If you’ve spent much time in youth ministry, you’ve probably heard the claim at least a few times: “Nine out of ten youth walk away from the church after high school!” But, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there’s good reason to doubt this claim.
The infamous nine-out-of-ten dropout statistic was always a false alarm. Most likely, your congregation loses far less than that, and about half of the dropouts return within a few years.
But let’s suppose for just a moment that your ministry actually does have an abysmal attrition rate. What if your church really is losing nine out of ten attendees when they graduate from high school? Would that provide a sufficient motive to realign your congregation around an entirely new ministry model?
Here’s another way of asking the same question: Is ongoing church involvement really the right yardstick to measure a ministry’s success?
When I look at the ministry of Jesus, my answer to this question quickly becomes, “Probably not.”
During his days on the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have been notoriously unconcerned about retention and attrition rates. At one point, “a large crowd” of well over five thousand was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1–25). In contemporary terms, Jesus was well on his way to leading a mega church. Then, after one particular teaching session, the numbers of paparazzi took a nosedive from several thousand to a single dozen—an attrition rate of well over ninety-nine percent!
And what did Jesus say to the handful who remained?
“Okay, guys, what can I do to improve my retention rates? If I don’t come up with a new ministry model, my Father will be so displeased with me! Let’s brainstorm a bit to figure this out.”
Not even close.
“Do you want to go away as well?” was what Jesus asked his closest companions as thousands of former followers filed away; then he added, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil” (John 6:67, 70). A couple of years later, one Passover eve in the Garden of Gethsemane, even the dodgy dozen deserted their Lord, and the divine dropout rate veered toward one hundred percent (Mark 14:50–52; John 16:32).
At this rate, Jesus would likely have failed as a minister in many contemporary churches. Yet, in all of this, the service of God the Son infinitely and perfectly pleased God the Father. Jesus remained the beloved one in whom the Father was well pleased (Mark 1:11; John 10:17). Even in the moments when his closest companions abandoned and denied him—in some sense, especially in those moments when “he was despised and rejected by men”—Jesus fully fulfilled his Father’s will (Isa. 53:3–11). It was our sin that spiked Jesus to the cross, not his attrition rates.
So what’s the problem with allowing retention rates to drive revisions in a ministry model? Simply this: It turns the visible growth and maintenance of a local congregation into the primary focus instead of Jesus and the gospel. When retention rates determine how we envision a church’s future, we have made too much of our own visions and dreams for the community of faith and too little of the One in whom we place our faith. Ministry leaders become visionary idealists seeking numeric gains rather than shepherds seeking to join in God’s mission and to equip God’s flock. In the process, we lose sight of the true vitality and value of the very community that we were planning to preserve.
Please don’t misread my point: The local, gathered community of faith is crucial. Jesus loves the church, and he gave his life specifically and exclusively for the church to “present the church to himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:25–27). Whenever anyone drops out of active involvement in Christian community, the congregation is correct to be concerned! Yet neither numeric retention nor expansion can constitute a sufficient goal for reshaping a church’s practices. Jesus is the paradigm for the growth of God’s people (Phil. 2:5; Heb. 12:2). The church is the body of Christ, and the church’s value and identity flow from the all-surpassing glory of Jesus (Eph. 4:12–16; Col. 1:24–27; 3:1–4). “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this,” German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote. “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” The goal of the gospel is not a human ideal of retaining members in a visible community; the goal is to call people to Jesus. And so, the crucial question is not, “How many participants have we retained?” but “Who has glimpsed the truth of Jesus and the gospel in what we are doing?” Retention rates aren’t the launching pad or the endpoint of God’s plan; Jesus is (Rev. 22:13).
For more on this topic, see my book Family Ministry Field Guide.