• "Caring for Inactive Members: How to Make God's House a Home," a six-hour course that equips parishioners to reach out in authentic, caring ways to people who are inactive or unchurched. Available from Stephen Ministries, a system for training and organizing members to provide Christian care to people experiencing a wide range of crises or life difficulties.
• "How to Shrink Your Church's Inactive Member List, Church Effectiveness Nuggets: Volume 6," The Parish Paper.
• The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church's Spectators into Active Participants by Scott Thumma and Warren Bird (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
• Transforming Leadership: New Vision for a Church in Mission by Norma Cook Everist (Fortress Press, 2008).
• You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Church by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2011).
Many congregations struggle with whether to remove people who no longer participate in church from membership rolls. On the one hand, it serves little purpose to carry people on the rolls who are absent from church life. On the other hand, how many of these people might return to the fold with a little more encouragement?
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Congregations that cultivate both meaning and belonging in a distinctive fashion can see increased participation — even growth, said Kevin Dougherty, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, and an expert on church retention and attrition rates.
To cultivate meaning and belonging, church leaders first need to clearly define the gospel message as the rallying point around which everything else in the congregation happens, he said. That core message — the gospel — must resonate with people, he added.
Dougherty said the church also must define “how our faith tradition sets us apart, makes us distinctive and makes us an alternative to [secular society].” It must compellingly answer questions like “Who is the person of Jesus? What is the place of Scripture? What does it mean to be Christian?”
Once the congregation establishes its core message, it can “find ways to promote it, capture people’s sense of interest and connect them together,” he said. “Belonging is connecting individuals beyond superficial ways. The deeper the connections become, the more important church becomes to people.”
Congregations can help make connections by forming specialized small groups (substance abuse support groups, running clubs, knitting clubs, divorce support groups, etc.) based on interests and needs. “The options are limitless,” Dougherty said.
“Groups can give people an entry point into your place of worship and faith community,” he added. “Those connections are invaluable in eventually getting those individuals who are on the margin of church life back [into] full fellowship with the larger body.”
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers