High Expectations

How To Raise The Bar So People Will Stay

A recent research study included a survey of 406 young adults who stayed in church during the critical ages of 18 to 22 and who have remained in church since then.

What are some of the primary reasons these young adults stayed in the church? Here's what they had to say:

"Church is a vital part of my relationship with God." Two-thirds of the respondents could not see themselves as vibrant Christians without being an active part of a local congregation.

"I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life." A significant majority of these young adults indicated that the church was essential in the ongoing decisions of life. Church is not optional, auxiliary, or peripheral. Church is essential. It is a major part of the believer's life. And the Christian cannot imagine life without the support of a local congregation.

"I was committed to the purpose and work of the church." These churched young adults told us that they not only knew the purpose of the church, they embraced that purpose as well.

Keep in mind that most of these young adults are in churches that are making a difference in lives and in the community. These are not the churches that simply go through the motions, have meaningless meetings and expect little of their members. No, these are essential churches with high expectations.

Three Basics of High Expectations

What does a high-expectation church look like? While some attributes are intangible and difficult to quantify, here are some common traits:

Implementing actionable mission statements. A mission statement alone is of little value unless it can be clearly understood by the congregation, and unless it leads to specific action.

Jennifer had been at the church less than six months when we interviewed her for our book, Essential Church. Even after only a brief tenure as a member, she quickly recited her church's mission statement: "Worship the One True God; Connect with Other Believers; Grow Deeper; and Reach Out to the World."

How can such a new member remember this statement with precision? Jennifer and others in the church remember because the statement is also their discipleship process.

  • "Worship the One True God." Members are expected to attend worship services each week.
  • "Connect with Other Believers." Members attend an open Bible study on Sunday mornings.
  • "Grow Deeper." Those in the church are a part of a D-Group (discipleship group) at least twice a year. Most D-Groups are six weeks in length.
  • "Reach Out to the World." Members go on at least one international mission trip a year or they are involved in some type of community outreach or ministry.

Churches with mission statements that are actionable—they are part of the activity of a church—tend to attract people and have low dropout rates among their members.

Leading members to small groups. One of the most common and clearest signs of a high-expectation church is the encouragement of members to move into small groups. The small group connects people relationally, something that is difficult to achieve in a larger worship service. Once they build relationships in that small group, the likelihood of their departure drops significantly. In fact, those who were in a small group and attended worship service were five times more likely to be active in church than those who attended worship services alone.

Setting the tone through entry point classes. Where do expectations begin in an essential church? Certainly the leadership of the church plays a major role in the information they communicate and the manner in which they communicate expectations. But the formal beginning of expectations takes place in an entry point class or new members' class.

These classes may include a history of the church, its beliefs, ministries, and what is expected of members. The most effective membership classes are brief, four or five hours, but they are sufficient to communicate both information and expectations. Many of the dechurched today tell us that they never heard what was expected of them. They thus "fell through the cracks" without anyone noticing.

Churches that articulate upfront what is expected of their members are more likely to retain them. Setting high expectations attracts people and gives them something worth committing to for the long haul.

Sam S. Rainer III is the co-author of the recently released book, Essential Church. He serves as president of Rainer Research, a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health, and as an editorial advisor on Your Church magazine's sister site, BuildingForMinistry.com.

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