<p>In Luke 15:4-7, Jesus says the good shepherd, when he finds the one who is missing, will leave the 99 in the safety of the sheepfold, and go searching for the one who is lost. Many see this passage having an evangelistic meaning, in that when we have saved the one, we will not be satisfied with having saved only that one, or dozen or even almost everybody, but instead will continue until the job is done or Jesus calls us home.</p>
<p>However, reading this in context of Ezekiel 34, I have come to understand that the one that left was already His sheep, and Jesus was giving a warning to the religious leaders. What do we as the church do when one of our members, one of God’s people, strays away somehow (as sheep will sometimes do) and has gotten lost, and has not come in when it is time to gather together to be fed? As a rule, nothing. We take no notice.</p>
<p>What has happened to the one who leaves? Did he fall into a pit and become trapped? Did he move to a personal place of assumed safety? Was he stolen away by an unscrupulous shepherd? Or did another shepherd find him wandering and offer it safe shelter until it could be accounted for?</p>
<p>Within your own congregation, consider who might have drifted away in the past few months. Do you know who left and why? Yes, some moved away. Some go listen to another preacher, or to have someone else take care of their rebellious children for a couple of hours. But the church must know if someone leaves for some other reason. Did someone’s marriage fall apart and no one noticed? Was someone’s faith challenged by a statement they didn’t understand from by the preacher or a Bible Study teacher, with no one close enough to ask for clarification?</p>

<p>For whatever reason, the church lost important gifts to be used for the building up of the body when they left. I remember a family where the husband/father/choir member was on military deployment for 3 months and the overstressed mother of two small children went “missing” for a month before I called, and I was the first contact she had had from her Bible Study group, the choir or the children’s Sunday School. I’m not sure the officers of the church ever knew the family was missing, and I doubt the church noticed when they eventually moved out of the area.</p>

I’m told of another lady who quit singing in the choir because health concerns wouldn’t let her stand for long. Her first call from the choir came two years later, when a section leader called asking her to take food to a member of the section who was sick! I’m glad the choir was trying to take care of one of their own, but before asking others to help feed one of your friends, you should make certain those you are asking weren’t themselves neglected and forgotten. If the only call a person gets is to ask for help, it looks disingenuous.

I know of a church that had had grown 30% (a thousand people) one year, the year they moved to a new building; excitement and newfound space usually brings in new people, and that was surely happening there. But then they plateaued for years, as if stuck at 2600, despite adding several hundred members each year (not counting the “permanent visitors” who never joined). This was an example of in-and-out rotation of the area workforce, simple replacement, maintenance. They even tried the “church growth” gambit of “making space” with a third service, which added 10% for a few months before settling back to pre-change levels. As it happened, when the popular pastor left, the church quickly declined to 2100, a 20% drop in attendance in one month. The response of the church leadership was to ignore the drop and simply hope the new pastor would rebuild the numbers. A year later, still without a pastor, the numbers had fallen to 1600, erasing all the previous growth. (When a new pastor arrived, attendance quickly recovered to 2500; the staff took credit for being a “fast-growing” congregation.)

Another church led its denomination in baptisms – the identified standard of success – but on the day I visited, several said that theirs was a repeat baptism (thinking that baptism would wash away the desire for sin). That church’s total number attending did not change, in spite of the constant baptisms. That pastor blamed the lack of real growth on facility size, not noticing the “back door was every bit as wide as the front door,” and that people would come and go unnoticed. 


If you miss someone from your midst, but don’t do anything to find them, do you miss them for the loss of them, or do you miss them for the selfish reason, such as how special you feel that they recognize you? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, and author of The Purpose Driven Life and the Purpose Driven Church, says he found that “77 percent of our members were brought to Christ through the love of other members. It takes unselfish people to grow a church.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–>

If you are selfish with your love, and attend church only to be noticed yourself, you may miss the one who leaves, but won’t call them to see where they’ve gone or if they’ll come back, because you’ll find someone else to stroke your ego. However, if you care for them as a child of God, you probably would have been calling them regularly or found them in the halls and spoken before they came up to you, and there is no way they could have been gone for a month or two before you recognized you hadn’t seen them lately.

