Increasing Member Retention, Part 2 The Evangelical Way

July 29, 2010    By: Matt W. @ 9:24 pm   Category: Life

In the spirit of the 13th Article of Faith, I would like to spend some time looking at retention strategies in the Evangelical church, and especially those of Nelson Searcy as outlined in “Fusion: Turning First-Time Gests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church

Nelson Searcy is an evangelical Minister and founder of the Journey Church, which has grown from 1 to 1000 members from 2002 to 2007. Nelson is a prolific writer in the evangelical mega church planting movement, and prior to starting the Journey, worked with Rick Warren on the purpose driven stuff.

Compared to some other books rotating around retention from the Evangelical group, I found Nelson’s book much more up front and realistic. Also, I liked that Searcy quoted Stephen Covey in a good way (compare this with “Sticky Church” , another evangelical book on retention, which only mentions Mormons as part of it’s nebulous list of enemies). Regardless of those points though, the question is, does Searcy’s program he outlines in fusion have any meat to it, and further, can the LDS church use it at all? The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second, is maybe.

First, Searcy says the key to “stickyness” (assimilating and retaining members) is relationships. In Nelsons words “Connections with the Body of Christ [like in the Pauline epistles] are the most effective adhesive for keeping your gues and your church bound together.” He recommends three types of situations which I think could be implemented without a change of program in the LDS

1. Small Groups- Small Groups are a foundational component in mega churches (and by the way, this is the one note that the book “Sticky Church” plays over and over again) as they are really the environment for building relationships in their large church. I think in our church, FHEs, Home Teaching, and 2nd and 3rd hour classes could be tweeked slightly to be more conducive to this sort of model. Searcy says his small group model is to break out the groups into 3 month chunks, to give new people more regular jumping on points, as no one wants to start in the middle of the year. I thought this was a great idea.

2. Fun events- Three ingredients here- Low Commitment, Low Pressure, Lots of Fun!- I think this is something the activities committee is supposed to already be accomplishing. Sometimes I think we need to focus more on the “Lots of Fun” part. One idea mentioned in the book Id s church movie night, were members just go to a normal dinner and theater together as a group (as opposed to a Mormon movie…)

3. Service Teams- My favorite line here is “God can use your newcomers to serve others even if they personally don’t know him yet.”I think we already offer a lot of this via our program of offering callings. I am sure we could make some tweaks to tune it though, like in “Growing an Engaged Church”

Second, Searcy in the end offers 7 suggestions that a church can do right now to immediately boost retention. As the last one is to have a church team read the book by Searcy, I’ll forgo that one, but these are what I found really interesting.

1. Start writing and mailing hand-written follow-up notes to your first time visitors, thanking them for attending.

2. Have a Communication Card that is simple and to the point to get contact information from guests (different than the long and tedious “new move in form” most wards have)

3. Put up signs to direct people toward bathrooms, children’s areas, etc.

4. Take a hard look at your building- improve the landscaping, pick up clutter, paint a sign, improve lighting, etc.

5. Start offering generous enticing refreshments (This was my favorite suggestion, but also the one I think least likely to get cultural traction in the Church)

6. Place smiling friendly greeters at the outside doors to church (as opposed to the chapel doors, as seems customary in the church)

So, do you think retention would improve simply by getting a few hundred Krispy Krème Donuts and some Hot Cocoa and Juice every Sunday?

How are the relationships in your ward?

Any thoughts on Fusion?


  1. How about spending some of that 1/2 million (or so) per ward per year tithing money locally?

    I really like the refreshment idea, but one would also want to have a place and time to mingle – Running from meeting to meeting with no time to chat really kills.

    Greeters would be really hard in overlapping time share buildings – Oh, you’re from a different ward.

    It would probably kill the church, but I’d prefer non-geographical wards. Whoever wants the 9 am slot shows up at 9 (8:30 to mingle)

    Comment by ed42 — July 29, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

  2. I thought Mormons were famous for refreshments. It seems we can hardly have a non-Sunday meeting without including refreshments. I think we already do that overall – I don’t think it would help.

