Research tells us that of all the people who drop out of church (due to inactivity), 82 percent leave in the first year! The first 12 months are critical in the life of both the new member and the congregation.
But upon further study, we found that people do not leave at random during their first year. There are two definite "spikes" when an inordinate number of new members stop attending, at month six and at month twelve.
Our curiosity, of course, was aroused. We interviewed 36 people who had stopped attending their church after 6 months; then another 36 who had stopped attending after a year. "What happened?" we wanted to know. "Could you tell us your story?"
We then listened to the recordings of these conversations for common themes … and found some! New members, it turns out, are asking questions. Often they are not even aware of their concerns at that moment. But in these postmortems, the issues became readily apparent.
During the first six months new members are asking:
- "Can I make friends in this church?" Other studies tell us that new members who stay in their church make an average of seven new friends, while those who drop out make less than two.
- "Is there a place I can fit in?" The more people and groups in the church who are "like me," the more the newcomers are likely to stay. Common age, marital status, family status, special needs, interests, concerns all help newcomers feel comfortable in their new surroundings.
- "Does this church really want me?" After the warm words of welcome, are new members actively invited to participate in the roles and ministries of the church?
- Are my new friends as good as my old ones? The issue is now not so much quantity of friends, as quality of friends. New believers, especially, feel uncomfortable with their old behavior, old habits, and old friends. That's good. But they're also unconsciously assessing the value and depth of their new relationships in the church.
- Does the group meet my needs? They may have found a young single's group, a senior adult group, or a Sunday School class of people like them (see the first 6 month question). But 7 - 12 months later, they're asking whether the benefit of involvement is worth the cost of time, inconvenience, social discomfort?
- Is my contribution important? The question now not one of involvement, but of significance. Are they doing busy work … or kingdom work? "I wanted to have an impact on people's lives," one drop-out told us. "But all they asked me to do was set up chairs for the church potluck."
If new members conclude that the answer to these questions is "no," many leave after five to six months. If their answer is "yes," they stay around … for a second six months. But they're still asking questions.