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Going, Going...Gone

Charles Arn

"Lost." Few words capture the imagination and attention more than "lost." Countless novels, films, and TV dramas in modern society are centered on the idea of being lost or of losing something or someone.

Jesus, too, focused heavily on the lost. His parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son illustrate the great value God places on those who drift away, and, I believe, on our responsibility to reach-and include-them.

Despite our best efforts, though, we lose new families every week in our churches. This is a painful fact, especially when we consider how hard we work to invite new families into our ministries. Yet it happens all the time: Families who've participated and attended regularly just…slip away. Often this happens with little fanfare; sometimes congregation members don't even notice when a family stops showing up. But why do they leave?

Here's the reality: A handshake and a welcome packet won't cut it with new families. In fact, it's not even enough for new families to become members of your church. Without plans and actions that meaningfully include new families during their first year of attendance or membership, your excitement at having new faces in your ministry may quickly change to lament when you realize you've lost a family through the back door of your church.

It was my privilege to participate in a major research study seeking to answer the questions: Who drops out of church? When do they drop out? and, Why do they drop out? We uncovered some fascinating results that I believe every children's minister should know. Let's take a look.

Of those who drop out of a church, 82 percent leave in their first year. Like a new baby entering the world, that first year is critical to the survival of new families in churches.

After digging deeper into this information, we discovered something especially interesting: People don't leave at random times throughout that first year. There are two definite timeframe "spikes" when an inordinate number of newcomers simply stop coming. The simplified pattern looks like the chart in the "When People Leave Church" box on page 76.

These timeframe spikes got our attention. So we interviewed people who'd stopped attending after approximately six months of attendance; then a second group who'd stopped attending after about one year of attendance. "What happened?" we asked. "Tell us your story."

In listening repeatedly to the recordings of these interviews, certain common themes emerged. Newcomers are asking certain questions in the first year of their church involvement. Sometimes they're not even aware of their questions. But in telling their stories, their questions became clear. Also, the timing of their questions had significance.

It's important for you to know the questions new families are asking because the answers to these questions will determine whether they stay or leave. Here are the questions we found that families ask in the first six months.

"Can I make friends in this church?"
At the core of this question is the issue of belonging. Other studies on including newcomers have shown that people who stayed in church beyond the first year made an average of seven new friends. In contrast, those who dropped out made fewer than two. As a church growth consultant, I'm absolutely sure that the "friendship factor," more than any other, is key. To put it simply: Those who make friends stay; those who don't make friends don't stay.

"Is there a place I can fit in?" Here the issue is acceptance. Churches that provide a variety of affinity groups (groups made up of people who share a common interest, age, gender, marital or family status, concern, need, or dream) have a much higher rate of families who stay than churches without such "entry paths." And the more characteristics that group members have in common, the stronger the glue that connects them.

"Does this church really want me?" This is the issue of personal value. Almost all churches welcome new members and encourage them to become involved. Unfortunately, most churches have a tend-ency to then go back to "business as usual" and ignore this new source of creative ideas and energy. Are newcomers actively invited to participate in the ministries of your church? Is their opinion sought on policy and vision decisions?

The newcomers who answer "no" to these three questions often leave after five or six months. Newcomers who stay will consciously or unconsciously affirm that "Yes, I've made some friends in this church," "Yes, there's a group I'm feeling comfortable in," and "Yes, these people really do seem to be glad I'm here." These newcomers are, however, still asking questions. And even when new families appear to be engaged and included, the jury is still out on whether they'll stay for another five or six months. Why?

While similar in nature, the second set of questions differs in focus during the second six months of a new family's involvement in a church.

"Are my new friends as good as my old ones?" This issue isn't so much the quantity of their friends in church as the quality. New believers, in particular, begin to feel discomfort with their old behaviors, old habits, and old friends. That's good. But they're also assessing the value and depth of their new relationships in the church.

"Does the group meet my needs?" New families may have found a young parents' group or a home-based small group Bible study of people with similar interests (see the first six-month question). But in the seven to 12 months after they began attending, newcomers are asking whether the benefit of their group involvement is worth the cost of time, inconvenience, and discomfort.

"Is my contribution important?" The question is no longer one of just doing something in the church, but now becomes one of significance. "I wanted to help change people's lives," one person who'd slipped out the back door of his church told us. "But the only thing they ever asked me to do was set up chairs for the all-church dinner." People want to do something that matters. The hope of many newcomers is that they can find a purpose through the church. It takes them about a year to decide whether they do-or don't-have purpose.

The second spike on the chart above represents people who left their church because the most common answer to the second set of questions was "no." But-and here's the good news-families who make it past the critical 12-month window will likely be involved in your church for many years.