    When I compare this to the idea of – a friend, a responsibility, nurturing by the word of God – it seems like they are heavy on the frinendship (or at least it’s initial signs) and absent of responsibility/doctrinal nurutring.

    Relationships in my ward are fairly good I think, but we tend to be a little wrapped up in our own stuff to be day-to-day friends. More friendly than friends.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 30, 2010 @ 5:38 am

  3. I like the small groups ideas – we kind of tried it in RS for a few years but seems we’re kind of dropping it now. I think doing gospel doctrine classes in small groups would be nice. Not sure we could get people together during the week, but it would be nice if we could.

    I think it’s kind of a control thing, though. What if a small groups goes off onto a tangent starts believing/teaching/talking about strange things? How does a bishop monitor that or should he?

    Comment by DeeAnn — July 30, 2010 @ 6:39 am

  4. Have you read Acts of Faith by Rodney Stark & Roger Finke? It discusses these same issues but from a different direction.

    I agree with the point that networks are key. Therefore, we should extend the date of baptism until they are integrated in the ward, esp. if they are contacts from the Missionaries.

    Therefore, I think bringing food is a good idea but will only work in congregations where the membership include the guests. If the ward is very tight then it might be exclusionary (unintentionally) at these events. Consequently, the small groups are good.

    Our ward uses a weekly FHE for all new members, which we invite the Ward Missionaries to attend. This way those bonds are more easily formed.

    Comment by Aaron R. — July 30, 2010 @ 6:43 am

  5. Matt, Thanks for the post. I’m an economist who has done some research on the economics of religion. I’m also familiar with some of the economics thinking on megachurches. I wanted to add some theoretical context for your post.

    Perhaps the biggest theoretical puzzle about megachurches in current thinking is that they thrive despite the apparent large number of free-riders. Churches provide collectively produced benefits, and free-riders normally undermine it because it is difficult to monitor people’s efforts.

    Break-off groups are important in theory because they help mitigate the free-rider problem due to their small size. They also provide more intense benefits not otherwise obtained in a large congregation. The close social ties are key; there’s lots of research that shows conversion and retention in religious groups to be largely social rather than psychological.

    A key to success in megachurch small groups is how they bundle secular and religious social activities. The social nature of the activity implies some sort of complementarity (sorry for the economics terminology), e.g., think of having a short bible study before all going surfing together.

    Most congregations do some form of bundling. Mormon basketball leagues are an example. I also think recent emphasis on Relief Society interest groups have mimicked (probably not intentionally) this to some degree. My ward’s EQ before our ward split also experimented with some “interest groups.” But getting a critical mass was difficult, maybe because men are split in half into EQ and HP.

    The theory gives a warning: break-off groups need to be tied to the main congregation else they may splinter away. Think of LDS Church leaders’ past and current concerns about the danger of “study groups.” There needs to be enough gained via affiliation with the main congregation to merit a continued relationship but enough gained in the break-off groups to achieve high participation. A similar tension holds more generally for the relationship between denominations and their congregations.

    How megachurches resolve this is not entirely clear, though I’ve heard speculations that the charisma of the founder is key, which means worries about succession crises can arise. I think most Mormons would see the authority lines in the LDS Church as being key for Mormons in this regard.

    Sorry for the long pontification. I hope it was worth reading. Back to your question: Yes, in general any time you bring people together to build ties, I think you are going to increase retention… and create opportunities for conversion. So bring those doughnuts. And then let’s pray and play some ball.

    Comment by Mike M. — July 30, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  6. ed42- Don’t believe the 1/2 Million hype. As a former ward clerk, not even close. And then, when you think about 3rd world countries where the total combined tithing of a ward is less than my 3 year old makes in a year, just be glad we practice socialism when it comes to tithing.

    Eric- Interesting comment RE- more friendly than friends. To me that is an indicator that something is missing, but I don’t know how to articulate what it is.

