nerdy encouragement about the drop-off

Last week during the College Ministry Blog-a-Thon, Brian Barela wrote a great post with five key thoughts for maximizing the first weeks of the school year. One of those was recognizing that our FIRST meeting will generally be our BIGGEST meeting.

But another campus minister responded with a great question: Should we be okay with that?

It’s easy to look at the attendance in our first few Large Group Meetings, then get depressed when the numbers trail off in the weeks ahead. And one response would be to fight, fight, fight to keep those students coming. But it’s worth noting that there are real basic issues at play – issues that don’t have much to do with a ministry’s actual effectiveness. I wrote a response within those comments that seemed to help, so I wanted to expand it here. (To see the many comments that ensued over there, click here.)

A warning: This is heady stuff. But if you’ll stick with me, you just might receive some analytical encouragement!

the uniqueness of the First Weeks

“First Weeks” refer to the weeks when a campus ministry receives the bulk of its new-to-campus visitors. In some ministries, this may be only the very first week; for many, it’s likely the first two or three weeks.

Two variables come into play only during the First Weeks:

  • First, there are a number of freshman or transfers who won’t (and shouldn’t) come back after a visit or two. Hopefully they’ve plugged into another ministry, and some will find other options altogether.
  • Second, an enormous percentage – nearing 100% – of returning students will attend the very first week. A higher-than-usual percentage may come in Weeks 2 and 3, as well. Soon enough, they will settle into a somewhat-less-frequent pattern.

why we’ll (almost) always have a drop-off

Those truths actually lead to a large – and very natural – drop-off after those First Weeks.

For example, let’s say things go REALLY well and we retain HALF of our First Weeks visitors. Let’s also assume that our Involved Students are quite involved and attend, on average, 3 out of 4 meetings for the rest of the semester.

Even if we get this kind of response, it’s very hard to grow as big as we were in those First Weeks.

Why? Take a look:

  • Let’s say our big meeting sees 200 different students in the First Weeks, 80 of whom are new visitors.
  • If half of those visitors stick around, we’ll have a total of 160 Involved Students.
  • If they show up 3/4 of the time after the First Weeks, our Large Group Meetings will each run about 120 students – far shy of the 200 total we saw in the very first week (or distributed throughout the First Weeks).
  • In fact, we’d have to add an additional 107 Involved Students to our ministry to average 200 students per week. And adding that percentage of new people after the First Weeks is a tricky task indeed.

This should actually be encouraging to us, while exhorting us to focus on something other than one hundred percent retention in the First Weeks. For one thing, we can focus on discipling all these Visitors while we do have the opportunity.

Interestingly, the effect of this may be most drastic in the “big ministry on campus” or the ministry that’s best at advertising, since they’re likely to receive a BIG percentage of their new-to-campus visitors in the very FIRST week. Since almost all of their Returning Students will show up that same night, the second week might see a huge drop-off as some Visitors explore elsewhere… and returning students begin to resume semi-irregular attendance.

if you don’t like math, don’t keep reading

For the particularly nerdy (like me), here’s the actual formula of what’s described above:

[S – (V * k)] * i

where

  • S = number of different students who come through in the First Weeks
  • V = number of new-to-campus Visitors who come through in the First Weeks
  • k = percentage of those Visitors becoming Involved Students
  • i = percentage of Large Group Meetings that the average Involved Student attends

So to use our example numbers,

[200 – (80 * 50%)] * 75% = 120

Plug in your own numbers and percentages, and you’ll see how normal a numerical drop-off is.

So there you go. Don’t be discouraged as students filter through during the First Weeks. Do what you can to help them make their involvement choices, disciple those visitors while you’ve got ’em in your presence, and then focus on the flock that proves persistent!

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