In almost every church a sizable group of members and attenders remain largely uninvolved. There is no single reason why this is true. Each less-than-active participant has unique grounds for his or her low level of involvement. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but there is a process that can help you discover why members are not involved – and it begins with listening.
Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, authors of “The Other 80 Percent,” have compiled extensive research and matched it with practical suggestions gleaned from the research into a 3 step process to help turn your church’s spectators into active participants. Step One develops a framework to Listen to your congregation. Step Two lays out a foundation to help you Learn about changing the system. Step Three will show you how to Lead all who identify with y0ur church into a far more engaged level of committed involvement.
The Involvement Continuum
Thumma and Bird framed their work by identifying 3 distinct patterns of involvement:
- High Involvement – attend, give, invite, serve, lead, develop deep friendships
- Medium Involvement – attend less frequently, might give, have friendships
- Low Involvement – attend rarely or never yet have some affiliation past or present, might still give, might still have friendships.
With this framework in mind, the authors suggest that church leaders start the process by listening to those who demonstrate high involvement. It will be very instructive to think about this group from the perspective of why and how they have become so involved. What exactly is it that they love about their church and its leaders that motivates them to be so engaged?
You can and should continue to strengthen those connections and involvements that increase participation, and make congregational life even more spiritually meaningful for your most committed participants.
Thumma and Bird’s research showed that participation increased when a number of components were present. There needed to be opportunity for involvement, motivation for increased participation, and the ability to be more involved. Across the wide-ranging data they drew from, the responses of those who had increased their involvement confirmed this three-part combination. Their sense of spiritual fulfillment directly correlates with greater involvement in the congregation. The research also indicated that there was no single factor to increasing involvement, but instead suggests that most churches need multiple pathways to help increase involvement.
The profile of people whose participation has decreased in recent years looks like the direct opposite of those described above. Folks with decreasing involvement (averaging about 10-20 percent of a congregation) are likely to be cycling off committees, heading to college, changing jobs, dealing with illness, or having family difficulties. Interestingly, the research showed that length of membership correlated with declining participation: churches are much better at creating initial commitment than they are as sustaining and enhancing that involvement. Material from surveys, comments, and interviews suggests that the move to lessened involvement is a gradual drift toward detachment. This body of people is perhaps the most crucial group for church leaders to listen to. They have the most to share with church leadership about what isn’t working; they are the “red flags”, the warning signs of even deeper issues. Unfortunately, in most cases they are not obvious or even noticeable. They often just drift away, slipping into the shadows until they are no longer there.
Low or Marginal Involvement
While it is often difficult for church leaders to perceive those who are drifting away, it is easy to identify the third group from the authors’ research. One reason is sheer numbers: the low or marginally involved often comprise a third of the total membership. They have the lowest level of participation. They may attend, but they do little else: they are spectators. However, it is wrong to lump them into one group; a closer look at this group reveals at least four distinct subgroups with different needs and patterns:
- Guests and Newcomers – people who are brand new or are still visiting the church
- Dating but Undecided – newer people, attenders who are not members, and those who divide their loyalty among several church homes
- Connected and Needy but Uncommitted – people who attend very infrequently, yet are long-time members of the church and are known when they show up
- Aged or Infirm – people who have contributed to the life and ministry for decades, but can no longer attend because of old age and/or illness
Thumma and Bird’s research demonstrated a common theme in the comments of the 80 percent of the flock who are less connected: they express a desire to be connected. When these “least involved” were asked what would increase their involvement, their responses suggested that they could be reengaged if the church strengthened three things: meaningful worship, pastoral care, and ministry to the sick, shut-in, and bereaved. Those answers suggest that many needs are not being met in the group of members who are decreasing or already diminished their involvement. What will it take to reengage them?
Discovering Your Church’s Participation Quotient
Thumma and Bird suggest that creating a structure to listen to your members – all of them, not just the most involved – can be the key to understanding and revitalizing your congregation’s involvement levels. Here is a quick paragraph overview; check out their book for the complete process.
Create a “Listening Team” with a two-fold purpose: (1) to gain an accurate picture of your members and/or attenders’ involvement in the congregation; and (2) to uncover the church leadership’s often hidden assumptions about involvement at the church. The process involves surveys and visits to all (or a representative group) of your membership and attenders. The goal of these visits is to reestablish a connection and listen to members as they describe their family life, involvement expectations, and any needs or desires thy have regarding the church.
Learning Beyond the Membership
In “The Other 80 Percent,” Scott Thumma and Warren Bird challenge church leaders to listen to their members – of all participation groups – in order to understand what helps people stay connected and involved and what is missing from those who aren’t. In accomplishing this task, leaders will soon discover that there are outside factors involved which diminish commitment and hinder involvement. It is necessary to both listen to membership and learn about the world they live in.