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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  • Fred Kiffins says on

    Don –

    What a lousy attitude you have toward pastors! I love my pastor. He may not be perfect, but I would never make categorical statements like yours. Shame!

  • I think it’s a numbers game. Pastors, in many cases, are guilty of using membership numbers to make them feel good or look good.
    Salary numbers are many times based on membership numbers. If we reduce membership numbers to reality, the pastor and staff may fall into a different salary range.
    The SBC would never want to admit that their membership is really one half of published numbers until other denominations do the same.

    • Marguerite Colson says on

      Don –

      Can you substantiate your claims? Can you show us where, “in many cases,” pastors use membership numbers to make them feel good? Most pastors refer to worship attendance, not membership. It sounds like you have an anti-pastor bias.

      Also, you must have your head in the sand if you think SBC leaders don’t acknowledge the wide gap in membership and reality. Look at the second paragraph in this blog.

      I appreciate counter perspectives on Thom’s blog. But I really don’t like it when someone says things with no factual evidence whatsoever.

    • Janet Parham says on

      Don –

      I asked Thom a few months ago to moderate comments like yours, so we would not have such divisive attitudes on this blog. You must feel the weight of the heavy chip you carry on your shoulder.

  • Pastor Thamas Jean Denis says on

    Can anyone help with these questions please?

    Some great leaders have been effective in large groups and ineffective in small. Others have been the opposite. Must a great leader be totally effective in all groups at all times? How can someone work through his or her limitations and become somewhat effective in all situations even if it is outside his or her comfort zone? Do you find you have this problem? What are you doing to overcome?

  • The importance of membership I believe has been lost on the younger generations. It used to be that you belonged to a specific denomination, and maintaining your membership in the local branch of that denomination was vital if you wanted any connection to a local body. If you were raised in the local First Baptist no way would you leave and just start attending a Church of Christ or Assemblies of God for example. Today churches have moved to all be the same in appearance and even have the same nondescript names (Crossroads, Crosspoint, etc). So now people see church as a shopping-like commodity and there is little loyalty or commitment to a specific church group of believers. If another church has better preaching or kids’ programs it is nothing to just pick up and leave. My own pastor used to emphasize the importance of membership but after seeing staggering numbers of people cycle through our church even he is realizing that membership isn’t taken seriously anymore.

  • Clyde D Mitchell Jr says on

    I am familiar with the local visible assembly… and the “family of God” (all saved people, but how it is possible to have a Universal Invisible assembly. BOOK, CHAPTER, and VERSE.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      I’ve never understood the term “universal” church. However when a person gets saved they are placed into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 13:12) and there is only one body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23 and Colossians 1:24).

  • Shortly after our current pastor arrived, 4 years ago, he instituted a plan of outreach in the church that I found most interesting. He took every name on the membership rolls, and assigned every one to a volunteer member, for the purpose of contact and visit. And every member got a visit, including the volunteers themselves.

    Nothing complicated … not training needed … just go and visit and let everyone and let them know the church was concerned about all members.

    Peg and I jumped in and got our first card and made some visits. Then we went back and got some more names (3 to a card).

    There were some who told us during the visit that they were members elsewhere, and take their names off the rolls. Some, we could not find. Some told us when we phoned for an appointment that we should remove them as members.

    It didn’t make a big difference in attendance, but we sure lost a lot of “members” who never attended anyway. And we discovered that when someone stopped coming to FBC but didn’t tell the church, their membership wasn’t important to them.

    I would recommend that sort of plan to any local church that was like ours, in having thousands of “members” but hundreds in attendance.

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