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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  • I’ve found people to leave for a whole host of reasons. Typically, differences in doctrine / theology / methodology. I mean, well, when you have one group of people in the church calling the shots — or if you have people whose beliefs change — I can’t really fault people for leaving.

    In the years I’ve been a Christian, I can think of 2-3 situations of moral failure at 1-2 churches. Everyone else who has left, has left over differences in doctrine, church vision / methodology, etc. That’s included myself.

    Yes, you can find many of the warning signs mentioned…. if you pay attention. Some people are better at “faking” / hiding it than others — and no one should really have to fake / hide the changes going on. Sometimes — if not many times — even when the changes are spotted, a church congregation may be ill-equipped to responding appropriately to the situation.

    My guess is that in many cases, by the time the problems are spotted, addressing the situations may be difficult at best. It’s a lot easier to address situations in the context of trust. By the time a lot of these problems are spotted, the trust is probably already broken.

    Frankly, when it’s a change in beliefs regarding doctrines or methodology, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a congregation’s beliefs and practices change — or a member realizes that the church’s teachings and practices have actually been somewhat toxic (in a church they thought was healthy, but was actually unhealthy). The member is not always the problem. In fact, sometimes the member can end up excommunicated for wanting to stand up against false teaching. So, it just all depends.

  • Almost a year has gone by since this was posted, and I wonder if anything has improved. For the first time in my life having grown up in the church, served and led in the church and the denomination, I am considering dropping out. For decades the local church functions as an organization and not an organism. We use terms that make us sound like a “body” but in reality if we are a “body” we are unhealthy. Don’t ask us where do I fit in, but how can I be the best to serve, connect, love and lead. Worship has become events and not a way of life. We can attend and remain anonymous and detached.
    Our older established FIRST churches tend to limit leadership to the “old guard” or they try to hard to be “new” with huge concert or event “services”. Churches that seem to thrive are like the early Christian churches that met in homes where everyone knew each other.
    Now that a year has gone by what is the state of the local church? Are we growing in maturity or just changing or making the local church building like a drive-through. Go through the menu, drive up, get what you want and when that is boring, go to the next place and use their drive-through.

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