Stay or Go? How adherents and visitors decide

April 3rd, 2019

This is part 3 of a 6-part Stay or Go series focused on the future of The United Methodist Church. Previous and upcoming parts include: How Churches Decide, How Members Decide, How Clergy Decide, How Boards Decide, and How District Superintendents Decide.


In my last article, I focused on how church members decide. Short term, this may be more important for liberals and conservatives because members provide the financial and volunteer resources to sustain a church. Long term, however, it is probably more important to consider how a decision to stay or go will impact adherents and visitors. It is easy to track participation by adherents and first- or second-time visitors through the “People Plot” function of MissionInsite.

When I coach church leaders for mission-driven mergers, I remind them that the critical mass required to sustain an independent mainstream congregation with a full-time ordained minister is a combination of about 125-150 resident members, 100-125 weekly attendance, 100-200 first- or second-time visitors to worship every year, with 60% of adult worshippers active in spiritual growth groups and one third of the members personally involved in a congregationally owned outreach ministry. This means most UMC churches today are already below critical mass, and reshuffling the members won’t solve that problem.

At the very time critical mass is going up, church shopping is going down. There was a time when church participation was a cultural habit and most households searched for a “good church” whenever they relocated or got mad at the current pastor. Today, church shopping has all but ceased except for some first-wave baby boomers and their elders.

For most people going to church is now countercultural. If they visit a church, there is a compelling reason beyond planning a convenient baptism or wedding. There is some spiritual urgency to connect with God or material urgency to tap church resources, but they may find it embarrassing to tell their friends or report it on church surveys. This is what they seek:

Grace and Hope

Contrary to popular churchy wisdom, most visitors and adherents are not looking primarily for friendship; they can get that many other places with fewer institutional obligations. They risk ridicule to come because they are hoping to experience God’s grace, a grace that matches their particular yearning and gives them courage and confidence to carry on living. A visitor may be lost, lonely, broken, addicted, desperate, desolate, or ashamed (even though they say they are just looking for a friendly church). Each one is hoping to experience Jesus the Christ as rescuer, companion, healer, liberator, promise keeper, guide, or priest appropriate to their need, but if they don’t get it they’re gone.

Balance and Harmony

Although it may be disappointing to crusading clergy and radical factions, most visitors and adherents are not looking primarily for ideological purity or theological certainties. They are seeking a community in which balance and harmony, not crisis and conflict, are the norms. They do not require agreement, but they insist on respect. They long for a healthy blend of justice and generosity, faithfulness and freedom, which is the heart of the Gospel and the intention of the original immigrants who shaped America.

Role Models and Spiritual Guides

In contrast to the old Christendom days, post-Christendom visitors are not seeking professionals. If they were to reduce their list of expectations to the barest essentials, great preaching, sophisticated theology, excellent psychotherapy, etc. are not in the top ten. They are looking for leaders who can demonstrate in daily living what faith is all about and who can guide others to do likewise. If their neighbor were to ask them what being Christian really means, they want to point to a lay elder of the church and say just follow that person around for twenty-four hours, observe what they do and listen to what they say, and you will know.

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In a time of conflict, adherents and visitors are often not that interested in the final decision; they pay attention to how the argument was conducted. If it is conducted in a spirit of respect for the integrity of all parties and empathy for the lives of all participants, and reveals a moral choice to treat people as people and not merely as generalizations, abstractions, objects, or enemies, then their overall respect for church leaders and members rises and they will stay. They know that they, too, will have disagreements with the church in time, and are reassured that when that happens they will be treated well. If the argument is conducted disrespectfully and bitterly, and people are not treated as human beings, then they will leave.

The manner in which visitors and adherents evaluate a clash of opinions is shaped by the habits and expectations of the lifestyle segment in which they currently participate. This is why you often see geographical or community patterns in the non-participation of the public. UMC churches on both sides will likely see that they are suddenly less attractive in some neighborhoods than others. And this is why the pattern in every denominational split, in any country, over the past ten years is a net loss in overall church attendance and community influence.

I described how church leaders define the reach and depth of their church by using People Plot to locate both distance and density of member households. You can just as easily track adherents and first- or second-time visitors.

Many churches are too preoccupied with the reach of the church when they should be paying attention to the depth of the church. They empathize more with the lifestyle segments traveling in from a distance than with the lifestyle segments around the block.

For example, downtown “tall steeple” church memberships are often dominated by commuters who drive as much as thirty minutes into the city to get to the church of their nostalgic past. The lifestyle segments within walking or public transportation distance to the church, however, are grossly under-represented. That church will die. Every year members age, and every pot hole and traffic light that increases their commuting time will discourage regular participation. The future lies with the immediate neighborhood, and the only real visioning issue is whether the commuters have a bigger heartburst for the neighbors than for their nostalgia.

