Seven Trends in the Way Churches Are Responding to Inactive Members

Allow me a bit of clarity here. I am using the phrase, “inactive members,” to refer to those church members who have not shown up for any church service or event in several months. For now, I am not referring to those members who show up occasionally or sporadically.

What are the trends among the churches in North America? For certain, it’s a big issue. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has over 15 million members, but only about 6 million show up for a weekly worship service. How are churches responding to the reality that many members on the church roll could not be found by the U. S. Census Bureau or the FBI? Here are seven trends:

  1. The majority of churches do nothing. Many names on church membership rolls moved out of town years ago. Some have residency in graveyards. Some church members think moving someone off the membership rolls is tantamount to removing their salvation.
  2. A small but growing minority of churches ask members to recommit to membership annually. With that commitment comes the expectation that the members will actually show up for worship services, among other expectations.
  3. Few churches are actually intentional about connecting with inactive members. Those that are attempting to connect with inactive members report, for the most part, anemic responses. They thus become discouraged to pursue the task.
  4. A number of churches have dropped “inactive member” as a category of membership. They rightly see the phrase, “inactive member,” as an oxymoron. They understand fully Paul’s teaching of the one word, “member,” in 1 Corinthians 12. A member is someone who is functioning for the greater good of the body.
  5. A growing number of churches recognize legitimate reasons for not attending church worship services and minister to those members with intentionality. Those members would include people who are homebound, military personnel serving around the world, and those members whose vocations may cause them to relocate temporarily.
  6. A steadily-growing trend is the utilization of a front-end membership class to set expectations about church membership. In a number of these classes, the prospective member hears clearly how he or she could be removed from the membership of the church.
  7. There is a direct correlation to the number of inactive members in a church and the need for revitalization. We are no longer surprised when we work with churches in dire need of revitalization. More times than not, the church has a membership roll four or five times greater than its attendance. The church did not take membership seriously, so the members did not take the church seriously.

For certain, there are churches that have more in attendance than members. These churches tend to be younger or replanted churches. But, for the greater majority of churches in North America, the majority of those on membership rolls are missing in action.

Posted on March 25, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • How many donors do you have? That will give you a good idea of the number of members you have. The Episcopal church probably has more donors than voting members.

  • A question that needs to be answered: what is the purpose of counting members for a physical church?

    If membership determines participation in the election/voting/polity of a church – that makes sense.
    If membership, or non-membership, excludes from participating in worship – that doesn’t make sense.

    If it’s about being bigger than someone else or having the largest church it might be worth revisiting the rationale for membership.

  • Brian Horton says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    Are you aware of any statistics about members who are inactive due to being homebound, in nursing care, as well as those unable to be active due to military service? I am sure that it is a small percentage, but I am just curious how many of the inactive members are so due to these circumstances.

  • Darrell Deer says on

    Many of these can be combined together. For instance, our church does not have an inactive member category, but we do allow for shut-ins, college students, etc. to remain on the membership rolls.

  • I am our church business manager. Here are some more “members” that I work with. There are the members that have moved away, but still have emotional ties to the church, who financially support the church to some level, and who want continuing information about church happenings. They have relocated to another church, but part of their heart remains with us. We miss them too.

    Then there is the senior sustaining member group who only sporadically attend church. They excuse themselves from regular attendance for health issues, but almost always attend every funeral.

    There is the member that hardly ever attends until their offspring or relative needs a church for a marriage venue. Then for 2 months before and 2 weeks following the event they are regular attenders.

    Then there is the committed core, which is the life of a church. They are the church servants. I love to help them and assist their efforts in any way that I can. They ask little except for Biblically based sermons, and a chance to see and work with church friends. They only ask for the heat on in their workplaces in the winter and the A/C in the summer. When that group is not replenished as life-span claims them, that church is in huge trouble.

  • We’ve just recently passed our new bylaws and have clearly articulated what an active member is and clarified how we will go about accounting for members. We have a membership of 1,400 but run 400-500 on Sunday Mornings.

