Abraham's Bid on Membership Attrition

Several weeks ago, I was asking God to show me a story in the Old Testament about member retention. There are many stories and examples about conversion, but there are fewer stories that readily come to mind about member retention. God then turned my attention to Abraham in the Old Testament. Evidently, member retention has been a problem for the last 3000+ years.

In Genesis 18:20-21, God discloses to Abraham that He intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, because the cry from those cities was great, and their sin was very grievous.

In the following verses, Abraham asks God how he can justify destroying the city if there are still righteous people in it, and asks specifically if God would be willing to destroy the city while there were fifty righteous people in the city (Gen 18:24). God assures Abraham that the city would be spared for the sake of fifty. Then, Abraham haggles God down:

  • 50 persons (Gen 18:24)
  • 45 persons (Gen 18:28)
  • 30 persons (Gen 18:30)
  • 20 persons (Gen 18:31)
  • 10 persons (Gen 18:32)

At the end of the chapter, Abraham seemed to be content with his bid that the city would not be destroyed for the sake of ten people.

Three of the questions that remain after reading Genesis 18 are:

  • Why did Abraham even argue to spare Sodom in the first place?
  • Why was Abraham content when he got the number down to 10?
  • Why did Abraham get the number 50 from?

Abraham's Motivation

To answer these three problems, we start by looking at an episode from Abraham's life in Genesis 131. Abram and his nephew, Lot, return from Egypt. During their sojourn through Egypt, Abram had become very wealthy in cattle, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2). Lot also had flocks, herds, and tents (Genesis 13:5). However, the land was not sufficient to support both of their herds (Genesis 13:6), which is surprising because elsewhere are told that this land was flowing with milk and honey,2 so it ought to have supported a very large amount of cattle. Abraham's proposed solution is to separate his camp from Lot's, such that their two flocks could feed on different pastures, instead of competing for one pasture (Genesis 13:9). So Lot decides to move his camp towards Sodom, and Abraham moved towards Canaan (Genesis 13:12).

This episode answers the first question, and explains why Abraham asked God to spare Sodom in the first place: he knew that Lot was there, and Abraham did not want Lot to be caught up in the destruction of Sodom.

Why Ten?

To answer the second question, why was Abraham content when the number came down to 10, we can presume that Abraham knew about Lot's wife and daughters.3 Lot had at least two daughters that were unmarried (Genesis 19:8), and had at least two sons in law (Genesis 19:14). All-in-all, this is Lot, a wife, at least four daughters, and at least two sons in law, which make for a minimum grand total of eight. It is possible that Abraham took as a given that Lot's immediate family would be righteous,4 and so Abraham estimated that there had to be at least 10 righteous people in Sodom.

Why Fifty?

We can perform a rough estimate on the size of the two camps. In Genesis 14:12, king Chedorlaomer sacked Sodom, and took Lot (and presumably those with him) captive. One man escaped, and told Abraham. Abraham took his "trained servants," only those who were born in his own house, and pursued Chedorlaomer. Genesis 14:14 numbers this army as 318 in number. Let's take as small an estimate as possible, with the two following assumptions:

  1. Every male in Abraham's house was a "trained servant"
  2. In order for Abraham's house to grow, on average, each male is married with at least two children

This means that for every person in that 318-soldier army, there were three individuals at home, which means that Abraham had at the very minimum 1272 people in his camp. If there were other "untrained servants" or if the average family size was larger (with three, four, or even a Jacob-sized thirteen children), then there could have been far more people in Abraham's camp.

If Lot's camp were only his wife and his 4+ daughters, then there would have been 6 people total. Abraham's servants wouldn't trivialized themselves over the flocks of 6 people (Genesis 13:7). It's likely that the size of Lot's herds were roughly comparable to that of Abraham's. If we take a conservative estimate in size of Lot's camp being half the size of Abraham's, then it's likely that Lot had at least 500 individuals in his camp at the time of his departure in Genesis 13.

Whatever the number, it's likely that Abraham assumed that many of them came to dwell within Sodom with Lot when he moved into the city by Genesis 19:1. With these rough estimates, the size of Lot's camp made up 500 of the inhabitants of Sodom. Abraham likely knew that Sodom was a wicked city, but he likely believed that 10% of Sodom's camp remained true to the one true God, which may have been where he produced his initial estimate of 50 righteous people.

