Allow me a bit of clarity here. I am using the phrase, “inactive members,” to refer to those church members who have not shown up for any church service or event in several months. For now, I am not referring to those members who show up occasionally or sporadically.
What are the trends among the churches in North America? For certain, it’s a big issue. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has over 15 million members, but only about 6 million show up for a weekly worship service. How are churches responding to the reality that many members on the church roll could not be found by the U.S. Census Bureau or the FBI? Here are seven trends:
- The majority of churches do nothing. Many names on church membership rolls moved out of town years ago. Some have residency in graveyards. Some church members think moving someone off the membership rolls is tantamount to removing their salvation.
- A small but growing minority of churches ask members to recommit to membership annually. With that commitment comes the expectation that the members will actually show up for worship services, among other expectations.
- Few churches are actually intentional about connecting with inactive members. Those that are attempting to connect with inactive members report, for the most part, anemic responses. They thus become discouraged to pursue the task.
- A number of churches have dropped “inactive member” as a category of membership. They rightly see the phrase, “inactive member,” as an oxymoron. They understand fully Paul’s teaching of the one word, “member,” in 1 Corinthians 12. A member is someone who is functioning for the greater good of the body.
- A growing number of churches recognize legitimate reasons for not attending church worship services and minister to those members with intentionality. Those members would include people who are homebound, military personnel serving around the world, and those members whose vocations may cause them to relocate temporarily.
- A steadily-growing trend is the utilization of a front-end membership class to set expectations about church membership. In a number of these classes, the prospective member hears clearly how he or she could be removed from the membership of the church.
- There is a direct correlation to the number of inactive members in a church and the need for revitalization. We are no longer surprised when we work with churches in dire need of revitalization. More times than not, the church has a membership roll four or five times greater than its attendance. The church did not take membership seriously, so the members did not take the church seriously.
For certain, there are churches that have more in attendance than members. These churches tend to be younger or replanted churches. But for the greater majority of churches in North America, the majority of those on membership rolls are missing in action.
Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.