In the recently concluded Nurture, Retention, and Reclamation Summit, it was brought to the attention of the world church that forty percent of our members have slipped away. A report outlined the staggering reality that if we had retained eighty percent of our members, our membership would be double what it is now.
Such statistics are disappointing as well as painful. We go around the “land and sea to win a single convert” (Matt 23:15), but we fail to keep the convert in the church. I am reminded of God’s question to Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9). It was a significant question then; it is more so now. What answer would we give about the forty percent of members who have slipped away? Would we say, as Cain did, “I do not know”? Or ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). In fact, we are to be our brothers’ keepers.
This is the first of a series of articles focused on disciples keeping disciples. Through these articles, I wish to initiate a “brother’s keeper” movement with the slogan, “Keep them all.” To achieve this, I intend to propose simple, practical, research-based steps that, I believe, will lead to nurture, retention, and reclamation. I am confident that in five years this campaign will increase retention from sixty to eighty percent and beyond in our churches across the globe.
BUILDING ON THE STRENGTH
It is typical when encountering an issue to focus on the problem in order to fix it. I propose that it would be healthier to build on what is working, or on the “bright spots” we experience in the church.
My studies revealed that the impact of family and friends is a bright spot in the church. Elmer Towns, in an article published in 1986, looks at how people are brought into the church. According to the statistics he quotes, two percent are through advertisement, six percent are because of the pastor, six percent are due to evangelistic outreach, and eighty-six percent come because of friends and relatives in the church.1 The influence of friends and relatives is as significant today as it was then. In interviews I recently conducted, more than eighty percent of the interviewees stated that they came to church because of family and friends and that they continue to attend church in order to worship together.
It is imperative that we build on the bright spot of family and friends in order to reach the goal of eighty percent retention in five years.
Now that we have a set destination, what are the steps to reach it?
Organizational specialists Chip and Dan Heath say, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions; they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions.”2 For our church, the small solutions are to be built upon the foundation of family and friends. I propose that if we make everyone in a church family and friends, everyone will continue to come, and we can keep them all. The first critical step is to help everyone know each other.
KNOW EACH OTHER
I use the word “know” to indicate becoming familiar or acquainted with one another in the church. As I interviewed several of our members, one of the common observations was that members do not know other members across the aisles. This is true even in small churches. The most frequently stated reasons were not noticing others, not wanting to interact with others, or the existence of different groups or cliques that do not connect with others.
Though groups within the church can be a blessing, they can also make it difficult for church members to interact with those in different groups. So when a member drops out of a group or a new member comes into the church and is unable to join a group, they may become disengaged and slip away without anyone noticing. Why would someone stay if no one knows him or her?
Each member of the church is part of one body (1 Cor 12:12), so members knowing one another will facilitate members staying in the church.
Leadership development expert Mike Figliuolo presents the following insight into getting to know people: It can be difficult to get to know people as individuals. Even if we try to learn more about them, the world conspires to limit our opportunities. Schedules are crazy, and there is little to no time for personal conversations. He advises, “Go grab lunch. Have coffee together. Talk. I am not telling you to become friends with your people. I am simply encouraging you to know them.”3
In our churches, people sit with their families and friends. I propose to mix them with other groups through a fun activity. In this way, they can step out of their own intra-church groups and mingle with others at a potluck or other social gathering.
I recommend that a coordinator present a theme to get people to step out of their groups and sit with others. The theme-based activities are as follows:
- First month: The coordinator will place a name of the month on each table before the members come in. The coordinator will courteously announce that those who were born in January will sit at the January table, and likewise for the rest of the months.
- Second month: The coordinator will place on each table the dates of each month that members were born. Again, as members come in, the coordinator will direct them to different tables.
- Third month: The coordinator will place a color on each table and direct the members to sit at tables based on the colors of their clothing that particular Sabbath.
Different themes—such as names starting with certain letters, different types of professions, and favorite Bible characters—can be used to encourage members to sit at different tables month after month in order to help them get to know others in the church. I believe the first step toward a sense of oneness that will foster a disciple-keeping-disciple culture is for members to get to know each other.
Ellen G. White aptly says, “It is not earthly rank, nor birth, nor nationality, nor religious privilege, which proves that we are members of the family of God; it is love, a love that embraces all humanity.”4
1 Elmer Towns, “Evangelism: The How and Why,” in Church Growth State of the Art, ed. C. Peter Wagner (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1986), 43–55.
2 Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (New York, NY: Currency, 2000), 45.
3 Mike Figliuolo, One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 148.
4 Ellen G. White, Reflecting Christ, 72.
Paulasir Abraham, PhD, DMiss, is an associate pastor at the Southern Asia Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, MD, USA.