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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  • Charles "Doc" Snow says on

    As I have read these comments, consistent with my typical way of thinking, the question came to my mind….Why do people go to churches in the first place? They may not even be completely cognizant of it, but what they are looking for and what they are needing is for the power of God to have an impact on their lives. For that to happen ministry must occur. When the majesty, grace, Glory and power of God is made available through ministry these seekers are helped, built up, added to the church, and fully initiated into Christ. We have to set aside the superfluous and make sure that we are not too paralyzed with an antisupernatural bias and start devoting ourselves to the mission and purposes of the Kingdom of God and, as an example, maybe start praying for sick people to be healed and actually expect it to happen on the spot, and in the process learn organically from the Word and our results how to do this particular ministry. (There is a vast body of literature on this one subject, by the way.)

    If we, as the Bereans did, searched the scriptures daily to find ways and reasons to believe God to answer our prayers for healing, finances, peaceful and productive lives, joy, family, vocational and moral concerns, snd matters of general well-being, the question we then would have is not how can we get folk to stay but; rather, “what are we going to do with all these people”???

    A thriving church can be a messy place sometimes, but with God’s help can be managed not so much by programs but by the manifestation of Jesus and His Holy Spirit. You really can’t ‘do church’ without them. Selah.

    In my own conversion process I once stood in the hot August Alabama sunshine outside a church for five hours to have the chance to receive what I knew I was SO desparate for, a touch from the hand of God. There were a couple hundred of us. That night, thank God, I got exactly what I was looking for and a lot more I was not looking for but that was VERY good for me and that only happened because ministers had paid the price necessary to faithfully handle the Things of God.

    We are all desparate and hoping against hope that we can be touched in a powerful way by God. If that hurting and desparation are addressed properly the problem might not be completely solved but it would be powerfully impacted for the good of all.

  • We were faithful members for many years, but we weren’t related to or best friends with any of the “leadership” families. The pain of being at church and feeling like my family was unwelcome became too hard to bear. I got tired of crying on my way home after church every Sunday. I haven’t been back in over a year and have heard from no one. If that is “community”, I don’t want to be a part of it. I trust that God will show us where He wants us to be. We have visited a few churches, but haven’t found the right one yet.

  • Through my years as a pastor, I noticed that if people changed where they sat, it indicated something was going on in regards to their involvement in the church. If people moved back and to the outside, it oftentimes showed they were less committed to the church and were on their way out. Conversely, if someone moved from the “fringe” seating to more towards the front and center, it meant they were getting more involved.

    Nothing scientific, just observation!

    • Christopher Davis says on

      I just noticed your comment about where people sit. I have asperger’s syndrome and often may not be very welcomed by a congregation. It is my belief that my obligation to attend and give is based on a church’s need. Typically, I will get bored due to lack of or infrequent interactions with the congregation. My attendance and tithing goes hand with hand hence both goes down gradually over time. I hate to admit this but my patterns looks alot like this: Attendance is strong for a good while (3x per month), goes down to every two weeks, once a month, then a few times off and on until not showing up all together. I don’t like to portray myself as a victim or outcast of any sort and will pick one of the front two center pews all the way up to my last service.

  • You sound like a stalker. If people quit attending your church, it’s because they don’t want ay more to do with you. You’ve appointed yourself as God’s Truant Officer; get over your ego trip already.

  • Chip Northup says on

    This is one of the most difficult things about being a pastor.

  • Dave Harroway says on

    Points 1 and 2 are very well made. Many a person who has been absent from church has been contacted months after they first drifted away. In the ensuing time, a conclusion has been made that no one cares. Very little can be said which will encourage them to return. Contacts made after a short period of absence can make people feel cared for and return. This is crucial in maintaining membership, but more importantly sharing the love of God with people who have come into your midst.

  • Nck Stasiewich - Authoirty Ministries says on

    I am 78 years old, born in a full gospel home. I have been involved in a few churches with limited success. The pastors are too concerned with their position and ‘Empire’. Most of the churches are not set up according to Apostle Paul’s directive in having a Five-Fold ministry organization, which would help most people in church. As long as the pastors are the ‘dictators’, the membership will always be in trouble. Most churches are Laodician so the Lord has very little opportunity to work there even with commited members. We need a revival to set things right within the churches.

  • When I have left churches, it has been the result of the actions or words of others. The worst people in churches I’ve encountered are the social bullies/gossips who lie about and condemn people who are different than them.

    From older members in rural churches I’ve attended who think young people are to be seen and not heard to a campus minister who told me I would go to hell because I did not like him making fun of me because I grew up on a farm, people’s actions because of opinions does so much harm.

    Cognitive dissonance and dissociation come into play. When a member or leader says hateful things and then tries to deny it or gaslight the object of scorn, they lose credibility and drive people away. Narcissism and gas lighting have been a common thread in any of the churches I’ve left.

  • Bethe Igoe says on

    I need solution to an urgent situation that falls under the subject of discussion. During a Sunday school class , my assistant pastor,my wife and I the senior pastor step out to a room to take a decision on an urgent matter. In the process my phone rang. It was one of our member; “Pastor , he said I am about to come to church, but my wife is acting out and preventing me to come, I want to call the police.” Do not call the police . I replied. Let me talk to your wife. The wife refused to talk even when the three of us pleaded to talk with her. We felt insulted as church leaders and did not visit them. They never came back to church because we did not come to their house. Two questions , are we wrong?whether we are wrong or not should we pursue and recover ?The couple have history of threatening to leave the church earlier .

  • Before my churchgoing years ended I found dozens of reasons to drop out, including inappropriate physical attractions and concern about a church being infiltrated by avowed Satanist agents of confusion. The majority of issues were, however, about hostility toward introverts and harassment of me as an introvert. After almost thirty years as an unchurched Christian, I’d say that addicts need group meetings but introvert Christians don’t. If we go to church, it’ll be because the church needs us, just the way God made us, with no suggestion at any time that we change our wonderful God-given personalities in any way…just a lot of gratitude if we’re willing to put up with the extroverts for two hours in a week. Because that really is *hard work*!

  • I’ve given up trying to be a participant. The last church I attended I spent two years slowly allowing the body to get to know me, volunteered for service, assisted purchase of media equipment, met with leadership for various reasons, only to be rejected for what remains an unknown reason.

    I produced written materials, participated in classes, volunteered to lead an apologetics ministry (aligned with my education), but all effort to exercise personal motivations and gifts were rebuffed. I finally chose to exit cordially. I was wasting my time.

  • As I read this, under great conviction, I reflected on our role as a deacon (my husband) and deacon’s wife (me). The pastors at our church can not be up on every person in our large body. I find myself walking quickly away from any EGR people before and after worship, yet they are are often the ones who want to talk and need ministering to. This is an entire church issue and just not an issue for the pastors and leadership. Because of the sin in my heart, I often am “happy” to see them go.