More than 200 church leaders sat in the room, each preparing a list of their church’s greatest needs. I gave them the assignment hoping to discover some commonalities we could address together. My expectations were quickly surpassed.
In one way or another, nearly 90% of the church leaders indicated that their churches had a problem with “closing the back door,” that is, they were losing members or attendees even while new people were coming to their churches.
“If half the people who came to our church over the past five years still attended, we would be double our size,” one pastor lamented. “We seem to get them into the church,” another church leader confessed, “but we just can’t keep them.”
For years, the primary focus in many churches has been on the “front door”—people coming into the church, and while such an emphasis remains the Great Commission priority, our research shows that churches and their leaders must not neglect the issue of the back door, commonly called assimilation.
The Big 4
Through our research, we discovered that four major factors were at work when churches closed the back door effectively. If all four were in play, the back door closed tight. But any one of these factors still contributes to more effective assimilation.
1. High expectations.
The first “big four” issue is high expectations.
Our research indicates that the American Church went through a period of more than 10 years when churches significantly lowered their expectations of members and attendees. The result was an exodus of people from the church.
“Why would I want to be a part of something that expects nothing of me?” a former active church member told our research team. Many churches are now attempting to remedy this problem with entry point or new member classes, where expectations of service, stewardship, and attendance are clearly established.
2. Small groups.
Second, churches that close the back door seek to get as many of their members as possible into small groups.
In some churches, these groups meet in homes. In other churches, the small group is a Sunday school class that meets at the church.
The key issue, according to our research, is that the small group is an open group, meaning it has no predetermined termination date, and anyone can enter the group at any point.
3. Ministry involvement.
The third key component is ministry involvement.
The earlier a new member or attendee can get involved in a church’s ministries, the higher the likelihood of effective assimilation.
Churches that close the back door have a clear plan to get people involved and doing ministry as quickly as possible.
4. Relationship connections.
Finally, the more new members connect with longer-term members, the greater the opportunity for assimilation.
In an interesting twist in our research, we found that most of these relationships developed before the new member ever came to the church. In other words, members were intentionally developing relationships with people outside the walls of the church. They invited them to church after the relationship had been established.
If your church has a big “back door” problem, we suggest that you tackle these issues one at a time.
Don’t try to implement all four simultaneously; each one takes work and time. Though improving any one of these factors can significantly enhance assimilation, the most effective starting point typically is dynamic, open small groups, whether they’re home groups or the more traditional on-campus Sunday school classes.
You’ll then be that much closer to watching the back door close tight.