the shape of leadership

Church Dropouts, Part 3: Fringe People

Reaching those on the brink of leaving

Elizabeth D Rios on July 5, 2017

My friend, Nancy, is a 47-year-old Latina transplant from New Jersey who has been part of five churches during the 18 years she’s lived in Florida, serving as a leader in three of them. The church Nancy felt most connected with was a Spanish-speaking congregation that tended to treat people like family because, “it’s a cultural thing.”

She only left that church because her teenagers needed a dynamic English-speaking gathering. After leaving, Nancy never found a church that met her needs for community — but not for lack of trying. Just two years ago, Nancy became a member of a megachurch in Florida, thinking that would help leaders notice and connect her to others.

Nancy followed the assimilation process and even went through an interview to see where she could best serve, and then … nothing. No one ever contacted her. Nancy reached out to a campus pastor in hopes of connecting to others and … nothing.

This year, a local move brought Nancy to another megachurch in her new city. Unfortunately, again Nancy feels as if it doesn’t really matter whether she shows up. Nancy has attempted to reach out to the small groups pastor, even offering to host a small group, only to hear, “Attend one of our groups first to see how we do it.”

She went about five times. Apparently, the leaders weren’t trained to welcome newcomers. When Nancy stopped going, no one bothered to follow up.

“I am a lifelong churchgoer,” Nancy told me. “I love the idea of the local church. That’s why I go. But I find myself making excuses for why the church is doing a poor job of noticing me. I’m trying to hold on, but I’m not sure I can much longer.”

My friend is a seasoned believer and former leader who doesn’t feel connected, but she is choosing to believe that change is coming.

Nancy is part of a rapidly expanding group of “fringe people.”

Who Are They?

By definition, fringe people are on the edge. They’re on the periphery of your church, ready to walk out. They’re often visible. They may even be involved physically, but they’ve mentally checked out, with their hearts soon to follow. Based on trends alone, many of them are your most-involved volunteers (as I mentioned in my first article in this series), and some are Millennials.

Not all are as visible, however. Some fringe people have been slow and steady about their disengagement. They are the ones who used to be at every service and now might come once a month. They are the people who aren’t necessarily alone, but they are feeling lonely.

Some fringe people have been slow and steady about their disengagement.

Many have been serving for years but have never had the opportunity to develop truly authentic relationships in the church, or they have yet to get a “hello” from a person in pastoral authority. They’re like Nancy, trying to find an on-ramp to friendship or service in your church, but your structure doesn’t make it easy (and this applies to church plants, megachurches and churches in between).

Have you noticed the motivation level of some of your volunteers waning without apparent cause? Have you sensed that some of your most enthusiastic members just don’t seem that excited anymore? Have you noticed anything concerning about anyone? If so, that’s reason enough to make a call and/or send a letter (please don’t let texting be your first go-to response).

No one wants Big Brother monitoring their attendance, but they do want to know that you’ve noticed something has changed. To prevent fringe people from becoming leavers and adding to the statistics of churchless people in America, we must pay attention — for real.

A New Pay-Attention Movement

In Part 2 of this series, I suggested some ways churches can stem the tide of church dropouts. But what else should we be doing to foster true community?

I’ve seen some churches throw together a small groups ministry, hoping they’re creating “community.” But nothing good ever comes from throwing things together. I continue to hear about a new movement to create parish communities in churches. I like how the authors of The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community define parish: “all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together.”

Time will tell, but as someone who talks to people like Nancy much too frequently, I’m encouraged and hopeful about the potential of parishes across the community becoming our preventative strategy for noticing and meeting the needs of fringe people.

The congregational care team could become the intentional “paying-attention” folks in your church. They can alert you when people’s behaviors are changing, when it seems like they’re checking out mentally. As you’re probably realizing, such individuals are only a few steps from checking out completely.

I wonder what kind of ministry Nancy would have started by now if she had felt wanted and included. How many people would she be discipling?

Are the fringe people on your radar? They are hoping someone will notice. Soon.

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