    Active Membership
    1. Active membership for this church shall be composed of persons who have met and agreed to the qualifications for membership at North Trenholm.
    2. Members are in good standing as long as they regularly participate in worship services, bible studies, ministry activities, give, and live a life in accordance with the expectations of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
    3. Only those who are members in good standing will be entitled to serve in any official role listed within these bylaws; non-members may serve in an unofficial status with Pastoral guidance and Elder approval. Non-members may also serve the church in administrative and/or for consultation purposes.
    4. Considering the rights involved, members present at any called membership meeting may cast one (1) vote in any decisions being made for the church.
    5. A member, for voting purposes, will be determined as an individual whose name currently appears on the active membership role.
    6. North Trenholm active members must hold the church accountable to the Bible, our Statement of Faith, Bylaws, and Membership Covenant.

    Inactive Members
    1. Non-resident members who for one (1) year are not accounted for in attendance, nor contribute by supporting the ministry of the church, or participate in the community of faith at North Trenholm, shall be placed on the inactive membership roll or removed from membership.
    2. Resident members who for two (2) consecutive years are not accounted for in attendance, contribute by supporting the ministry of the church, or participate in the community of faith at North Trenholm, unless good cause for such neglect be shown, shall be placed on the inactive membership roll or removed from membership.
    3. Under Pastoral supervision, with accountability of the Elders before any member’s status is officially changed, a periodic review of the membership roster shall be conducted to maintain accuracy and remove inactive members.

  • Membership, at least as it has evolved in the church, appears to have 2 or 3 categories:
    1. Active members who are officially on the church rolls.
    2. Active members who are disaffected from another denomination but have not chosen the denominational umbrella as their home.
    3. Historical members who derive membership through familial ties, baptism, or reception.

    In some places, especially the Episcopal Church, unless a person actively transfers their membership (affiliation) to another parish or congregation they remain on the roll as an Episcopalian. But once they stop being active (attend church regularly and known to the treasurer) they become inactive for counting statistics. As a clergy, I can only canonically remove someone’s affiliation by their request of by their death. But active doesn’t depend on legal affiliation in the Episcopal Church.

  • Ruth Cooley says on

    Many times it is simply that the now-inactive member, in our mobile society, has begun to “partner” or attend elsewhere for any number of reasons. Since many churches do not request information on former memberships or do not report these changes to any previous church, then the person may remain on that inactive list until the information becomes available to the previous church. With the rapid rate at which cell phone numbers or residential address locations are changed, keeping up with someone is not simple. Even active members are often prone to overlooking the provision of new contact information for their church.

    • Richard Klueg says on

      When someone joins a church, I think it is the the responsibility of that church to ask about that person’s status with another church, and to contact that church about the change in membership. I wonder how many people are “members” of multiple churches!

  • Donald Key says on

    Maybe we should drop the identification “member” and replace it with “partners”. Members expect benefits while partners know they are investors. I do agree that “inactive member” is an oxymoron. Up front expectations that are clearly expressed would help new participants but it does nothing to change the behavior of those who are already a part of the membership.

    • Thanks, Don, but I’m not ready to drop the biblical name of “member” (1 Corinthians 12) for culture adaptation.

    • I like your analogy and believe the concept of “partners” creates a sense of ownership. Ownership not in the sense that “it takes away from Christ the head of the church” but more the concept of “equally yoked” as parts of the body of Christ.
      We are all in this together as a team with a common goal. Another example is using the concept of teams vs. committees when we undertake God’s work at our churches.

  • We live in a, me, me, me society here in America. I have often thought we need a good old fashioned persecution to wake the body of Christ up out of there slumber. We’ve had it too good.

  • Kim Moen says on

    These are very good points, and there is much truth to each of them. What seems to be at the heart of those “absentees,” especially those who have drifted over a period of months is that there is a disconnect and they feel as though “No one cares.” Some times life’s issues get in the way, and if the people were not strongly “plugged-in” from the beginning they will hang on to a misunderstanding of the roles of clergy, etc and believe it is their responsibility to reach out to me. They will think that Luke 15:4 is to be taken literally….They forget that as members of the body they have an accountability.

    • Good points. Thanks, Kim.

      • David G Troublefield, PhD says on

        Good and helpful similar research: That done by C. Kirk Hadaway (former SBC Sunday School Board staffer) titled What Can We Do about Church Dropouts? Inactive church members are of different kinds; what reaches one for more consistent participation does not reach another. (Hadaway’s book Church Growth Principles: Separating Fact from Fiction also is an eye-opener as compared with thought–and practice–common on the topic. Sort of the Ed Stetzer before Ed Stetzer.)