The problem is in how we recognize when someone goes missing.

§ How long would a student in a school classroom stay missing before the teacher noticed?

§ How long would before the college Dean of Students knew that one of his freshmen was not attending any classes?

§ How long before the sales manager contacts the independent sales rep who hadn’t reported in?

§ How long could a small group member stay missing before someone in the class called to see what was going on?

§ How many practices or performances can a choir member miss before the leadership knows they’ve left?

§ How many weeks can a spouse sit alone before the church members notice and inquire about the one not there?

§ How many weeks will pass before the church recognizes the active tither is no longer giving?

§ What if more than one, more than two, more than three such circumstances coincide?


There are usually indications a person is about to leave. Hal Mayer, pastor of Church of the Bay in Tampa, says one of the first indicators is that a person’s financial contributions will tail off in their final three months, because their heart is no longer in it. They may disengage from ministry, or shift to a ministry outside the church. Toward the end, attendance will become sporadic. They are disengaging, unraveling the ties that bind them to your congregation. If you’re looking, you can watch someone get ready to leave your congregation, and step in to deal with it positively.

What of the one who leaves? We hope they will move to another congregation, but some give up on church altogether, finding it unprofitable and unworkable. Others will stay away just long enough to sever the habits of attendance. A popular principal of church growth says a person needs at least three points of connection to feel a part of the organization. If that one who slipped away unnoticed comes back unnoticed, the attachments that were weakened by the absence will not strengthen, and it will be easier to leave for good.


Churches need to use the business intelligence available within their own records to affect the kinds of results that matter. For example, although most churches track how many attend worship services and the age-graded Bible classes, what most don’t know are the names of those attending church who were not also in Bible classes. However, if the church checked the names of the parents of nursery babies who were only there for worship, you would know those worship-only people’s contact information. Or in churches that have two services, if the parental information of kids being dropped off included a “where” notification of “worship”, there is a high likelihood the parents aren’t involved in a class themselves, but instead drop off the kids while they worship by themselves. The church should cross-correlate those names to make sure they’re even enrolled as a prospect somewhere.

For those that are enrolled, the church needs to do better at tracking attendance. When someone misses 3 weeks in a row, there needs to be a flag go up. That flag should be at the class level, but could also be in the records system, to put a maker on the print-out attendance sheet that Billy Bob has passed threshold #1 (3 weeks missing) or #2 (5 weeks missing) or #3 (8 weeks missing – after 8 weeks, not likely to come back.) One week after threshold 1, if no action taken, should give secondary notice to class care group coordinator to have the care group leader accountable to contact. If the person has missed 4 weeks (1st flag plus that week the flag showed up) and not been contacted, that’s an indicator of a problem. The week after threshold 2 passes, notice goes to the class deacon and teacher. After flag 3, special notice will go out to the church visitation team for help in contacting them.

There are other metrics in the church for finding drop-outs. If some one suddenly quits several activities, that should be a flag for each. If they’ve been regular in tithing, the week following the 2nd missed regular tithe (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly), should cross-cue against other records to see if the person has similarly dropped out of other activities. If it happens that one spouse of a couple suddenly drops, it should send a flag to make sure there’s not a problem in the marriage that needs attention.

Like any undertaking that’s been long neglected, catching up from a history of not paying attention will take time. It will take time to recruit and train class contact people, and to set up the accountability systems. It may take time to contact everyone who meets one of the “lost sheep” criteria, but properly organized, starting with notes most recently gone, the church may begin to reclaim some of those who have gone missing before they give up on the church. Those who have been gone longer may take longer to retrieve, unless they have successfully united with another church, at which point you celebrate with them and ask if you should remove them from your rolls.

Keeping track of people is a difficult task, but not undoable. I have been part of several military organizations that have a structured recall roster, where no one calls more than 6 other people. It is used in emergencies to tell the staff that the base is closed due to weather or some other disaster, or to recall them to work in case of special need. It is not unusual for several thousand people to be positively contacted with the message in less than an hour. These are not long messages, usually a couple of sentences. Church contacts should also be short, unless the person contacted needs to talk. A 2-minute regular phone call at the appropriate time will usually be sufficient to avoid the need for a 30-minute site visit by a 3-person visitation team once the non-attendance becomes chronic.

