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Why Strategies to Engage Church Members Don’t Work

Why Strategies to Engage Church Members Don’t Work

Pastors and staff at the church Mark and Jessica attend are getting concerned.  They’ve noticed the family gradually pulling away.  Mark is clearly a gifted leader and strong in his faith, but he’s turned down multiple invitations to serve at church.  Jessica is willing to volunteer during Sunday services yet isn’t plugged into other church activities or events.  Emily was a fixture in youth group for a couple years but seems to have moved away from that social circle.  Ethan thrived in the children’s ministry; however, he’s about to face all the distractions of a being teenager in 2019.  The family has attended since 2016 and been highly visible – yet, to the surprise of members and even some staff, they never actually joined the church.

The First Leadership Meeting…

During a leadership meeting while considering candidates for committees, a deacon brings up Mark’s name.  When reminded that he’s not a member, a discussion ensues about the family’s reluctance to join.  The youth pastor raises concerns about Emily’s dwindling attendance.  An elder mentions that his wife has been asking Jessica to join her small group, to no avail.  The senior pastor praises Mark for his involvement in local ministries and helping families within the church.  The executive pastor says what everyone else in the room in already thinking – “We love this family; why are we losing them?”

The conversation turns to how to reengage Mark, Jessica and the kids – as well as families like them who seem to have one foot out the door.  Leadership drills down on the perceived issue – somehow our church isn’t meeting the family’s needs.  That perception prompts several suggestions.  Maybe organizing fun events and activities for the kids would help Emily and Ethan build some new relationships.  As the theory goes, if the kids love our church, parents are sure to follow.  Maybe a women’s retreat will get Jessica out of her shell.  At least Jessica is serving here, so she could be our best avenue to reach the rest of the family.  Maybe organizing a local missions project will show Mark that our church cares about the community.  He’s clearly the spiritual leader of the household so let’s figure out why his attention is diverted to external ministries.

Meeting #1 – Debrief & Discussion

In recommending solutions intended to pique interest and engender loyalty, this church is like most others today that inadvertently treat people like consumers.  Leadership assumes activities, events and programs will retain families on the verge of leaving.  Pastors know relationships are “sticky” so they push small groups that build friendships but not disciples.  Staff are measured by their contribution to growing the church, so they come up with short-term ideas designed to cater to churchgoers rather than challenge Christ-followers.

Those solutions stem from a definition of “church” and its intended “customer” that is not biblical.  Leaders who truly understood that “church” is by definition people and not a place would focus on disciple-making, not institution-building.  Pastors would see churchgoers as “employees to be trained” (to pursue the real “customers” – the “lost” in the community), not “customers to be entertained”.  They would stop asking the wrong questions when faced with disgruntled members and attenders, like:

  • “What is it that they want?”
  • “How can we utilize them better?”
  • “What programs should we offer to reengage them?”
  • “How can we keep them from leaving because others may follow them out the door?”

Those questions don’t get at the real reasons Mark, Jessica, Emily and Ethan aren’t more involved.  As a faithful follower of Jesus, Mark isn’t provided with enough opportunities to live out the Great Commission – but has found those in abundance elsewhere.  As an immature believer quietly struggling with fears and worries, Jessica isn’t experiencing life change through occasional church events, groups or sermons.  As teenagers encountering so many worldly distractions and philosophies, Emily and Ethan weren’t provided a firm enough foundation to withstand that onslaught because youth ministries were more focused on “fun” than “faith”.

To correctly assess those issues with each family member, leadership would have to abandon Americanized church growth models.  Rather than applying consumer strategies, they would realize that this family actually wants (and needs) to go deeper.  Mark never expected pastors and staff to exceed his (customer) expectations.  Instead, he sees his family as the personification of “church”.  But the church’s growth strategy of Invite (your friends to hear the Gospel from the “professionals), Involve (in church chores and groups) and Invest (in giving treasures to the church) does not align with taking personal responsibility for being the “church” between Sundays.  The Invite, Involve and Invest model was set up to create loyal customers, not to empower disciples.

The Next Leadership Meeting…

Mark and Jessica are back on the agenda the following week.  Four differing opinions are voiced about how to deal with families like theirs who aren’t fully committed to attending, joining, serving or giving:

