In a consultation with a church as they were developing their evangelism strategy, it dawned on me that if their church had been in a community that had not grown numerically, they easily could have closed their doors. Many American communities have grown incredibly in the past decade. If churches in those communities lost two families out the back door, there were many others walking in the front door. However, there are many churches in communities that are stagnant or declining in number that would be in trouble if two families walked out the back door.
Populations migrate; not just immigrants from other countries, but commuter community growth in places like Missouri’s Platte Co. and Lincoln Co. The U.S. Census reported that Platte and Lincoln had grown 15,541 (21%) and 13,622 (35%) increases in population respectively over the past decade. Meanwhile churches saw several thousand baptisms, but nothing that came close to the influx of people into their counties.
A “Counting the Cost” service that I provide is to calculate population decline and growth and those who are unclaimed or non-evangelical by counties in America. To see an example, see the 114 county profiles online here.
1. Make Disciple-makers: When we talk about “closing the back door,” we mean discipling members to the point that they don’t leave the church unless moving away from the community. Many churches have big front doors, meaning that there are many people in the community who are looking for a new church home. According to Aubrey Mauphurs, 85% of churches in America have stopped growing and of those experiencing some type of growth, 14% can be attributed to transfer growth; church-hopping. (In Missouri, it is 75%).
2. Hold members accountable for spiritual growth: A few years ago, a pastor asked me via email for suggestions in holding his church members accountable for spiritual growth without it becoming a time-consuming task. I don’t think a pastor is capable of personally discipling every member of his church. Small groups leaders should do that. There should be accountability drilled into them and they report weekly to the Sunday School leader or some other person who can counsel them and hold them accountable. This means replacing whomever doesn’t take spiritual development seriously, but insists on just teaching the lesson week after week without tracking spiritual growth. And it means restricting the size of every group to 20 people or fewer. Remember, Jesus had 12. Curtis Sergeant, missionary trainer, suggests having small groups no larger than six! You should be intentionally developing new leaders to become small group leaders. Yes, this means a new paradigm of small group discipleship.
3. Discover ways to involve more people: churchwide participation. I often quote the Barna Group who found out that only 18% of all men volunteer at church. As Jim Putman at Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Id., likes to say, “Get them in the game!” Putting “players” on the field keeps them actively learning.
4. Accountability: If you’re not holding your small group leaders accountable, then that’s an area to pray about improving. Pray out a leader! Require that your Sunday School director report to the pastor what the teachers are doing. The teachers should be reporting to him what their participants are doing, including children. Jesus gave us the Great Commission to make disciples. If you’ve got a bedrock commitment to make disciples, then even worship and preaching feed that priority. In other words, if a believer can drop out of church attendance and participation for even one week, who will notice? Who cares? And who will bring them back into the fold?
5. Train new believers right away: Many churches must shore up their efforts at retaining believers and closing the dreaded back door by discipling new believers. It has been said that if a new believer doesn’t share their faith in the first six months they likely never will. New believers know more lost people in general than those of us who have been believers for many years. Going with a new believer to share their faith is vitally important to building a group of relationships around them. If everyone is disconnected, then it is very hard to have buy-in.
Many are oral learners and cannot handle a workbook. And they need far more than a lunch with their pastor or a parade of their church’s ministries. The rise of “assimilation” pastors and ministries in churches are one example why churches are waking up to this ideal.
It takes 40 days to make a new habit. Getting new believers used to small groups after coming to faith in Christ is important. And yet, the chief complaint that I hear about new members classes is that they don’t return. Having coaches and mentors for new believers bears fruit.
So, by all means keep an eye on evangelizing the lost, but keep a churchwide view of the way that new believers will become active participants in your thriving church!