Turning Church Spectators into Active Participants

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The story told in John 21:15-19 is almost too familiar. Three times Jesus asks if Peter loves him, three times Peter says yes, and each time Jesus responds with the commands: “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Ministers know this passage, and yet most feel lucky to see even half their flock at church. Too often 20 percent of the membership does 80 percent of the work. We know this falls far short of taking care of the membership God has entrusted to our care; yet most clergy don’t know how to change this reality.

Our book, The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants (Jossey-Bass, 2011), presents considerable research on over 100,000 individuals, numerous church staff, and thousands of congregations to understand this dynamic. After listening and learning from this data, we offer a process by which congregational leadership can begin to address this dilemma. Our analysis found that:

  • The most involved members are the most spiritually fulfilled, engaged, and satisfied. This is also true for those members who have said they are becoming more involved, compared to those who have in the last two years become less involved.
  • Disengagement is often a sign of spiritual stagnation. Our commonly accepted excuses for why people drift away (too little time, demands of their children, and illness) all contribute to inactivity, but these are considerably less important than not having one’s spiritual needs met and perceiving that one is not growing spiritually or developing as a spiritual leader. The mundane everyday reasons are convenient excuses when someone’s spirit is not engaged and growing.
  • The disengaged want to be involved. Even those who are decreasing their involvement or who are no longer involved claim they still want to be involved. They long for fulfillment and for the church leadership to reach out to them. And many homebound, hurting, and unhappy or disgruntled former members still wish to be involved, saying they want a connection if only the church would reach out.

Our commonly accepted excuses for why people drift away – too little time, demands of their children, and illness- all contribute to inactivity, but these are considerably less important than not having one’s spiritual needs met.

The marginally involved as a primary mission field. Thinking about marginally and non-involved members of your church as a primary mission field is not as sexy as going to Judea, Samaria, or the end of the earth to find the lost. And it can also be a lot more work. But shouldn’t our first responsibility be to the fifty percent or more of the church flock that may well be starving spiritually? Countless books instruct pastors on reaching the lost, entertaining guests, and integrating new members. Yet barely a handful discuss the care and feeding of current members or engaging in a back-door ministry to reduce the outflow.

We must confront the taken-for-granted reality that it is acceptable for a church to function with barely half its membership in attendance and even fewer actively involved in giving, serving, fellowship, inviting others, or growing spiritually. To counter this pattern we offer a simple process by which clergy and lay leaders can listen to what their most involved, less-involved, and uninvolved people say about why they are and aren’t engaged. Church leaders also need to learn about other larger contributing factors beyond the stated reasons, exploring the cultural, attitudinal, social, and institutional reasons affecting the level of involvement.

There are ways a congregation can move past the 20/80 malaise. Leadership teams need to evaluate critically what their church is doing to facilitate involvement. They must think creatively and beyond the usual approaches to reach the less involved. There is no single solution, no one-size-fits-all answer to this problem. But there are options from which church leaders can select the most fitting.

  • Build on strengths. A church should begin to mend its broken or waning involvement and participation ratio by identifying those current activities that promote and attract robust involvement and intentionally strengthen these.
  • Foster new leadership. Simple and easy tasks of volunteer rotation, training, rewards and acknowledgement, and creating leadership opportunities all greatly increase involvement. So does emphasizing life-long religious education and following up on those who drift away.
  • Think outside the box. Given the state of contemporary American society, congregations need to think outside the box to connect members in ministry that fits their lifestyles, to take the church where absent member spend their time, and to interpret the gospel message in contemporary idioms.

Focusing on increasing member involvement is not a church growth strategy — it is a way to care for the spiritual lives of the entire flock. Involvement and participation are the correlates of spiritual growth and personal spiritual fulfillment. A full sanctuary isn’t the goal — spiritual growth of a healthy flock of sheep is.


The Other 80 Percent is available from Amazon and Cokesbury.

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About Author

Scott Thuma

Scott Thumma, Scott is Director of Hartford Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. He co-directs the Insights into Religion Portal and isthe co-author of The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants.

Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Vice President of Research and Equipping for the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. He is also a Senior Fellow at Leadership Network.


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