The moral: Don't leave new families to fend for themselves. Plan ways to include them so that the six questions newcomers are asking in their first year are answered with a resounding: "YES!"
• • •
The first 12 months are critical in closing your church's back door. As you develop your strategies for helping new families feel they belong, are accepted, and have value in your church-I guarantee you'll have exciting new momentum, involvement, and morale…and far fewer people slipping out the back door. cm

Charles Arn is president of Church Growth, Inc., and is visiting professor of outreach and ministry at the new Wesley Seminary ( His most recent book is Heartbeat! How to Turn Passion Into Ministry in Your Church (Xulon).

To get "The Top Five Church Growth Principles" by Charles Arn and his characteristics of involved church newcomers, go to

Bill and Melody held the hands of their two daughters (ages 9 and 6) as they faced the congregation. The couple responded to the pastor's questions, briefly shared their faith story, and hugged the pastor as the congregation applauded and welcomed them into membership. Many of the members smiled at them as they returned to their seats. The family was very happy and looked forward to their new church.

Eleven months later, after those warm words of welcome and reception into membership, Bill, Melody, Kylie, and Melissa were inactive. They hadn't been to church or Sunday school in the last two months and would probably not attend the church again. There was no falling out with the pastor or people. There was no conflict in theology. The problem was that Bill, Melody, and their two girls had never been involved in the life of the church. What was worse, few people even noticed the family had drifted out the back door. When they joined the church, Bill and Melody had no intention of leaving. But they did. What happened?

The answer, in retrospect, was painfully simple.

"Do we have to go? I don't have any friends there," Kylie said one Saturday night about four months after they'd joined. "Me neither," echoed Melissa.

"Well, have you tried being friends with anyone in your class?" asked Melody, a little concerned with her children's comments.

"Yeah. No one sits by me," Kylie said.

"You know," Bill added after overhearing the conversation, "Not that many people have talked to me, either."

That conversation was the first time the sprouts surfaced, but the seeds had been growing for some time. Not that it had been intentional on the part of any adult or child in the church. But the church members had been "family" for so long that no one seemed to think about bringing anyone new into the fold.

The following Sunday morning, the family decided to go on a picnic in the park. The next weekend, the girls were invited to a sleepover with a neighbor family. Before Bill and Melody realized it, it had become normal not to go to church.

The two girls could hardly wait for the car to stop before they jumped out and ran across the parking lot. "Watch for cars!" Jenny shouted, as she gathered her Bible and study notes. "We were really lucky to find this church, huh?" she said to her husband.

"Well, I'm not sure I'd call it 'luck'," he said with a smile.

As the couple walked toward the building, Jenny thought about the first time they'd crossed that parking lot a little over a year ago. They'd just moved into town, and Jenny thought church would be a good place for the girls and Mark to make friends. Her, too, for that matter.

That first Sunday, a young couple about their age introduced themselves, and Jenny felt an immediate connection. The woman, Jill, had since become one of Jenny's best friends. That first Sunday, Jill had offered to take the girls to their class, and Jenny remembered being impressed with how the teacher had taken time to introduce her two girls to others and encourage the kids to be especially nice to their "new friends."

Jenny recalled how Jill and her husband had asked her and Mark to sit with them during the service. Afterward, they introduced them to several other couples their age. Jill had asked whether their family had any plans after church and invited them to one of their favorite fast food restaurants.

"I'll have to check with the girls," responded Jenny.

"Mom…Mom!" shouted the girls as Jenny met them in their class. "Christy asked us if we can go to her birthday party next Saturday. Can we?"

"Well, we'll have to find out more about it," Jenny had responded with a bewildered laugh. She was amazed at the overwhelming friendliness of everyone in the church.

Newcomers who make it past the critical 12-month window will likely be in your church as involved members for many years.

The principles of including newcomers apply whether the newcomer is 7-or 77. People are people. But there are areas that deserve special emphasis in children's ministry.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE CRITICAL Including new families (kids and adults) begins on the first visit. The #1 reason kids and adults give as to why they want to return to a church after their first visit is: "The people were friendly." So how do people determine whether a church is friendly or not? Simple: The number of people who talk with them! That means initiating a conversation, not just responding to one.

What to Do Train your leaders, volunteers, and families to initiate conversation with kids and parents they don't recognize. Role-playing works great for kids and adults. Encourage everyone in the church to look for newcomers and to say, "Hello."

FRIENDSHIPS ARE KEY While "friendliness" is why visitors return, "friends" are why they stay. Small groups (formal or informal) are the best way to create a greenhouse where relationships flourish. This applies to kids, adolescents, and adults.

What to Do Ministry leaders must view themselves as relational matchmakers, helping new people connect with others with whom they have things in common. Regularly include activities in all areas of your ministry that'll create and nurture friendships.

FEELING PRECEDE ACTIONS Those who slip out the back door of a church have usually felt dissatisfied long before it showed. When you track how kids and parents feel about their church activities, you can often close the back door.

What to Do Survey kids and adults about a list of the key aspects of your children's ministry. Have people give each item on the survey a green light ("all systems are go"), a yellow light ("I have some concerns in this area"), or a red light ("pull the car over and make some repairs"). This is a great way to identify potential problem areas and strengths.



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