  1. A staff member says he’s been praying about it and wants to offer a different perspective.  Rather than coming up with ways to engage Mark, Jessica and the kids, let’s ask why they aren’t committed enough to the Lord to help us achieve His vision of our church.  They should be using their gifts in submission to the vision Jesus gave to our senior pastor.  Maybe we shouldn’t cling to anyone who isn’t aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish here.  Doesn’t spiritual growth begin there – coming under the authority of church leaders and contributing time, talents and treasures to the body of Christ in whatever ways the Lord has equipped them?  Should we be more selective in determining who qualifies as a potential member based on their willingness to serve and receive counsel, rather than simply hoping or even pushing folks like Mark and Jessica to join?  What if whatever they bring to our table doesn’t really even fit our church’s mission anyway?
  2. An elder picks up on that line of thinking and goes in related direction.  Maybe we’re just doing a poor job of realizing the full potential of the people who attend.  We know this family has a lot to offer and they may be willing to do more but what if we aren’t providing ample opportunities to use their gifts and talents?  Our job here is to recognize the capabilities of each family member and show them how to put them to use to glorify God.  How can we unlock and release the stored value of our members?  That’s the path to moving them toward becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.
  3. The executive pastor likes that idea and reiterates that the key is to figure out ways to accommodate their needs so we can get them more involved in serving and giving.  If we don’t ask “what we can we do for them” we’ll never find out “what can they do for our church”.  Mark could be tremendous asset here but he’s not going to step into a leadership role unless we figure out what we’re not providing him and his family.  Jessica is so well-liked and servant-minded – we can’t afford to lose her, so let’s focus on getting her more plugged in.  Could we see if they want to host a small group?  Imagine how helpful they could be in swaying other families to become more engaged here.
  4. With all due respect, could it be that we’re coming up with the wrong solutions because we’re asking the wrong questions?  A brave deacon suggests that groupthink is leading the meeting down a path where it sounds a lot like the discussions about customer retention that take place at his company.  Should we instead be asking deeper questions about the individuals themselves, getting to the root of each family member’s walk with Christ, like…
    • Are Mark, Jessica and Emily losing interest because they’re not growing closer to God as a result of attending our church? If so, what can we do about that?
    • Does Jessica’s greater involvement equate to greater spiritual maturity? If not, what are better indicators of maturity and how can we assess where she’s at?
    • Is Emily here for the right reasons? Does it matter why she’s here or just that she shows up?  If she doesn’t seem interested in conversations about Jesus anymore, how can we make sure that doesn’t happen to Ethan one day?

That last suggestion stirs quite a bit of controversy in the meeting.  Leaders fear if they get too personal and start asking those hard questions, they’ll drive people away from the church.

Meeting #2 – Debrief & Discussion

The first 3 recommendations at this meeting implicitly define “church” as a place and not as an “assembly of (individual) called out ones” (the biblical “ekklesia”).  They put the organization’s (growth or survival) interests ahead of each person’s (spiritual depth) interests.  They address the institution’s concerns (e.g. why are we losing this family) rather than digging into what’s truly ailing Mark, Jessica, Emily and Ethan.  Only #4 confronts the real, underlying issues affecting the health of the body (of Christ).  Dealing with the personal struggles, sin and doubts of each family member (who comprise the “church”) will remedy leadership’s perceived issues – the challenges facing the institution (which is not the biblical definition of “church”).  However, today’s church growth models don’t lend themselves to asking personal questions, so they’ll never know how deep Mark’s faith truly is or how shallow Jessica’s faith is.  Therefore, the first 3 options won’t lead to the ideal, biblical solution for that family – forums for discipleship that are far more intensive and personal than sermons and small groups, as well as more outlets for living out their faith through compassion and evangelism.

It’s Your Turn

Has this 4-part series about Mark, Jessica and their children helped illustrate why so many Christians are losing interest in organized “religion”, pursuing options outside of church for fellowship and worship (i.e. the “Dones”)?  Do you see why others walk away from the Lord entirely (i.e. the “Nones”), holding God accountable for mankind’s redefinition of “church” to fit our consumer culture?


2 Responses

  1. Jim, I guess you may be tiring of me telling you that your insights, discernment, mental acumen, or whatever you want to call it, is always on the mark! You are sounding the Shofar, so to speak, and I pray some are listening.

    Once again, you say “As a faithful follower of Jesus, Mark isn’t provided with enough opportunities to live out the Great Commission – but has found those in abundance elsewhere.” You could substitute “Mark” with any of a thousand names.

    Then you conclude with “Has this 4-part series about Mark, Jessica and their children helped illustrate why so many Christians are losing interest in organized “religion”, pursuing options outside of church for fellowship and worship (i.e. the “Dones”)?

    “Do you see why others walk away from the Lord entirely (i.e. the “Nones”), holding God accountable for mankind’s redefinition of “church” to fit our consumer culture?”

    What a day and time we live in. Most “church experts” (i.e., ‘leaders’, theologians, preachers, etc., etc.) believe that

    1. Good seminary training and degree is what is necessary to be an effective Christian “leader”. And, the masses of “congregants” are buying into that narrative.


    That report reveals that people who described themselves as Christians a decade ago, is now down
    by 12%.

    “Nones” or ‘nothing in particular, has grown from 17% to 26% in the same period.

    Yet, our seminaries and churches are ‘doubling down’ on money spent and efforts made which is bringing us to the brink.

    Remember: As go our Churches, so goes the Nation.

    PLEASE, if you are reading this, JOIN THE CAUSE. Become active. Please!

    1. Michael – I always read and appreciate your comments. Glad to be walking alongside you during this critical time in the history of the Church. God has made it so clear to us how and why we’ve gotten off track, but the forces pulling in the other direction are strong. All we can do is pour ourselves into speaking to church leaders as the Holy Spirit leads, hoping and praying they will take action in the face of certain resistance. Subscriptions to my blog continue to grow and comments suggest that many are catching the vision of God’s plan for bringing His Church back into line with His Word.

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