Churches' Dilemma: 80 Percent of Flock Is Inactive

Pastors must go after lost sheep to increase church participation

There is a secret inside many churches. According to researchers Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, most churches – mega-sized and small, black and white – are actually run by 20 percent of the congregation. The other 80 percent, they say, tend to act like spectators: they are minimally involved and attend infrequently or not at all.

A National Congregation Survey shows the Southern Baptist Convention had a membership of 16,160,088 people in 2008, but a yearly attendance rate of 38 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had a membership of 4,542,868 in 2009, but the yearly attendance rated rested at 28 percent.

Though many churches are struggling to boost attendance and participation, Thumma states, pastors and church leaders rarely address the issue.

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"So many pastors that I've talked to recognize the problem, don't know what to do about it and then instead of trying to tackle it, they kind of put it aside," described Thumma.

He and Bird traveled to 12 different churches, interviewing congregants to learn why some are involved in church ministry and others are not. Thumma said they found that "almost all congregations were operating below their potential because they (the churches) weren't finding ways to invigorate and keep their own membership interested, involved and committed."

In the book The Other 80 Percent, the researchers use their findings to help church leaders find the root of the problem.

Pastors, Thumma says, put too much of their ministries' focus on bringing new people in to the church.

According to a 2010 Barna survey, 46 percent of 600 senior pastors reported that outreach/evangelism is the area their church or ministry would like to develop in 2011. The poll also showed that outreach/evangelism ranked higher in priority than any of the other nine areas.

Those churches that focus primarily on the new people walking through the front door may be leaving the back door wide open, Thumma cautions.

"If you're not thinking about hospitality at the front door as well as at the back door, they (members) will all just flow through, and that's not what God is calling the church to do," he states.

The authors refer to the parable of the good shepherd as an ideal example. The good shepherd is troubled by one stray sheep and pursues that sheep until he is able to bring it back to the 99 members in his fold.

However, the book portrays most pastors as shepherds who dismiss the lost sheep because they think "Not to worry ... I still have ninety-nine." As the number of sheep decreases, the pastors of today try to entice sheep from their neighbor's flock or search after wild rams to enter into their folds rather pursuing their lost lambs.

The book calls on pastors to pay greater attention to the 80 percent of the congregation who are lost and uninvolved. To do that, Thumma recommends pastors refocus their church to offer continued spiritual growth through greater engagement.

Only 28 percent of pastors reported that spiritual growth was an important area of development in 2011 in the Barna poll. Even fewer pastors –19 percent – reported that engagement was an important area for development.

Spiritual engagement, however, becomes more important the longer a congregant remains in the church, Thumma stresses. The top reason given for decreased participation in the last two years is faith has gotten weaker, according to a cited Parish Inventory Survey. Yet very few churches have programs for long-standing members, he says.

"Once you've been at the church for five years, 10 years, 20 years, 40 years, there's hardly any programs aimed at those groups to continually keep them engaged," laments Thumma.

The book recommends churches first correct this error by forming a listening team. The goal of the team is to conduct individual interviews with members to find out how they want and need to be nurtured spiritually.

When authors Thumma and Bird employed this approach to write The Other 80 Percent, inactive congregants shared that issues such as no close friendship, and a lack of adult classes led to their decreased role in the church.

Second, churches are urged to create a learning team to uncover the external social and cultural dynamics in their communities hampering members' church involvement. The team may learn that a Sunday morning sports league is keeping church youth and their parents from service. The learning team can also discover new areas for ministry such as a food assistance program to reach a low-income community.

Once both groups have finished collecting information, Thumma says, "Each church needs to contemplate their own context and come up with their own strategy based on what God wants for their congregation."

Thumma says that pastors will not be able to get 100 percent of their congregation involved all the time, but pastors are called to care for every member of their flock, not just the active 20 percent.

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