Caring for the flock

Most churches are doing a ‘lousy job’ at caring for the entire flock

By Ronald E. Keener

Two respected researchers call for listening to members and learning what passionately motivates them.

It is the old truism in the worlds of membership groups such as the church that 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.

“And,” says researcher Scott Thumma, “almost no church has more than half of its membership actively engaged and fully participating.”

Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and researcher at Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and Warren Bird, director of research and intellectual capital development for Leadership Network, expound on that theme in The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants, (Jossey-Bass and a Leadership Network Publication).

“We are calling pastors and lay leaders of churches to reach out and attempt to minister to those sheep that have drifted away, never show up and are disconnected. This will take work, and it may mean doing ‘church’ differently but the alternative implies that these members of the congregation are unimportant and insignificant to God’s kingdom,” Thumma says in responding to Church Executive’s questions for himself and his co-author.

You speak in the book to a malaise seen in the decline of membership, involvement, and commitment in congregational life. Does that go to the larger societal issues as well?

Indeed, the trials and tribulations that plague the church from within are only minor compared to the larger societal spiritual malaise. The dramatic rise in those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation is one such indication.

Additionally, younger generations of unchurched persons claim not hostility to “churchianity,” but an indifference to it. They see pursuing spiritual maturity within a church context as irrelevant to them.

What is it you are suggesting to turn that around?

We suggest that if pastors continue to lead church as they have in the past, the best they can expect is a church functioning at a third to a half of its potential. Even worse, more than 50 percent of its membership is spiritually unmotivated, stagnant and not being ministered to. We don’t come out and call for a dramatic revolution of church life, however, in a sense this scenario is implied in our several chapters of leadership suggestions.

What did the research for the book tell you about American churches?

Most American churches, whether mainline or Evangelical, liberal or conservative, are doing a lousy job of caring for all their membership, their entire flock. Looking in depth at which factors correlated with greater involvement and conversely, a lack of commitment, dramatically demonstrated that churches must do a better job of understanding why people are engaged or disconnected from congregational involvement. Most churches need to reform their ways of doing church, training volunteers, creating avenues for participation and maturing people spiritually throughout their involvement with the church.

What do “shepherds” need to do to draw near that 80 percent?

First, pastors need to remember that the 20/80 rule isn’t one of the Ten Commandments. They need to stop being complacent about the fact that half their membership never shows up. They must make a serious attempt to reach out to all their flock by engaging in a process and multiple strategies to address the lack of participation and commitment among their membership.

In the book we outline a practical series of steps related to listening to “the other 80 percent,” learning about the unique context of one’s church, and then leading the entire church toward greater spiritual growth.

What kind of listening should the church be doing?

Leadership teams need to listen to all their members. The core, committed folks serve well but they don’t always serve happily or passionately. Hear from them about what motivates them and why they are inclined to serve – and what they might like to be doing.

Listen to those drifting away and those now gone for some time; what underlies their disconnection?  Is it personal life changes, interpersonal squabbles, or a deeper disillusionment with congregational dynamics?   Then commit to addressing the needs and patterns that are uncovered; be willing to fix those who are hurt, what is in need of repair, or replace what is broken.

Isn’t it likely that most churches are listening to their staff and not to members’ desires, with the view “we know what you need”?

True, we found that most clergy and staff thought all members would “get with the program” and conform to the staff’s plan for involvement. We live in a world of choice and individual customization. Different people are motivated and fulfilled by a wide variety of options. The church successful at connecting a greater percent of members provided multiple paths to involvement, a diversity of engagement tracks, and countless options for ministry, education, training and involvement.

What does any particular church look like that has come close to turning spectators into active participants?

One of the most surprising findings from the research was how many people want to grow spiritually, but aren’t. We also found a direct relationship between involvement and spiritual growth, such that the more people engage in their church, the more they report that they’re growing spiritually.

Can you share the names of a couple churches who are actively engaging members, and how that is being demonstrated?

We’re not allowed to reveal the names of the churches we surveyed, but our sense is that few churches seem to be doing this really well. Smaller congregations have an advantage: They have to actively engage a higher percentage of their people to get anything done. Churches that equate being a good church participant with a robust spiritual life that involves continued education, ministry training and leadership, service to the church and community and growth in spiritual depth, stimulate involvement and participation in a greater number of their members.

What is it that you want the reader to take away from having read the book?

That if they continue to do church the way they always have in the past, nothing will change. To stimulate the involvement of their disconnected members, congregations will have to do outreach, ministry, education, training and service differently. We want to give them hope that their situation can change, and that Jesus’ story about the shepherd who went looking for his lost sheep still works and bears fruit today.

There is no single solution for every church. The answer for each church must be contextualized, but the answers can be found by listening to the membership and learning from the wider community about what passionately motivates their people.


How to approach the task of change

Many readers have commented on the helpfulness of the 27 tables and charts spread across the book, all of which offer a window on “the other 80 percent” in the typical church.

At the heart our book argues that increasing involvement rests on spiritual growth, maturity and above all personal spiritual fulfillment. Such spiritual maturity excites one to greater involvement, promotes commitment and engages one to actively live out a Christian faith. However, programmatic, organizational and functional changes have to take place in most traditional churches to make this happen for more than the “easy” 20 to 40 percent of members.

Congregational leaders have to work at bringing the lost sheep back into the fold, not to fill the church but to feed them spiritually.  The book offers a process to begin to address that task   — ST


The state of the church in 239 words

The few fast-growing churches that grab newspaper headlines unfortunately represent only a fraction of church life. While the start of new churches is at an all-time high, the percent of people who never attend church is likewise at an all-time high. The majority of churches, evangelical and otherwise, are plateaued or declining, and nearly all denominations are facing decline in both membership and baptisms (or equivalent).

Almost no denomination is exhibiting growth that is greater than national population increases. Additionally surveys show that attendance percentages have declined slightly in recent decades, but more troublesome is the indication that a significant percentage of weekly worshippers have dropped back to two to three times a month.

Looking specifically at those who do attend, one can see a decrease in the level of participation and lack of involvement. However, the challenges for the church are even greater than these symptoms if the evaluation of the health of the American church is extended to younger generations. The average age of churches in most denominations is more than 50 years.

Many of the mainline congregations have a third to a half of their attendees over the age of 65. A decreasing percentage of those under 50 are found in church, and combined with a decline in birth rates, economic woes, and population migration, indicate that the traditional church form must seriously reconsider how it does ministry if it is to survive with any vitality.  — ST


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