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.

June 23, 2006

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June 28, 2006  1:11pm

One thing to take comfort in is that a person who is leaving at the half-life point is very likely JUST leaving your particular church. They will take what they have been taught and put it to use for the rest of their lives. In one church my dad pastored, upon the coming of a new pastor who was, of course, much different from my dad, people moved on. At first glance, one might think that all his labors went down the drain. But today, some of our finest members are now pastoring their own churches and doing a great job. Some of our best friends are active in whatever church they decided to attend. We are, after all, called to go into all the world. And if everyone stayed at the church they were raised in...well, it just wouldn't happen would it? So, let them go (even if it does hurt) and let them join what they have learned from you with what they will learn elsewhere to become even more effective Christians. Oh, by the way, for all those transitioning OUT...there will be those transitioning IN. Thank God!

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Taylor Burton-Edwards

June 26, 2006  3:37pm

Just a question to get a sense of the thinking... As an "ideal" of what church should be, which may be the more helpful approach for the DNA of a given church? a) A core of stability that is highly "instability tolerant" or b) A "dispersed center" of instabilities that might add up to some overall stability... i.e., stability defined more or less as the constancy of change? Neither of these, it seems to me, would be all that easy to build or maintain... and each would also have certain inherent problems. So I'm not saying "which is the most optimal" but which may be better, ecclesiologically speaking? Peace in Christ, Taylor Burton-Edwards

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