June 23, 2006
Radioactive Church Attendance: predicting your congregation’s half-life
Some churches are more unstable than others. This may not be the result of impulsive leadership or poor planning, but rather the life stage of the congregation. Dave Terpstra pastors The Next Level Church in Denver, a community comprised primarily of young singles and families. Here, Dave compares the instability of church attendance to the half-life of radioactive material and gives some helpful suggestions from his own experience.
I have noticed a trend in the churches of which I have been a part. Most church attenders have a half-life. In other words, on average, one can predict the longevity of an individual's participation in the church by their life stage. [I'm going to be using general terms and rough numbers so please don't get lost in the details, but try and stick with the overarching analogy.]
After high school students graduate from high school, about half of them will leave the church. After college students graduate, about half of them will leave. When a college grad takes a career, again half of them leave the church. When they get married, when they have kids, when they become empty nesters, when they retire?half, half, half, half.
Chances are more than half leave after high school and maybe more than half stay from empty-nester to retirement. However, the phenomenon of church members leaving at life's natural transition points still exists. So what does that mean for us as church leaders?
1. Just like in radioactive material, the more "half-lives" the material has made it through, the more stable the material. Therefore, retired people are the most stable, followed by empty-nesters. High school and college students are terribly unstable (in case you didn't already know).
2. Churches that target young families are targeting those who may be stable for the longest period of time. A family with a newborn will potentially stay for 18 years until their child graduates from high school and they become empty nesters.
3. If the numbers turned out to be true based that means only one out of 64 high school students will actually make it to retirement in the church.
4. Radioactive material doesn't disappear all at once. The material transforms over time. Don't expect all of the transitions to take place at once, but they will take place.
Since my church is full of students and singles it is more unstable than a church full of empty-nesters and retirees. However, instability and radioactivity can produce a lot of energy as well. So remember that there are costs and benefits to both sides.
But since most churches seem to go after families, allow me to give some more general challenges and warnings.
1. Don't just go after the "easy" target of young families. Students and singles need the church too. Especially considering how unstable their lives are, perhaps they need us even more than young families. Deal with the instability and reach young people for the Kingdom!
2. Give your youth pastor, college pastor, and young adult pastor a break! You cannot expect them to be able to retain every student and individual that was at the previous stage. Even the best senior leaders don't keep everyone who becomes and empty-nester. Cut them some slack.
3. Pay attention to an increased adult population nearing a transition point. If a couple of families every year become empty-nesters that may not be a significant change. If 1/2 of all your families go through that transition in three years time, you may see a major drop in attendance or participation.
4. Constantly go after individuals on the lower end of each half-life cycle. Remember, you can't just expect everyone to transition from one stage to the next.
5. Pay attention to staff members going through transition points as well. It should not be a surprise when a staff member leaves after getting married, having kids, or becoming an empty nester. Life transitions lead to job transitions as well.
I recognize I am not speaking with hard data to back up my conclusions. I am simply making observations. But I am interested if there are churches that have mastered the art of retaining people in their community from one stage to the next. I'm curious if this is just a large church phenomenon or if smaller churches experience it too. I'm most curious about churches that are able to help someone make it from being a college student to a young family - the most unstable life stage of all.