Louise Berkinow studied loneliness during the mid-1980s. She took special notice of those that had had a significant life event, such as losing a spouse or a job. Those that “fall off” the normalcy train (as she described it) are left with a sense of loneliness, “a sense of abandonment by the world, separation from the rest of humanity,”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–> even if that loss were the only part of their life to change. They turn to gap fillers, the stuff that quickly became addictions. Berkinow reminds us that “most addictions are also called loneliness diseases.” Alcohol. Promiscuous sex. Drugs. Even shopping (to get enough stuff to fill the emptiness inside).<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–> 

What they can’t do is find a way back on “the normalcy train”. It may look like they’re staying away on purpose, but Berkinow says they find a “castle wall” around the old organization that keeps out those unable to meet the community standards, and going there again reinforces the sense of loss. She found that it takes the help of others to find their way back. Otherwise, these people have to be satisfied with a “new normal” with new routines and uses self-help groups, bars or other secondary activities for social interaction, where they find people like themselves.

The warning to the church is clear, but the rewards due the good shepherd are great, not the least of which is the Father’s pleasure. Luke 15:6-7 finishes the story by telling of the joys of restoring the one who has left. Note also the ending of the other 2 companion parables in Luke 15: 9-10 and 20-24. The woman who lost her coin calls to friends to rejoice with her when the one comes back, and the father throws a party when the prodigal comes back. The shepherd and the widow had been searching, and the father had been anxiously looking.

That is the attitude the church must adopt: not just a welcoming hand to the visitor, but sorrow when the leave – a genuine urgency at losing one of the members – and a genuine joy when the former member returns. It is an imperative given to us by Jesus to care for one another, for the good of the individual believers and the health of the church.


The habits of notice should begin when the visitor first walks in the door. Even during the obligatory “stand up and shake someone’s hand”, when the members hug one another, does the visitor simple settle into the seat and thumb through the bulletin? When I’m in another city on business during the week, I’ll usually go visit a local church. I’ll walk into a church, walk around, walk out, and never talk to any one. One church in Ohio, I even called ahead to check on directions and service start time. (They told me the short-cut through the neighborhood!) But when I got there, all the visitor spots were taken, and no one was there to talk to me. The choir was rehearsing in the auditorium, there were teenagers hanging out in the office, and I think that was the prayer meeting in the small room at the back of the basement, where there was a conversation blocking the hallway; I walked past and left the church 15 minutes after I walked in.

In New Mexico, I wandered through every open hallway, and was only talked to by one person on my way out. He told me that the prayer meeting time had changed from what was printed in the phone book (they didn’t list service times on the phone answering machine). Unfortunately I’d had an early lunch and wanted to grab supper soon; if I delayed eating supper an additional hour or so, I wasn’t sure I could find a restaurant in that part of town that would still be open.

In the early 80s, North Phoenix Baptist Church Singles Ministry undertook an effort to notice every person they encountered, and to find ways to integrate those people into the life of the Ministry. According to Steve Selig (a friend of mine from college), the process began when the person walked through the door the first time. They NOTICED when new people walked through the door. They met them, learned their name, learned something about them (more than just their address, but also the contact information), involved them in the conversations; they invited the person to join them in worship, and then to join them out to Sunday lunch. They posted people in the lobby for Sunday evening service, and when they saw one of the newer people come in, they called them by name, welcomed them back and told them they had saved them a seat. Those people were escorted into the auditorium and introduced them to people whose job it was to arrive early, save seats, and then get to know the people who are brought to them by the “ushers.” It was a large part of what grew them into a 2,000-person Singles Group (in a 15,000 member church).

