Closing the Back Door

I recently met with a church that was having consistent baptisms but not experiencing net growth. They asked me to help them plan some strategies that would keep those they reached. About the same time I read Tom Rainer’s blog on “closing the back door.” How does a church keep those it reaches so they become active members?

Let’s look at those four components but first my experience on this issue.

In one church I did a Five-Year Church Membership Analysis. I surveyed new and exiting members and compiled statistics on losses and gains in membership over a five-year period. I assumed that our back door of losses was opened as wide as the front door of gains.

The church experienced 541 additions by letter or baptism during this five-year period. On the surface this would appear to be healthy growth, but I discovered that deletions by transfers and deaths over this same five-year period the church lost 535 members! This is a net gain of only six people in five years! On a five-year average this translates to 108 additions per year and 107 losses per year. Based on these averages, that particular church had to reach a minimum of 107 persons each year just to maintain the present attendance.

As a staff this stat alerted us that our back door was wide open.

Rainer says that every year for the past quarter century, assimilation rates in American congregations have been poor. The Southern Baptist Convention reported a membership of over 16 million. The realistic membership is around 12 million, and the average weekly attendance is 7 million. So we cannot account for four million of our members. Less than half of the members attend on a given week. And millions more have been lost who are no longer on the membership rolls.

Rainer’s research of thousands of churches found four common characteristics of congregations that have effective assimilation.

Key #1: Membership high expectations. More is expected of members in high assimilation churches. Church discipline is more likely to be exercised in these churches as well. These churches typically have required entry point or membership classes. Becoming a part of these congregations is more than completing a card or walking an aisle. Members are expected to be involved and stay involved.

This is key that every church can use. What do you expect from a member? Do you think they should attend regularly, give, and serve? Do they know the expectations before they join? (I have a video blog on how to do this.)

Key #2: Small group involvement. A concerted effort is made to get members and attendees involved in small groups. For most of our Southern Baptist Churches this is a Sunday School class for others it could be a home Bible study, or a small group meeting elsewhere. They all produce the same benefit by connecting people together in relationships. I have found that relationships are the Velcro that keep people together and coming back.

Key #3: Ministry/Missons involvement. Rainer’s group found that high assimilation churches encourage people to be involved in ministry. A few even require ministry involvement prior to accepting someone into membership. Members who are involved in missions and ministry feel connected to the church.

Give new people an assignment quickly. You may not want them to teach a class or serve as a deacon but they could be a greeter or help on one of your serving teams. The quicker they are involved the longer they will stay.

Key #4: Relational connections. Rainer writes, “In any organization, people stay connected more to other people than the organization itself. We are relational creatures. Local congregations are no exceptions. People are more likely to stay connected to the church if they have developed meaningful friendships and relationships with others in the church.”

So if these four components really help close the back door, why are we not developing each one to fit our particular church? Rainer says one reason is that many churches have established traditions of low expectations that are hard to change.

I want to challenge you to look at these four components and evaluate how your church is doing in each one. Make some changes to do a better job of keeping those you reach so you close the back door.

One other thought…The key that combines all of these is DISCIPLESHIP. Get people discipled so they know how to serve, give and grow in their faith.

Keep the Son in Your Eyes,

Mike James




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