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You Can’t Keep Anyone at Your Church

Church leaders have been talking about “closing the back door” for years. It’s a good conversation. After all, it is frustrating to see visitors come, people say yes to Jesus, get baptized and maybe even attend a New Christian’s class. And yet, the church still struggles to grow. People seem to be coming in the front and going out the back.

In the church world, we talk a lot about front doors and back doors. Meaning, how people come in and how people leave your church. In principle, closing the back door is more about keeping the front door wide open. The spirit and atmosphere that makes a church inviting is the same spirit and atmosphere that causes people to want to stay.

When the equation reveals that the number leaving nearly equals the number coming, that demands attention. However, the truth is, you can’t keep anyone. I know you wouldn’t literally try to keep someone, but this is more than semantics. It’s about how you and I think as leaders.

Trying to keep people is leading on the defense. You never really lead, you chase. When you lead on the offense you are out-in-front inviting. It seems like many conversations I have with pastors, though likely unintended, sound like church leaders are trying to “keep” people rather than to lead them, inspire them and help them grow.

Last week a sharp pastor in a large church asked me about how much effort should be put into going after people who leave. My answer is very little. It’s not that you don’t care, it’s that the amount of energy you invest in chasing people who don’t want to be chased is highly unproductive. It is uncommon for a person who left the church to come back.

The push back is: “It’s worth it if just one comes back!“ Yes and no. If we’re talking about salvation, of course I agree. One soul means everything!

But, let’s be honest about how this usually plays out. When we chase people for weeks or even months, they usually don’t return. And if we are honest, there is a reason they left. Simply put, if leaders will invest their time solving the issues of why people leave, rather than chasing those who have left, that time is better invested.

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Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together.