Or for example, small town or rural churches may include a high proportion of Q64 Town Elders and J35 Rural Escape member households, but the demographic process of centralization is increasing the population of M45 Diapers and Debit Cards (struggling single parents and mixed families) and S68 Small Town Shallow Pockets who are moving into town from more isolated areas to access education, social services, and health care. If churches are not (or will not) become empathic with these lifestyle segments, then their churches may perish as worshipping communities, although their properties might continue to be used for faith-based social services.

Many other churches are too preoccupied with the depth of their church, when they should be paying attention to the reach of their church. They empathize more with long-time residents in town, ignoring the growth of new urban and suburban lifestyle segments in the surrounding region.

For example, small town and mid-market cities along interstate highways and/or at the edge of advancing subdivisions and relocating industries are experiencing enormous cultural change. Meanwhile, their churches are trying to sustain a social status quo that is rapidly disappearing. In 1950, the lifestyle segments in the region included stable, stay-at-home N46 True Grit Americans, I30 Stockcars and State Parks, and M44 Red White and Bluegrass families. In 2020, these are being displaced by incoming E21 Unspoiled Splendor boomers leaving the big city but bringing big city expectations into the country, F22 Fast Track Couples seeking affordable housing for upwardly mobile careers, or B07 Generational Soup multi-generational and multi-cultural households. If these people go to church (and most will not), they have two choices: they either drive to beltway mega-churches or demand change from small town/city established churches.

The point is that it is not 1950 or even 1965 anymore. Americans are not stable, but mobile (physically, relationally, economically, politically, and socially). When everyone was relatively stable, church decisions on ideological or dogmatic principles mattered. When everyone is mobile, what matters is not the decision itself but how decisions are made. In a mobile world everyone knows they will disagree with somebody, somewhere, some time. They need assurance that when that inevitably happens they can participate in a just and generous conversation to find a compromise, and not find themselves suddenly denigrated or excluded.

Once church adherents and visitors have lost respect and/or fled from congregations that behave badly (regardless of final decisions about ideological or dogmatic policies), they frequently never return. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And if fooled thrice, shame on all institutions that allow or even encourage the deception that they are really friendly or welcoming. The basic religious attitude of many millennials is becoming common among all generations: spiritual truth is buried beneath an avalanche of lifestyle hypocrisy. This does not mean they are atheists. It means that the search for meaning and purpose has turned inward.

The ideological conflicts that obsess many churches are one more reason that “personal religion” is exploding beyond (and within) liberal and evangelical churches. People are not just tired of judgment, they are tired of judgmental habits. Liberals become spiritual wanderers choosing their own paths or blazing new trails. These paths may veer from rationalism to shamanism in the blink of an eye. Conservatives become boundary keepers of broad, rather nebulous affirmations that can be personalized in any way. Jesus may well be one’s personal savior, but the emphasis has shifted from salvation to satisfaction.

It is true that some churches will experience growth because of a particular ideological decision or denominational policy. Yet this growth is fueled by a different kind of visitor or adherent. These are not “seekers,” but “true believers.” They are driven by a single sectarian issue. These visitors tend to be more interested in advocacy and conformity than discipleship and growth. Visitors never really become members. They prefer to be adherents. They can exit all the more easily.

The reality, however, is that this growth is temporary. Even these congregations will eventually plateau and once again decline despite the reality (or at least the appearance) of ideological agreement. Churches undergo strange transformations. Liberal churches become outreach centers and conservative churches become para-churches. In short, they are not churches anymore in any traditional sense.

Heart to Heart

In my last article, I mentioned that I have personally experienced one denominational split over sexual orientation and wedding policy as a church planter and observed three more as a consultant. I have also worked with very liberal and very conservative churches in the aftermath. The most striking outcome is that both sides lost public credibility and never got it back. The adherents and visitors were not only fewer, but different. Worship felt more and more like a political rally; small groups devolved into processes of indoctrination in which wheat was separated from chaff. Church became a place that reasonable, healthy, moderate, and open-hearted people tended to avoid. Seekers peered suspiciously at religious people and asked: Why should I believe you? (I wrote about this in my book with that very title at the invitation of The Board of Discipleship struggling to make sense of diminishing clergy credibility thirteen years ago). Adherents and seekers make the obvious choice: It’s better to go to the coffee shop on Sunday morning where spiritual conversations really happen.

The next article in this series will be “Stay or Go: How Clergy Decide.”

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