In the ensuing haggling that Abraham entered into with God in Genesis 18:24-32, Abraham second-guessed, third-guessed, and fourth-guessed his initial estimate of 10%, and dropped his wager to 9%, 6%, 4%, and then eventually 2%. When the angels finally brought the righteous out of Sodom, they only numbered 4 (if you count Lot's wife), a mere 0.8% of those that entered into Sodom more than 14 years prior.

Membership Attrition

0.8% is a relatively small percentage. Often, the metric of a pastor's effectiveness is the number of Baptisms that they perform during a year. But if 0.8% of 1000 converts remain in the church over a 14 year period, you really only increased your membership by 8 individuals. 8 is the realistic number, but 1000 is what is reported to the upper levels of the church. This ought not be.

Can you imagine what Genesis 19 had been like if Lot (or Abraham) had been more proactive in membership attention? Let us suppose that Lot had chosen to go to Canaan, and Abraham turned to Sodom, and let us suppose that Abraham had been a faithful witness in Sodom, such that the majority of his house had remained faithful to the true God. Then, instead of Sodom being an example of hellfire (Jude 1:7), there would have been the "Church of Sodom", an example of faithfulness.

The story of Ninevah in the book of Jonah is the story of how evangelism can save an entire city. But we have a more harrowing example in Genesis, that strikes closer to home. The story of the destruction of Sodom is not a story of Lot's lack of evangelism, it's a story of Lot's lack of member retention. Even if Lot had done zero evangelism, but had invested himself in member retention, such that he only lost 90% of his members in 14 years, there would have been 50 righteous souls and the city would have been saved, similar to what happened in Ninevah (Jonah 4:11).

In many of our churches, we focus more on evangelism than on membership retention. A pastor that baptizes 100 and retains 0 is more highly esteemed than a pastor that retains 100, yet baptizes 0. The metric by which we measure our pastors needs to change for our church to grow in the 21st century.

If the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 is truly the example of hellfire, and believers want to avoid hellfire, then we should seriously consider shifting some of our focus from evangelism to retaining both the members that regularly attend or members that have recently drifted away and become inactive.

The good news is that in general, nurturing members after baptism is not nearly as daunting to most Christians as evangelism, though this seems to be where much of our difficulties lie. Converting requires you to answer doctrinal questions, perhaps face criticisms of Christianity, etc.... Nurturing involves making them your friends, inviting them to your house, listening to their struggles, and prayerfully supporting them. If we can't do these things, then what sort of "fellowship" are we promising to people when we invite them to convert to our church?

  1. I recognize that Abraham was called Abram in before Genesis 17:5, but for the sake of continuity, I'll refer to him as Abraham for this entire article. 

  2. The actual references to milk and honey aren't made until later in scripture, but I assume here that if it was flowing with milk and honey by the time Moses arrived, it was already doing so in Abraham's time four to five centuries prior (Exodus 3:8, Numbers 14:8, Deuteronomy 31:20, Ezekiel 20:15). 

  3. Abraham was 75 years old in Genesis 12:1-3, and then spent time traveling through Canaan, then Egypt, then back to Canaan by the time he said goodbye to Lot. Abraham likely saw Lot and his family when he delivered them in Genesis 14. In Genesis 16:1-6, we are told that Abraham is 86 years old. By the time Sodom is destroyed in Genesis 19, Abraham is not yet 100 years old (Genesis 20:1-5). From all of this, we know that the time between when Abraham last saw Lot and when Sodom was destroyed is not less than 14 years, but not more than 25 years (probably closer to 20 years if you account about five years for sojourning in Canaan and Egypt between Genesis 12:4 and Genesis 13:5-18). Therefore, the only way Abraham wouldn't know about Lot's children would be if they were younger than 20, years old. For more information, here is a chart that breaks down the chronology of Genesis

  4. As much as Genesis paints a fairly bleak picture of Lot's righteousness, Peter considers Lot to have been a just person (2 Peter 2:7). Scholars have noticed that the Old Testament is incredibly hard on it's patriarchs, who were likely much nicer chaps than we get from a 21st-century reading. Their shortcomings are highlighted for our sake in understanding the plan of salvation, which leads us to focus more on the righteousness of God, and the need of man (even quasi-revered patriarchs) of a Savior.