  • I believe that definitions of “church” and “Church” need to be espoused from time to time. There is the local body (institutional church) and then there is the body of Christ: THE Church (capital “C”). The upcoming new generations Church (capital “C”) tends to avoid the institutional church if it overly emphasizes its position vs. the Body of Christ, THE Church…the Body of Christ. May sound like just semantics to you, if so, you may be experiencing this issue with your newer Christians who seldom show up. It is important to them.

    • Don Jones says on

      I’m not sure of those definitions either biblically or theologically. I certainly understand the distinction between the Universal Church and the local church. Being a Christian (born again) places one within the Universal Church which is the body of Christ, but also should put one within the Local Church which is also the body of Christ. The epistles of the NT are written to local churches in which those who are part of the local churches are reminded that they are part of the body of Christ, they belong to the flock, they are stones in the building and perhaps a few other metaphors of connectedness. I don’t see anywhere that the local church is an “institution.” Perhaps I’m not understanding what you mean by the word “institution.” The local churches are the visible body, functioning body of Christ to their local communities.

      • Here’s the definition of “institutional” for you: in·sti·tu·tion·al

        of, in, or like an institution or institutions.
        “institutional care”
        unappealing or unimaginative.
        “institutional chocolate-colored paint”
        synonyms: unappetizing, unpalatable, inedible, uneatable, distasteful, unsavory, insipid, bland, tasteless, flavorless, savourless; More
        expressed or organized in the form of institutions.
        “institutional religion”
        synonyms: organized, established, bureaucratic, accepted, orthodox, conventional, procedural, prescribed, set, routine, customary, formal, systematic, systematized, methodical, businesslike, ready, orderly, coherent, structured, regulated; informalestablishment
        “the new organization would provide an institutional framework for discussions”

      • Ricky L. Scott says on

        Well, I think I’ll divorce my wife. After what I just read, I don’t like the “institution of marriage.”

        Now, back to church membership. In regard to Point 1, we Pastors could put greater emphasis on church membership. We should do it before people unite with the church. After all, it is a body and a bride among other things. We should also do it when people join. I still believe the “Church Covenant” is a valuable document. I have actually taught thru it on either Sun. Or We’d. Nights. When people leave us ( for whatever reason), we could follow up with them and churches of “like faith and order” if they moved away. And as a passing thought, many churches no longer follow the practice of granting and receiving letters. This has skewed of numbers. If you don’t do it for any other reasons, do it Out of courtesy and good record keeping.

        As far as Point 2 is concerned, there is no Bblical precedent for this that I am aware of. Revivals and re-commitment messages should cover this.

        Moving to Point 3, I have done this with minimal results. Oftentimes, a large roll with a small attendance equates with a deep split. If people came back, history could very well be repeated. But it could be worth the effort.

        Now, point 4. Rolls would be more accurate with resident & non-resident lists. Referring back to Point 3, if you keep good records, you can actually follow up with people and find out if they are still members. If not, inform them you want to remove their name from your roll. You can still have an inactive list. I have seen purging rolls stir up a hornets’ nest. After all, who is a name on a roll hurting? When the person dies, it will provide temporary though superficial comfort to the family for thei Obit. And it’s really no different than we preachers unnecessarily re-baptizing some people.

        As for Points 5 and 6, I agree. But, in smaller churches it’s difficult to have a “New Members” Class. Once again, ongoing education. We didn’t get in the mess we’re in overnight, and it can’t be corrected overnight. Let’s be proactive not reactive.

        Finally, I partially agree with Point 7. Yes we need revitalization. But just because a church has a Roll 4 or 5 times the number of attendees doesn’t mean membership isn’t taken seriously. This is too simplistic. Think about Deacon run churches. Traditionalism. The short tenure of Pastors. And even the idolatry of taking care of the Denomination over the Pastor and his family.

        These have simply been the surmising of a poor old dumb country preacher.

    • Unfortunately, such sentiments are not scriptural. The primary emphasis in the New Testament is on the local church. There can be no universal church without the local church.

    • Hi Peter,

      The way a person comes to be part of the universal church is through participation in the local church. The culturally driven anomaly of individualized worship response to God in lieu of corporate worship with a local body is a product of a hyper-westernized mindset that is in error. Yes, there are many that resist organized (institutional) church and claim many spiritual sounding reasons for it. However, in my experience, it is a veiled form of idolatry and refusal to yield to any authority. Of course, that is a generalization and is not universal…but closer to truth than we would like to admit.

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