Mrs. Robert Burton with a mixture of surprise, disappointment, bewilderment, and exasperation in her voice. “That would not be Christian! We welcome everyone here. To ask us to concentrate on any one group would be discriminatory, and as Christians we can’t discriminate among God’s children.”
This response confuses two very different operational questions and also raises a very basic doctrinal question on the nature of the church. The first operational question is, Do we welcome everyone who wants to worship with us? Mrs. Burton was correct in her contention that as a Christian congregation we have no alternative but to welcome everyone who accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The second operational question is, Who are the people we are trying to reach with our evangelistic outreach? No one congregation can reach and minister to everyone. The English-speaking congregation will have difficulty trying to reach and serve persons who speak only Korean or individuals who speak only Swedish and prefer to worship God in their native tongue. The congregation which meets in a building with many different sets of stairs will have difficulty in reaching people who find it hard to climb stairs. The research coming out of the Church Growth Movement suggests very clearly that the easiest (but not the only) way for a church to grow is to focus its evangelistic outreach on a narrowly and precisely defined segment of the population.
Whether one completely accepts this basic concept of church growth or not is largely irrelevant to this discussion. At a minimum, however, it is important to recognize that the most effective beginning point for any congregation seeking to reach people who are outside any worshiping congrega¬tion is to focus on one precisely defined segment of the population, identify their specific needs, mobilize the resources necessary to be able to respond to these needs, and begin to build the relationship between the members and the people the congregation is seeking to reach. No one congregation has the resources necessary to respond to the needs of every unchurched person.
This raises the basic doctrinal question: In theological terms, how do you define the nature of your congregation? Do you see it as the church? Or do you see it as one institutional expression of the universal church? The universal church is expected to reach and minister to everyone in the name of Jesus Christ. That is an extravagant burden, however, to place on any one congregation. For example, the gospel is preached in Chicago in at least forty languages every week. That is necessary. Is it reasonable to believe that every Christian congregation in Chicago should preach the gospel in forty different languages every week? There is a difference between what God expects of his church and what he expects of each individual congregation. What piece of the total evangelistic responsibility of the church do you understand God has placed on your congregation? To answer, “All of it,” is not only presumptuous, but also is likely to immobilize any congregation and to result in little happening of any significance.
To proclaim that “we are trying to reach all the people,” probably means that you have adopted an effective technique for keeping people from joining your church.
Questions for Self-Examination
1. When is the last time you invited someone to unite with your congregation?
2. Review the list of adults who united with your congregation during the past two years. How many are children of members? How many came in via marriage to a member? How many came in on their own initiative? How many were invited by the pastor? How many were invited by another staff person? How many were invited by a member?
3. What has been the tenure for pastors in your congregation? Trace the records back to 1940. How many pastors stayed more than six years? How many moved before the beginning of their fifth year? Does this appear to have had any impact on the number of adults who united with your congregation and were fully assimilated?
4. When members of your congregation discuss the possibilities for church growth, do they tend to use building space as the basic criterion or do they use program, staff, and the group life as the criteria for determining whether your congregation could accommodate more people?
5. Is the Sunday morning schedule planned to offer people choices or to fill up the building?
6. Have you placed any emphasis on “architectural evangelism?” How has it worked?
7. Do the members see your congregation as a small church? Is it basically a single-cell congregation? Or is it a congregation of groups, classes, organizations, circles, committees, and individuals with very little overlap in the membership of the various groups?
8. What is the degree of involvement of your congregation in intercongregational cooperation? What has been the effect of this on church growth for all the participating congrega¬tions?
9. Have you been increasing and enlarging the number of groups, classes, organizations, choices, circles, and other small face-to-face groups in your congregation? Or have you been cutting back on the number? What has been the impact on church growth?
10. Do the members of your congregation actively accept the responsibility for inviting people to come to your church? Or do you depend on unchurched people and newcomers to your community to exercise their own initiative and to come to your church without being invited?
11. Does the agenda at the typical board (or consistory or church council or session or vestry) meeting of your con¬gregation consist largely of items of institutional mainte-nance? Or is the agenda dominated by ministry and outreach items? Check the actual agenda or the minutes for the last three meetings.
12. In inviting unchurched people to come to your church do your members tend to take that first no literally? Is there any system for repeated invitations?
13. What is your specialty, as a congregation, in ministry? What is the area of your greatest effectiveness in ministry? Are you attempting to build your evangelistic outreach on this strength or are you attempting to reach and to minister to everyone?
14. As you consider expanding the evangelistic outreach of your congregation, what do you see as the beginning point? Which segment of the unchurched population will you focus on first?
15. As you do this, which of the barriers to church growth described in this chapter will you have to eliminate? (At this point you may want to look more carefully at your congregation to identify other barriers to church growth. For suggestions on several other types of barriers to growth, see Lyle E. Schaller, Survival Tactics in the Parish, pp. 91-103, 135-43. Frequently a congregation finds it must identify and eliminate these barriers, most of which are not readily visible to the members, before it can launch an effective evangelistic outreach effort.)
The above article, “Twelve Ways to Keep People from Joining Your Church” was written by Lyle E. Schaller. The article was excerpted from chapter 3 in Schaller’s book, Assimilating New Members.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
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.”