12 Stages of Congregational Committment

As I started to blog about last fall before I got busy with other, non-bloggy work, I am developing a tool for understanding church attendance numbers, particularly how they change over time. I call the project ERICA (Evaluating the Ratio of Investors to Consumers through Attendance). This idea has been aging in my brain for the better part of ten years now, and it’s almost ready to bottle.

In researching the principles behind ERICA, I came across a behavioral scientist named Desmond Morris. His book Intimate Behavior chronicles the twelve stages a couple passes through as their relationship becomes more intimate. He also notes that couples who skip steps and rush ahead often find themselves heartbroken as the relationships disintegrate.

Here is my version f the twelve steps, as they might apply to a persons relationship with his or her local congregation:

1. Awareness – A person in the community knows the church exists.
2. Recognition – A prospective member associates the existence of the church with something or someone they know in a different context.
3. Conversation – A prospect becomes aware of some basic message.
4. Consideration – A prospect forms a positive perception of the congregation and considers visiting.
5. Invitation – A member of the congregation makes personal contact with the prospect, either face-to-face or by phone, on behalf of the congregation.
6. Visitation – A prospective member walks in the door for the first time.
7. Consumption – The person begins to attend Sunday morning services regularly. If there are children in the house, they might come to Sunday School. Offering a meal also sparks attendance.
8. Contribution – The person begins to place money in the collection plate on a regular basis. The family might also bring a dish to a church potluck.
9. Conversion – The person is baptized and accepts the basic tenets of the church.
10. Commission – The person speaks favorably about the church to other prospective members, becoming the contact person mentioned in Step 5.
11. Participation – The person attends more than once a week (two or three times or more if a special event is scheduled), publicly participates in the worship service, and/or teaches Bible class.
12. Investment – The person feels an ownership stake, actively seeking opportunities to serve the congregation, even on days and at times when there is no regular meeting.

First, a few comments:

A. A person rarely skips more than one step at a time. For instance, a person might visit once without an invitation, but usually won’t be back unless someone asks them to be.

B. Informal surveys I have conducted indicate that roughly 10% of a healthy congregation’s average Sunday morning attendance will be at Stage 12. Put another way, for every person at the Investment stage, there will be 10 people somewhere between Consumption and Participation.

C. The healthiest congregations I have seen have been where 50% of the Sunday morning audience was adults at Stage 11 plus their kids.

D. People who skip steps tend to regress. That is, a person who is a regular Participant but who does not speak favorably about the congregation to his friends (Commission) is less likely to remain at Stage 11 long-term. Likewise, a person who experiences Conversion without first — and this is important — seeing themselves as a “contributing consumer” (Stages 7 & 8) are more susceptible to being drawn away than those who make some pre-conversion contribution to the church. That is, a person is more likely to “stay converted” if he sees himself as a contributing member of the congregation than if he is simply won over by doctrine.

The upshot of this is that church leaders need to get beyond nose counts and watch what people actually do. How committed are your members? Do you have too many Investors? Have your people become so committed to each other and the congregation that they have lost sight of the outside world? Or do you have too many Consumers? Has your congregation become so dependent on a select few that the rest are content to soak up whatever is offered without any sense of obligation, discipleship, or commitment?

Ask ERICA. She can tell you.

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