Q&A with author and sociologist Scott Thumma
By Bob Smietana
In the mid-1950s, a little-known quality assurance manager named Joseph Juran traveled to Japan to advise companies rebuilding after World War II.
At the time, “Made in Japan,” was a sign of poor quality. To help those companies, Juran taught the lessons he’d learned while working in quality assurance for AT&T.
Among those lessons was the so-called 80-20 rule. It’s the idea that 80 percent of outcomes can be traced to 20 percent of causes.
Get a few things right, in other words, and you’ll solve most of your problems.
Churches have an 80-20 rule of their own, says Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Most of the ministry is done by a few of the people.
So what about the other 80 percent? What would happen if they got involved as well?
Those are the questions Thumma and his co-author, Warren Bird of the Leadership Network, set out to answer in their book, The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Participants.
Facts & Trends talked to Thumma about how churches can engage and mobilize the other 80 percent of church members and attenders.
F&T: What’s the difference between how the 20 percent experience church and how the other 80 percent experience church?
Thumma: The 20 percent find church spiritually invigorating and get their spiritual needs met there. Their concept of God and of what makes worship meaningful is being fulfilled by the church’s model, and they plug in. These are folks who are highly involved and growing spiritually.
For some reason, the church’s model or ministry doesn’t resonate with the other 80 percent. There are a million reasons why people are disconnected. We are convinced it’s possible to create a space and a ministry that more people can connect to in meaningful ways.
F&T: In the book, you say churches bear some of the blame because they limit how people can become involved.
Thumma: If you only keep the structures and the connections that already exist, then when all the predetermined slots are filled, there’s no room. People don’t fit.
Too many congregations—especially small ones—say to people, “Do you want to sing in the choir,” “Do you want to read scripture,” or “Do want to help in Sunday school or help with the soup kitchen”? If those are all the slots you have, then only a few people can be involved.
What kind of message does that send? Your passions, your talents, and your gifts from God, they don’t matter.
You have to say, what else can we do? That opens up possibilities for people. You have to challenge each person to ask: what is God calling me to do, what is my purpose, what makes faith meaningful to me, and how do I live that out in our church structure?
F&T: One of your suggestions is to ban the word “volunteer” from churches. Why is that?
Thumma: God doesn’t call people to volunteer. Jesus didn’t stand up and beg people to help him for a few hours. Becoming a Christian really is a life change. Ministry is not something you do to fill a slot at church. We don’t always think of the implications of the words we use. We are all ministers of the gospel; we are all fishers of men—and not just when it comes to evangelism.
F&T: Why do some people become spectators or just drop out?
Thumma: Some of it is that churches aren’t paying attention. They don’t ask, where did half of our people go?
When we do pay attention, the immediate thought is, “It’s their faith. Those are just bad people.” But it’s not only church. All of society has this problem with commitment and involvement.
One of the things we suggest is churches start paying attention to what their members do when they are not at church, when they are out in the community.
One of the churches we studied began keeping track of all the volunteer hours people did in the community. Then they began to recognize that as a form of ministry. That helped re-orient people’s thinking. It shows that what we do out in the world matters.
Say your congregation completed 30,000 volunteer hours last year. This year, try for 50,000. It’s a way of saying, let’s be better disciples.
F&T: What can churches do to get started?
Thumma: We always suggest a church start with a ministry audit and a gifts assessment to find out what they are doing well. And then ask, how can we make our church more accessible?
And remember, you didn’t lose people or let them become spectators all at once. You lost them one person at a time. They didn’t find their place, and they slowly drifted away.
You can bring them back slowly as well. The best way to reach the other 80 percent is 1 percent at a time.
Bob Smietana (@BobSmietana) is senior writer and content editor for Facts & Trends.