"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
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.
WHO DROPS OUT WHEN...AND WHY?
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.
WHEN PEOPLE LEAVE
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
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.
THE FIRST SIX MONTHS
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
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?
THE SECOND SIX MONTHS
While similar in nature, the second set of questions differs in
focus during the second six months of a new family's involvement in
"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
"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 (seminary.indwes.edu). 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 childrensministry.com/webextras.
CASE #1 THE UNINVOLVED FAMILY
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
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,"
"Well, have you tried being friends with anyone in your class?"
asked Melody, a little concerned with her children's
"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.
CASE #2 THE INVOLVED FAMILY
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
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 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.
"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.
DO KIDS CHANGE THE EQUATION?
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
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
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.