    DeeAnn- I don’t think the Bishop wants that sort of control. I do think it will change the way I approach Sunday School the next time I am asked to substitute there.

    Aaron R.- I’ve never read Stark, but I do think we are a bit too lenient on our requirements for regular church attendance. David Stewart Commented that we could greatly increase retention just be increasing the baptismal requirement from 2 weeks consecutive worship to 3 weeks.

    Mike M.- Very interesting, but I had no idea there were concerns with the dangers of study groups. Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I think the LDS church most resembles one gigantic mega church with lots of local branches.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 30, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  7. Matt #6: “Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I think the LDS church most resembles one gigantic mega church with lots of local branches.”

    I agree that there are striking similarities. Lots of bundling, lots of evangelizing, lots of explicit attempts to get visitors.

    But I think that there are some real differences, too. This might sound funny in the bloggernacle, but relative to megachurches the LDS Church places much more emphasis on learning doctrines and deeper study of scriptures, which ties people much more to the denomination than to the local congregation per so. Doctrines at megachurches are somewhat generic so the social ties become the real strong ties to the congregation, much more so than with LDS. And despite all the bragging by LDS about LDS growth, megachurches are much more powerful growth machines than the LDS.

    Overall, my sense is that megachurches grow much faster but yield a weaker form of overall commitment. It’s all about trade-offs. I see LDS as wanting growth, too, but willing to give up some growth trying to get more of the latter, too. Think of the “raising the bar” with missionaries and requiring converts to attend sac mtg twice before baptism. Both wanted to raise certain standards but sacrificed some growth in the process.

    Comment by Mike M. — July 30, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

  8. Don’t believe the 1/2 Million hype. As a former ward clerk, not even close.

    I don’t know, that seems like a pretty typical figure for a “middle class” ward on the Wasatch Front (not that I have any but the most incidental experience with that).

    Comment by Mark D. — July 30, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  9. Mike M.- good points, but with a quibble. We aren’t doing so hot on the commitment part part, if our retention numbers are to be believed. We have to keep them there to teach them the doctrine, after all, and I think we lose so many so early in the process that the doctrine doesn’t really come into play as much as we’d hope.

    Mark D.- If I have time, I’ll do my best to calculate what percent of the church is the Wasatch Front.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 30, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

  10. Matt #9. I agree that LDS retention is pretty bad. But the same is true in megachurches from what I understand. And if you compare the image of the ideal Mormon with the image of the ideal megachurch member, I think you see a lot more doctrinal comprehension and commitment to the group in the Mormon ideal.

    Comment by Mike M. — July 30, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

  11. I am afraid I have little experience with wards off the Wasatch Front, but from what little I have it would seem that U.S. wards in general aren’t all that different from the variety we have here. Were I to guess the Utah mean might be half that, because there are certainly plenty of lower participation and/or less well off wards here too. Strike “typical” and replace with “not uncommon”.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 30, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

  12. I don’t think the power of refreshments can be overestimated. While Eric is right that many of our non-Sunday meetings do indeed have refreshments already, this is about member retention, and reaching those who do not go to non-Sunday meetings, and even sporadically to Sunday meetings. Some refreshments before church or during the long block would be welcome.

    My husband and I visited a megachurch a few years ago and they had free donuts, coffee, and soda in the lobby. I have to admit that we were tickled pink to get a free donut and can of soda. Even now, a few years later, my husband will say, “We should go to megachurch and get a free donut.” We haven’t actually followed through, but the fact that it remains part of our shtick certainly points to the inedible impression it made on us. There’s something primal about food (even food sans nutritional value)that feels very welcoming. And free stuff makes people happy.

