If you believe the MSM and pollsters, the American Church is in crisis. Apparently, there’s a mass exodus, especially with young people. It’s not true. Do your research. The reality is that people are leaving some kinds of churches (the old line denominations are hemorrhaging – Episcopals, Methodists, etc). The other reality is that some kinds of churches are growing exponentially. And young adults? Rather than flocking away from the Church, there is an astonishing movement of deep pietism among college students and 20-somethings that needs broadcasting.

These broader issues of people leaving the church are worthy of a much longer look later.

This entry topic is a “smaller” one in contrast to the one above, but it is also significant. People sometimes leave their church today because they can’t say “no” well.

Say “yes” too much?

Eager new church members with a demonstrated ability for leadership are like gold to church staff who are on the constant lookout for dependable volunteers. Let’s say “Susan” just moved to your community and joined your church. She led a small group in her previous church in Wisconsin. It’s not long before she’s asked to lead a small group in your church.

Because people hate saying “no” – especially to ministers – they often will say “yes” to questions of service. The reasons may be:

  1. They want to be a part of the mission.
  2. They want to please the minister.
  3. They want to get to know more people in the church.
  4. They see the need and believe their experience/availability dictates their involvement.

Unfortunately, their “yes” may consign them to a service sentence. It’s all for good purposes, but their service over time eclipses their joy and enthusiasm. They begin to hear or even tell themselves biblical truths such as:

“..do not grow weary in doing good.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

And they press on. Until a sense of growing anxiety over their fear of disappointing a minister, other volunteers or the church leads them to abruptly check out.

These former “yes-people” become ministry casualties. If you’re not sensitive to them, they may leave the church – not out of anger, but out of feeling like they’ve let you down.

Embarrassment of non-response

Other people may leave the church simply due to their growing unease with their lack of responsibility and initiative in their church family. For churches that allow “members” to attend only (I’d dispute whether that is a biblical church.), that is not an issue.

For churches that are intentionally seeking to spiritually care for every member and lead them in growth in their relationship with Jesus, members who remain unengaged become aware of a growing sense of anxiety/conviction about their lack of response and responsibility.

Ministers make general appeals for volunteers. Mission trips and VBS opportunities are avoided. These unengaged members avoid small groups and though they love the Sunday experience, they are not invested in the life of the church. They may even give generously, but even their giving may be part of their guilt for their uninvolvement.

Over time, the wear-and-tear of non-responsiveness leads to a vague sense of guilt or shame. These members become less and less frequent in even Sunday morning attendance, and their quiet leaving is not out of any dissatisfaction with the church. They reason that it’s just much easier to live without a foreboding sense of “church guilt.”

How to combat this kind of leaving

Two types of church exits have been described – one is the highly-involved member and the other is the non-responsive member. Let me attempt to address the involved member first:

The Highly-Involved Volunteer
  1. Make sure to communicate terms or service to your volunteers. This includes length. I would encourage you to ask people for a nine-month term of service, with a three-month evaluation. This enables them to get involved, serve and discover if this area is one they’re gifted for or truly interested in. Over a few months, it’s easier for them to see that another area of service may fit better. Giving them terms helps provide an “easy-out” for those who may need it without them feeling they’re disappointing you. You may even use terminology like “trial period” or “discovery time.”
  2. Regularly demonstrate appreciation for your volunteers. Remember the significant importance of lavishing thanks upon those who serve in your area.
  3. Keep the big picture in view. It’s vital for them to understand the overall vision. Help them see that what they do matters for the gospel message and mission!
  4. Provide ways for anonymous feedback. While not preferred, sometimes a highly motivated volunteer will not want to disappoint you as their leader by an honest critique.
  5. On the other hand, cultivate an environment of honesty, fun, and trust in which volunteers understand their input is extremely valuable for the big picture of bringing God glory and blessing others.
The Non-Responsive Member
  1. Make it personal. Talk to them. Face to face. Encourage them and seek to understand them.
  2. It’s spiritual. While some non-responsive members may be exceptionally busy, there is usually a spiritual issue at the core of their lack of involvement.
  3. Don’t back down on expecting every member to be involved in the life of your church and the lives of members. It’s tempting – so very tempting – to fudge here because you genuinely like someone. But remember the ultimate goal is their spiritual maturity and active embrace of a gospel and kingdom lifestyle.

In his commentary on Ecclesiastes 4, Phillip Ryken said about verses 9-12:

 

“There is spiritual warmth in going through life with other believers. It is easy to grow cold in the christian life, to become numb to the work of God, and eventually to freeze almost to spiritual death… We need to live in close fellowship with the people of God… Rather than assuming that you can manage your ministry or your sanctification on your own, open your arms to spiritual partnership.” (Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Crossway, 2010: p116-117)

  1. Remember that they ARE members. It is never appropriate to “write someone off” because they have not met your church’s expectations. They are sheep. They need gentle shepherding. Many a “disappointing” church member becomes a highly-involved leader with loving carefrontation in cooperation with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

A Side Note

I don’t believe everyone should serve in a church ministry.

It may come across that I think everyone should be involved in a “church” ministry. Nope. There will be many who are truthfully busy and engaged with family, work, community leadership and responsibilities. Don’t communicate that “unless you’re involved in a church ministry, you’re not a good church member.”

That’s why our church constantly reminds one another that we are called to “be the church.” Many do need to discover their area of service within the church’s existing framework of great ministries. Many do need to carve out time for involvement in a smaller group of believers (small group, discipleship group, etc.).

But by encouraging everyone to be the church, you are able to help those who are presently unable to be involved within the church structure to serve wholeheartedly as joyful followers of Jesus who are actively and intentionally building His kingdom.

Preach the “whatevers”

Help your members understand the “whatevers” principle:

“…whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

 

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…” (Colossians 3:17)

 

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men… You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23, 24)

“Whatever” they do means… whatever. Whether in a church ministry or helping coach a basketball team for their son. Whatever it is, their heart needs to be in their service. They are not serving you or the church. They are serving Jesus. If they are not serving Jesus with the right motivations, with His gifts and energy, they will become depleted and discouraged.

Helping highly involved members say no may prevent a quiet exit. Honest, loving conversations with the uninvolved member will address unmet expectations and provide a path forward.W

In the end, we want friendly, welcoming faces at the “front door” of our churches and friendly, understanding faces at the back door. But let’s make the back door harder to find with intentional member care.

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Jeff Noble

Jeff is the pastor of Northstar Church in Blacksburg, Virginia. He grew up in Arkansas, loves fantasy football and is an Apple fan boy. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @journeyguy.
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