Six Early Warning Signs of Church Dropouts

If everyone who had dropped out of our congregations in the past decade returned, the typical church would triple in worship attendance.

Read that previous sentence carefully. One of the most significant reasons for stagnating and declining attendance is church dropouts.

The most challenging problem is church dropouts rarely return. Reclamation ministry is exceedingly difficult.

Stemming the tide of church dropouts begins before they dropout. And we have an abundance of information that informs us about those who are in danger of dropping out. Here are six of the most common early warning signs, with suggestions to address the issues early rather than later.

  1. Decreased frequency in attendance. If your small group or Sunday school class does not keep attendance records, please begin doing so. It’s not about the numbers per se; it’s about ministry to the body of Christ. With good records, you can tell when a person begins to attend less frequently. And you can contact the member to ask if there is anything you can do for him or her. Decreased worship attendance is more difficult to discern because records are rarely kept. But it is not unusual to hear church members say that they aren’t seeing someone as much as they once did. Those casual comments are a call to action.
  2. No longer attending a group. If someone stops attending a church altogether, there is an urgent need to contact him or her to see how you might minister to that person. Those who drop out of small groups typically leave the church completely within three months.
  3. Decreased giving patterns. Most pastors and church staff do not have access to members’ giving records. But those leaders can ask the person or persons who do see the records to let them know if a member has a significant decline in giving. When I was a pastor, our financial secretary did an excellent job of keeping me informed of potential needs. I would typically take the person to lunch. In every case, I did not bring up the giving issue. But in every case, I discovered the ministry need that precipitated the decline in giving.
  4. Major participant in a church conflict. There are, unfortunately, some church members who are constant complainers and conflict creators. If you, however, see church members get involved in a conflict for the first time, watch them carefully. Their involvement in conflict goes against their more peaceful nature. They may be embarrassed, ashamed, or just plain weary about their involvement. They see exiting the church as their best resolution to the problem.
  5. Family problems. Too many church members are embarrassed when family problems occur. They fear the church will be judgmental rather than redemptive. Church members need to know there is a safe place and/or person where they can share their problems and needs.
  6. Moral failure. Those who are involved in moral failure are the most likely to drop out of church life. Some of them do not want to change their lifestyle and repent. Others do not see the church as a place to confess and be restored. Too many churches do not know how to deal with members involved in moral failure.

Reclamation ministries, seeking to get those who dropped out active again in church life, are worthwhile. They are, however, very difficult with low success rates. It is much better to deal with dropout issues before dropout actually takes place.

Let me hear about dropout issues in your church. What are your challenges? What are your solutions?

Posted on January 6, 2016

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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  • Thank you so much for your postings on why people dropout from our local churches.You are pretty practical.
    Why on earth do people leaves our assembly i can’t understand. Each time there a major program that impacts our church. The other day sometime last year soon after an impactful program by the youth group,many drop out from church without reasons justiable. Another whole family drop out from the music department after his condition for remaining in the church was not meant…….( he had previously given us conditionof going home with some of the musical instruments which was objected to on the ground that these instruments are sacred,and once moved out the sacred usage would be in doubt, now he’s drop out of our church with his family including other two youths ).At close last year dozen dropped out.
    As at today the ones from the music department has not been replaced. Where do i go from here.

  • Most adults who join my church seek immediate baptism (baptized +70 in last 30 months) but they rarely join a bible study class or small group or new members class even when we spend extensive efforts seeking their participation. Almost all of them are Sunday morning only members. Half of them are already gone. I’ve never had such problems in 30 yrs of ministry and I’m stumped. So are all my pastor friends I’ve sought advice about my situation as well as my DOM.

  • Brent J. says on

    Being in church most of my life, I have seen many people come and go from congregations. The reasons often differ… I would say the most common sign of someone about to leave a church is low attendance. Personally, I have started contacting people outside of church when I notice them not attending as frequently. More times than not they start attending again, but I also try to call them (once or twice a week). It might be a little burdensome sometimes, but I find in the long run that it is really a fulfilling ministry. I could have lost many great friends if I didn’t pick up the phone! Majority of the time after I reach out to someone, I notice our bond only grows stronger, and we become closer friends.

