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Don’t Let Families Get Lost During Their First Year. Here’s How.

“Lost.” Few words capture the imagination and attention more than “lost.” Countless novels, films, and TV dramas in modern society are centered on the idea of being lost or of losing something or someone.

Jesus, too, focused heavily on the lost. His parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son illustrate the great value God places on those who drift away, and, I believe, on our responsibility to reach—and include—them.

Despite our best efforts, though, we lose new families every week in our churches. This is a painful fact, especially when we consider how hard we work to invite new families into our ministries. Yet it happens all the time: Families who’ve participated and attended regularly just…slip away. Often this happens with little fanfare; sometimes congregation members don’t even notice when a family stops showing up. But why do they leave?

Here’s the reality: A handshake and a welcome packet won’t cut it with new families. In fact, it’s not even enough for new families to become members of your church. Without plans and actions that meaningfully include new families during their first year of attendance or membership, your excitement at having new faces in your ministry may quickly change to lament when you realize you’ve lost a family through the back door of your church.

Who Drops Out When…and Why?

It was my privilege to participate in a major research study seeking to answer the questions: Who drops out of church? When do they drop out? and, Why do they drop out? We uncovered some fascinating results that I believe every children’s minister should know. Let’s take a look.

When People Leave

Of those who drop out of a church, 82 percent leave in their first year. Like a new baby entering the world, that first year is critical to the survival of new families in churches.

After digging deeper into this information, we discovered something especially interesting: People don’t leave at random times throughout that first year. There are two definite timeframe “spikes” when an inordinate number of newcomers simply stop coming: after about six months of attendance and after about one year of attendance.

These timeframe spikes got our attention. So we interviewed people in two separate groups based on when they stopped attending church. “What happened?” we asked. “Tell us your story.”

In listening repeatedly to the recordings of these interviews, certain common themes emerged. Newcomers are asking certain questions in the first year of their church involvement. Sometimes they’re not even aware of their questions. But in telling their stories, their questions became clear. Also, the timing of their questions had significance.

The First Six Months

It’s important for you to know the questions new families are asking because the answers to these questions will determine whether they stay or leave. Here are the questions we found that families ask in the first six months.

“Can I make friends in this church?”

At the core of this question is the issue of belonging. Other studies on including newcomers have shown that people who stayed in church beyond the first year made an average of seven new friends. In contrast, those who dropped out made fewer than two. As a church growth consultant, I’m absolutely sure that the “friendship factor,” more than any other, is key. To put it simply: Those who make friends stay; those who don’t make friends don’t stay.

“Is there a place I can fit in?”

Here the issue is acceptance. Churches that provide a variety of affinity groups (groups made up of people who share a common interest, age, gender, marital or family status, concern, need, or dream) have a much higher rate of families who stay than churches without such “entry paths.” And the more characteristics that group members have in common, the stronger the glue that connects them.

“Does this church really want me?”

This is the issue of personal value. Almost all churches welcome new members and encourage them to become involved. Unfortunately, most churches have a tendency to then go back to “business as usual” and ignore this new source of creative ideas and energy. Are newcomers actively invited to participate in the ministries of your church? Is their opinion sought on policy and vision decisions?

The newcomers who answer “no” to these three questions often leave after five or six months. Newcomers who stay will consciously or unconsciously affirm that “Yes, I’ve made some friends in this church,” “Yes, there’s a group I’m feeling comfortable in,” and “Yes, these people really do seem to be glad I’m here.” These newcomers are, however, still asking questions. And even when new families appear to be engaged and included, the jury is still out on whether they’ll stay for another five or six months. Why?

The Second Six Months

While similar in nature, the second set of questions differs in focus during the second six months of a new family’s involvement in a church.

“Are my new friends as good as my old ones?”

This issue isn’t so much the quantity of their friends in church as the quality. New believers, in particular, begin to feel discomfort with their old behaviors, old habits, and old friends. That’s good. But they’re also assessing the value and depth of their new relationships in the church.

“Does the group meet my needs?”

New families may have found a young parents’ group or a home-based small group Bible study of people with similar interests (see the first six-month question). But in the seven to 12 months after they began attending, newcomers are asking whether the benefit of their group involvement is worth the cost of time, inconvenience, and discomfort.

“Is my contribution important?”

The question is no longer one of just doing something in the church, but now becomes one of significance. “I wanted to help change people’s lives,” one person who’d slipped out the back door of his church told us. “But the only thing they ever asked me to do was set up chairs for the all-church dinner.” People want to do something that matters. The hope of many newcomers is that they can find a purpose through the church. It takes them about a year to decide whether they do—or don’t—have purpose.

The second spike we saw represents people who left their church because the most common answer to the second set of questions was “no.” But—and here’s the good news—families who make it past the critical 12-month window will likely be involved in your church for many years.

The moral: Don’t leave new families to fend for themselves. Plan ways to include them so that the six questions newcomers are asking in their first year are answered with a resounding: “YES!”

The first 12 months are critical in closing your church’s back door. As you develop your strategies for helping new families feel they belong, are accepted, and have value in your church—I guarantee you’ll have exciting new momentum, involvement, and morale…and far fewer people slipping out the back door.

Charles Arn is president of Church Growth, Inc., and is professor of outreach and ministry at Wesley Seminary in Indiana ( He is an author, with books including What Every Pastor Should Know and Heartbeat! How to Turn Passion Into Ministry in Your Church.

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