Speed forward 20 years. My daughter Meredith was occasionally visiting a church other than where we were members. In one case, she was an instant member of the group, and returned again with the friend that invited her. On another occasion, she was greeted when she walked in the door, but ignored while she was there, and was only talked directly to when she left. The next time she got a hug at the door when she arrived, but all the conversations were “a-b” between the two other girls and didn’t involve Meredith until one of the others left. She didn’t want to go back. Fortunately, she’s a strong Christian, and won’t leave Church – or her faith because of it. But what of someone new, who walks in off the street? Are they going to feel welcomed, or will they say that they “tried church” or “tried Christianity” and it didn’t work for them? That’s what happened to my generation, who saw the shallowness of church and decided it didn’t make any difference in their lives, and won’t come back to anyone’s church.


When people do make it through the door, what do they see? Louise Berkinow says that “Newcomers don’t know where to make contact.”

We need be aware of the new person and the person by themselves. For some, they are afraid to come in our door, afraid of the commitment even to come a second time. For them, we give them the respect to slip in, stay and listen, and leave before the service is over. But don’t be afraid to also greet them with a genuine smile, with a “Hi, I’m Mike. Can I show you around?” Some people – like the lonely girl at the school dance or the short kid on the ball field, silently praying “pick me, pick me” – are just waiting for the first person to notice them.

In The Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill says that the reason malls became popular just as the suburbs were booming was that we no longer had a place to walk in close proximity to one another, and the malls provided a venue for social interaction. He has equated the modern shopping mall to the old-style town center, a place to see and interact with friends and other members of the community.

The mall gives a space for informal social interaction with new people. C Kirk Hadaway notes that new organizations are more permeable and accepting because friendship networks have not yet solidified. Our task in the mature church is to be ever fresh, to keep our edges and transition points permeable, to let new people into our friendship networks. As they feel accepted, they will be able to then introduce us to their network outside the church, giving us the opportunity to not only expand our influence, but also to honor the wholeness of the new person and find places for them to “enter into” our fellowship.

And to do this without compromising our need to be able to keep in touch with one another. The successful church can be that town/community center, taking the place of the mall for community interaction. As the church begins to notice both the new and the old, valuing them as gifts of God for the building up of the fellowship, the local church will strengthen.


I remember when I was first validated as the leader of the Single Adults. We were going on a weekend retreat at a conference center 10 hours away, leaving Friday afternoon and returning the holiday Monday. There was not an official “married couple” leader appointed by the church, but the Wednesday before we left, I went to mid-week prayer meeting and asked for prayer from the church for safe travel, and for spiritual growth among our members during the weekend. Then, during the evening service the Sunday after we returned, the pastor suddenly mentioned my name and asked me to come forward and tell what had happened. I rose to the platform to give a 2-minute extemporaneous report on the weekend, reminding them of the prayers we had asked for and the answers we had received.

From that moment, the church considered me the leader of the Single Adult Ministry. They “noticed” me and they noticed the ministry. I have not forgotten.

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<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–> Willow Creek Association, “An Interview With Rick Warren”, WCA News, May/June 1997, found at http://www.willowcreek.com/wcanews/story.asp?id=WN03031997, accessed 11 Mar 06

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ii]<!–[endif]–> Mayer, Ron, Purpose Driven Life conference audio teaching on the “Mistake Driven Church,” (http://www.nextinitiative.net/audio-download/)

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iii]<!–[endif]–> Berkinow, Louise. Alone in America: the Search for Companionship. (NY: Harper & Row, 1986) p18

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[v]<!–[endif]–> Berkinow, Louise. Alone in America: the Search for Companionship. (NY: Harper & Row, 1986) p173

copyright 2008, Harwin House Publishers, Hampton, VA  All Rights Reserved



2 Responses to “5 – Notice”

  1. […] idea for “Be here now” is what I addressed in my book Hope for Struggling Churches, chapter 5 (Notice).  It’s hard to love on people from a distance.  Instead, practice hospitality. Keep in touch. […]

  2. For those with a heart for reaching out to those drifting away from the church, I recommend the book, Reopening the Back Door, by Kenneth C. Haugk and the accompanying training materials, “Caring For Inactive Members: How to Make God’s House A Home.”

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