  • While Paul labored to “be all things to all people”,I’m afraid that philosophy has been lost on this generation of church leaders. As previously mentioned the onus is now on churches to attract the “right people” who exemplify the “proper image”. So sad but is it any wonder the church struggles to attract the unchurched?

  • My husband and I left our church of over 30yrs. We had no leadership and who is the pastor puts the answers to problems on everyone else shoulders. She also expects us to find new members while she spends time on computer. I have never seen her out in public anywhere! We also have 6 family members who are ‘own the church’ and are from a disfunctional family growing up and have no respect for anyone in the church. They treat the church as a home with even hanging up family pictures on the office. They yell at other members in front of anyone in church and have made any money raising event a mightmare. Our pastor says she ‘needs’ them or that there is nothing she can do about them. Is that a correct answer. When we ask to talk with her, she keeps on computer and never makes face to face connection with person talking. She will not advertise church events because ‘to many people might come’. Now isn’t that a way to get new members!! This was a church of ovet150 members and now 80 at the most. I no longer feel her mean anything . They are just empty words and I sat downstairs in Sunday school room to feel the Lord’s presence at service time. We cannot let someone lacking in God’s true faith preach his word to us. We have not been to church for over 2 months because it hurts that she lets out church door be a swinging one.

  • I think that this is a good post, but I think it would be very easy to read it and not get to the question of why. My real worry is that so many of the ‘good’ churches are preaching a form of spiritualism, too focused on the abstract to be good. I love the church that I currently attend, but only found this church after leaving 3 other churches in two years. It is only at this church that I have felt truly part of–like I am truly part of the body of Christ. I know at the other churches I was not helped by the fact that I tend to be quiet and lean toward depression (but one has to wonder how much of this is due my experience with church[this is without saying that going to church and being with God’s people should be a great joy rather than an adding to sorrows]), but it was not like I would get to know other people at these other churches. I could easily go to these other churches and barely talk to a single person even at ‘fellowship’ meals.
    To be honest, if I did not feel a calling on my life, I would not attend church. The problem that we have today is that we boast far to much in the flesh and the preaching today does not correct this. Church is for the perfect, not for the broken, so we all must look whole. We must always be ‘good’ or ‘okay’ when people ask. Church is not the place where you tear walls down. It is the place where you put them up.
    I firmly believe in the power of preaching and that it is the answer to the problem. What we need is Biblical preaching from the pulpit that begins to tear down these walls and the other walls that we face. People will always be people, and people will always leave the church, but we should note that Jesus never rejected anyone. If they left, it was not because he rejected them, but because they were offended by him. We need this sort of offensive preaching. Preaching that offends, but like the gospel, brings you into the greatest community that there is if you accept. A community not only for this life, but the next.
    One has to wonder how many family, marital, and moral failures would have been prevented if we were free not to be perfect. If we were free enough to deal with temptation. We might think of those like Josh Duggar and others. Had they not been a ‘perfect’ Christian, they could or would have got the help of the people. We need religion to stop being our opium and let the gospel start to be the solution once again.

  • I read all of the comments previously mentioned. I am a church leader and have been with this church almost 8 years. I was reared in the church and was truly familiar with the policies, church covenant, etc. When I gave my life to Jesus I realized that church attendance is vitally important to our relationship with God and others. We grow through community and fellowship to be more like the image of Christ. I read a book a few months ago called “I am a church member” (anyone heard of that book?) and it convicted me so badly. We can’t have everything that we want, when we want it and how we want it. The church is not a “Burger King”, have it your way. We are in church to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and to minister to others. We are part of church to serve and not be served. That’s what Jesus would do!!!! I am still working on my attitude and behavior. I am not there yet!!!!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I love your attitude, Dale.

