Six Critical Issues to Prevent Church Members from Dropping Out

what-every-pastor-should-knowGary McIntosh and Charles Arn recently released a delightful new book, What Every Pastor Should Know. I love the data and research in the book. One of my favorite sections dealt with retention of members. Two of the most critical findings were:

  • Of all the members who drop out of church, 82 percent leave in the first year of their membership. Retention efforts are thus critical in the first twelve months after a member joins a church.
  • The pattern of dropout is not random. Most leave close to their six-month tenure or close to their twelve-month tenure. So church members seem to give new churches a “test” at both six months and twelve months. If the church passes the test at six months, the member will stay for another six months. If the church passes the test at the one-year mark, the member is likely assimilated into the church.

The first “test” consists of three questions. Though the church member may not ask these questions specifically, he or she is evaluating three critical issues to determine if it’s time to move or stay. These are the issues around the six-month point.

  1. Have I made friends in this church? New members who remained active in the church made an average of seven new friends in these first six months. The drop-outs had an average of less than two friends.
  2. Is there a place in the church where I fit? Critically important to this question is whether or not the new member is in a group or class.
  3. Does this church really want me? Are the members still as friendly as they were when I first joined? Am I being invited or encouraged to participate in ministries in the church?

Assuming the new member feels good about these first three questions, he or she is likely to stay another six months or so. At roughly the twelve-month point, the new member then evaluates the church on three more issues.

  1. Are my new friends as good as my old friends? The members begin to assess the quality of their relationships.
  2. Does the group meet my needs? By the time the new member has been involved in a group for more than six months, he or she is asking if the investment of time in the group is really worth it.
  3. Is my contribution important? Everyone wants to be a part of something significant, something greater than themselves. Church members join a church with those expectations. Near the end of the first year, they begin to evaluate that issue and their contributions to the overall mission of church.

Though there are no great surprises in these six issues, what is new in the study by McIntosh and Arn is the timing issue. Most of those who will drop out will do so before the end of their first year. And at six months and twelve months respectively, new members will intuitively ask themselves six questions. How they respond to those questions ultimately determines if they will stay or leave.

How do you evaluate these six questions? What can your church do to prevent members from dropping out?


  1. says

    Thom, I love this post and I loved reading this book. The two six-month periods where new members determine to stay or go has reminded me of my garden. I just planted five varieties of tomatoes and I’m hoping they will stay with me. I’m a little early in the year and that makes me worry that a cold snap could kill them. Some churches are too cold for new members to remain long.

    I visit my new plants daily to make sure they are coming along nicely. I make sure they are being fed plant food and have all the water they need. Hopefully they will survive until they grow strong roots.

    New members need also to be checked on frequently (fellowship). They need to be fed and watered (discipleship). Finally with a little warmth and sunshine their roots should grow strong and deep (connectedness). My experience is that when these things happen in my garden or in my church, much fruit is born.

  2. Kim Wright says

    I totally agree with Steve. New members need to be checked on, and made to feel welcomed and warm and fuzzy so to speak. Especially in a big church like mine that has three services, or they may feel like they will fall through the cracks.

    I think our church like many others could do better at keeping in touch with our new members after they have decided to become a member.
    Our church has a new comers class that is required you take before you become a member. We feed you, go over church doctrine, what our church stands for, does a spiritual gifts inventory type test. It’s also an evening for the potential new members to ask questions and see where they may fit in at our church. It’s a good class that we offer once a month.

    How do I evaluate those 6 questions? I have been with our church for almost 9 years now and as a woman that suffers with clinical depression intend to keep to myself, but know a lot of our members and are good friends with several. I am very actively involved in several areas of our church and I really like what I do in our church.

    One of my favorite areas I work in is the nursery every Sunday in the 13-18 month old class. God has surely blessed me with a heart for babies and children and I absolutely LOVE babies. Spending time with these babies every Sunday is the highlight of my Sunday!

    Overall, we all need to do a better job at making sure we being welcoming to everyone in our church every week. It’s what God calls us to do!

  3. Greg Drummond says

    Can you clarify how the word “member” is being used here?
    Is it member as in someone who has gone through a membership process (e.g. can now vote in business meetings)?
    Or is it simply referring to someone who is now a regular part of the worshiping community?

    • Thom Rainer says

      Greg –

      As I look through their book, they seem to be referring to those who have gone through a formal membership process.

    • Charles Arn says

      I think “church membership” is a phrase better used these days to describe “church constituents” (as opposed to only those who have gone through a formal class and congregational induction process). “Membership” seems to be a paradigm of the “builder” generation (i.e., labor unions, book clubs, fraternal groups). Boomers, and succeeding generations, see less and less value in formal membership in any organization. A church does well to ask the quesiton of whether there is a unique purpose and value of “membership” in their church. (I’m not lobbying against “membership.” I’m just suggesting the concept should not be blindly accepted simply because “we’ve always done it that way.”)

  4. Bill Keeney says

    I much appreciate and look forward to your newsletters each Monday. Our rural church recently withdrew from one of the major denominations and we are experiencing growing pains. We are blessed by growth in fellowship and members. Recently retired from engineering and now serving as the lay pastor, your articles help to answer questions for which did not realize I needed answers! It is great to learn from your combined years of experience. Since we are a farming community on the state line of WV and VA, Mr. Drake’s “tomato” comment was enjoyable. With his permission, it would quote very nicely in a future sermon. Blessings…

  5. KStock says

    This list may well be correct, but there’s something that bothers me about it. What is the central point of each of these questions? Answer: 1. Me. 2. Me. 3. Me. 4. Me. 5. Me. and 6. Me. I can’t help thinking that someone who evaluates a church on the basis of these questions hasn’t really understood what a church should be, and Who is the most important person in it.

    • Charles Arn says

      Kevin… You’re right. However, one could make the same accusation of children—they tend to be quite self-centered. One important role of parents is to help their children grow in their understanding that “it’s not all about you.” A mature person understands that it is more blessed to give than receive. I think there’s a corrallary in the area of spiritual growth. A new member/believer IS self-centered. But it’s our role as “spiritual parents” to help that “babe in Christ” grow in spiritual maturity to become more and more Christ-like (“…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve… ” Mt. 20:28).

      • KStock says

        That’s true, and I was aware of it as I typed. But still, it seems odd that someone should still be asking this sort of question after a year as a church member.

  6. Sage says

    I appreciate all of the above comments. As for the word member, being added to Christ’s church makes his followers members of the body of Christ just as humans have one body with many members. I am interested in this book. My question is: does the book address members of the church who fall away after serving for let’s say 5yrs or more?

  7. Michael Patterson says

    I find the questions quite fascinating as well. They appear to be self-centered, and at one level I have no doubt they could be. But there may be something more substantial hiding behind the questions. God calls us to local churches to join others in His kingdom work in that community. I would propose that each local church has its own unique mission in its community. It would be legitimate to ask, after a period of time, if the church the person has been attending is the right match for their gifting, their calling, the world God has placed them in, etc. There is no way a person could know that after visiting 2 or 3 weeks.

    I realize I may have opened a can of worms regarding the role of the local church in a person’s life and in its
    community. I am happy to dialog about that but my intention is to look more deeply at the meaning of the questions.

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