    I do think small groups could be a great thing for the church. As I commented in Part 1, I think part of the problem with retention is “the product” and that the product is faulty because it’s being produced by apathetic members. I would vote for axing Sunday school in favor of voluntary attendance of a small group during the week. Part of the problem with integrating at church is that we interact on a very superficial level-people put their best clothes and smiles and tell their best faith-promoting stories and Sunday-school answers. We rarely admit to struggles or doubts. Something I admire about other churches is the openess that often exists between members-they speak frankly about how they’re doing in their “walk with God,” and if they or their family are having problems. They readily divulge these things and pray about them together. I think LDS members feel stifled from doing so as our church setting feels set up for formal, impersonal communication. We know about each other’s problems, but we talk about them in whispered corners. So it’s hard to feel connected and comfortable at church instead of feeling like you’re putting on a front. In small groups, away from the formal church setting, people could feel free to be more intimate and more frank about who they are and what they’re dealing with. And thus feel more connected to the church.

    The problem is, of course, as others have mentioned, that the church would worry about these small groups breaking off or getting weird. But this risk must be balanced with another real risk-the risk that we’ll continue to have very poor member retention because people don’t feel connected and spiritually fed. Right now the church is more comfortable with keeping more institutional control and is opting to take that risk over risking giving members more freedom. But either risk has their own set of consequences.

    Comment by Katie M. — July 31, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  13. the inedible impression it made on us

    Hehe. That is an amusing typo considering the context…

    Comment by Geoff J — July 31, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  14. Geoff- I would never have caught that, but you just made my night twice as awesome.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 31, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

  15. Anecdotally, I serve a delicious snack each week to my Sunbeams, and 100% of them are active in the church. So I think food works.

    Comment by E — July 31, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

  16. Our High Priest group in my ward has refreshments at least once a month. The Ensign had an article years ago about a ward that had “linger longer” events with food following services.

    I think they are a great thing, they just have collateral issues.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — August 1, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  17. Hi. I am a convert. Seems like any real intentions to retain converts would start with talking to them, but I’ve been a member for 10 years and that has yet to happen. I will tell you that the hardest thing about being a convert is the almost immediate loss of interest anyone takes in you as soon as you get baptized. Prior to that, I would get lots of visits and phone calls. People tried to include me in things. After baptism, pretty much everyone fell away and they were on to the next investigator. At least the visits and the concerned phone calls stopped immediately. I have stayed in the church because I think it is the right place to be. It sure was a hard lesson to accept though, that once converted, you were like day-old bread at the bakery. Just thought I’d let you know.

    Comment by Jane — August 2, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  18. Jane that’s terrible. I am a convert as well, and that wasn’t really my experience. I am so sorry that has been your experience and admire your ability to persevere. Just out of curiosity, where do you live?

    Comment by Matt W. — August 2, 2010 @ 6:57 am

  19. #16 As has been pointed out by others, though, the trouble with an LDS “linger longer” is that we’re already in services and classes for 3 hours each Sunday. Proposing that we stay even longer than that is brutal, donuts or no. I’m with others who suggest that such a practice would benefit most from cutting services by a few minutes (or an entire block).

    #17 I’m a convert too, and I hear you loud and clear. To be fair, I had a lot of friends in the ward I originally joined–so even if the church’s “official” welcoming committee didn’t manifest themselves, I had connections with other people in the ward. By the time I moved to a new ward back East, I realized that I was in a population (single, young, college student in the mission field) that is largely invisible to both members and leaders. Certainly played a part in my eventual inactivity when offers of transportation* were extended to investigators and recent converts but not the college students.

    * The ward was miles away from campus and there was no public transportation option. We relied on the kindness of others to get us to church, and when the awesome guy who drove us graduated and left the area, the ward dropped the ball and those of us who were left didn’t have the energy to demand that the bishopric work something out. Someone did and got the whole “Saints in Peru walk 30 miles uphill both ways to church” talk. Ugh.

    Comment by Bro. Jones — August 2, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  20. In response to Matt W’s question, I am in one of the mid-Atlantic states. After I posted that comment yesterday, I thought a lot about how much I had reached out to people, and the finding was –not much. I guess it’s up to me to be the one reaching out now, instead of expecting everyone else to beat a path to my door. I realized what a baby I sounded like and it woke me up. Thanks for letting me vent and being a vehicle for finding a new perspective. Bless you all.

    Comment by Jane — August 3, 2010 @ 5:22 am