    • Glenda Byars says on

      We read that book as a church in two weeks and I agree completely. When our church was built over 100 years ago as the main church in an industrial town. There was a cotton mill and a steel mill in the church-area. Now, the core membership, though aging, remains. Of course, younger families are attending the mega-church across town; the older folks do not care about evening services, and on and on. We must move with the times, but we must maintain our church identity and purpose, to spread the message of Jesus and to keep the precious old story in its eyes. We have begun a new out-reach program. And I know God will direct us.

    • Ditto to Dr. Rainer’s comment, Dale. May God raise up many more like you!

  • How do you properly measure church attendance? We have A Lot of members who attend Sunday school then leave. They do not like the current Pastor and do not set foot in the Sanctuary. We don’t have offerings in SS so these members don’t contribute financially but expect full attention when they have needs. In a staff meeting I suggested family ministries be based upon tithe records, the finance chairman laughed out loud. I wasn’t joking, I believe in accountability but mercy is not my ministry gift and I understand and support widows, the poor etc.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Russ –

      Most churches do have trouble measuring attendance outside of groups. That is one of the reasons small groups or Sunday school classes are so important.

  • In the years leading up to my break with evangelicalism, I exhibited some of these warning signs: withdrawing from ministry commitments, spotty church attendance, and giving less. It took us five years of casually visiting churches before we found a new church home. We are now orthodox.

    I share this because I had become disillusioned with our original church, and saw the same problem in all the ones we visited. They are all working way too hard to be too hip, relevant, practical, emotional and “real.” In the process they’ve seemingly forgotten about Jesus and the gospel.

    In our new church, thanks in part to a liturgical calendar, our worship life is always focused on the biblical message that we are great sinners and that God has responded by sending us an all-sufficient Savior. This is good news that believers (not just the lost) need to hear and be reminded of week in and week out.

    But even within our own denomination there is constant pressure to succumb to the megachurch way of doing things. Which of course I think would be to our undoing. We need to hold steadfast to the gospel, and I pray other churches would seriously look at whether they too have abandoned their first love. It’s sadly ironic that in trying to appeal to a modern culture, churches may have lost the one thing that set them apart to begin with.

  • Mark Dance says on

    You are so right about these warning signs. In my experience the pastor is often intentionally left out of the loop about the family and moral problems until it is too late to help them.

    • True. Communication failures exacerbate the problem.

    • Some people though see the pastor as one who just passes judgement and condemns. Back when pastors yelled in sermons and beat on the pulpit, people feared the pastor finding out or knowing anything and this has carried over to keeping things quiet.

  • I dropped out of my local protestant and catholic churches for none of the reasons above. I dropped out because neither was biblical. The protestant church began celebrating homosexuality as the greatest of all human qualities and adopting rock and roll type services; the catholic church went all gooey with the arrival of Bergoglio. Top of your list should be a reminder to all pastors and preachers to ask themselves this question: are people leaving because my church’s teaching is straying from the only source of truth: the bible?

  • Even if the person is still in attendance, ask if they get anything out of attending. I have never been asked anything, other than had I been baptized, in any church I belonged to or attended, not as an individual nor in a group setting. However, the younger generation is not like the older. If you ask the older, they will answer in vague terms like they were taught to. The young will answer honestly and then expect you to do something about it. I think for this reason, the young are never asked because leadership does not want to know about any issues and does not want to understand the modern world. Let’s face it, there are multiple generations present in churches now and most churches are geared toward 1 generation or even 2, but not 3, 4, or 5. My suggestion is to put out a survey with questions and room for comments and ask gender, age range, marital status, and parental status. Another suggestion is to have a dinner with the younger people in the congregation and 1 or 2 church leaders or the pastor. Ask the young what they are seeing. Then have another one with another group and do the same thing. Some people just want to feel like they belong, which is a very difficult thing to accomplish.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good input. Thanks, Mark.

    • Carolyn Roberson says on

      This may or may not be relevant but, the whole point of church and The Church is to bring people to Christ.

      Most of the churches I have attended in search of a new church home in a new city doesn’t even offer an invitation.

      If people aren’t “getting saved” as a result of going, why would they go if it isn’t meeting the most fundamental need?

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