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. If they lost two families out the back door, there are many others walking in the front door. However, there are churches in the Cincinnati Area that also would be in trouble if two families walked out the back door.
An influx of people into your community used to mean a more transient group of people. However, when the housing market crashed in 2008 and companies stopped hiring and increased lay-offs, many communities “hunkered down.” Those who moved in were trapped in apartments, condominiums, starter homes, and places known for immigrants. I understand that after the Covid scare, many families are not moving like they used to, as well.
A pastor once visited me. He was very concerned that he had too much turnover in his church. He wanted to know how to stop people from leaving. The core group in his church was evangelizing and they were seeing great numbers of baptisms. New members were coming in the front door. However, he couldn’t stand watching them leave his church and go down the street to another church. He wanted some guidance on a way to close the back door of his church.
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 Malphurs, 85% of churches in America have stopped growing and of those experiencing some type of growth, 14% can be attributed to transfer growth, which is another name for church-hopping. Pastor often complain about sheep-stealing when they see a pastor of another church inviting others into their church instead of encouraging them to grow and contribute to the church where they already belong.
It was about this time that another pastor asked me for suggestions for holding his church members accountable for spiritual growth without it becoming a time-consuming task. Well, that kinda caught me off guard. Let’s talk about this. I’ve five ideas. And, yup, I see these five as a way to close the back door.
First, I don’t think a pastor is capable of personally discipling every member of his church. Period. And I don’t think proclamation from the pulpit allows for interaction with the members of the church to see what they got or missed. Were they fully engaged or were they thinking about the starting lineup on the ballgame that afternoon? And how could a pastor ever know.
Secondly, I think discipling is the job of Bible study teachers and small groups leaders. There should be face-to-face accountability drilled into them and they report weekly to the Sunday School superintendent or some other person who can counsel them and hold them accountable. This is so serious, I think a church should replace leaders that don’t take spiritual development seriously, but insists on just teaching the lesson week-after-week without tracking spiritual growth.
Third, it means restricting the size of every group to 10 to 20 people. Churches should be intentionally developing new leaders to become small group leaders. Yes, for most churches this means a new paradigm of small group discipleship.
Fourth, if you’re not holding your small group leaders accountable, then that’s an area to pray about improving. Pray out new leaders! Even if you have a Sunday School superintendent, he should be reporting to the pastor what his teachers are doing. The teachers should be reporting to him what their participants are doing, including those discipling among youth and children.
Fifth, I want to remind everyone, including myself, that 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.
Before I close, let me add that after working through dozens of interviews for the book Truth That Sticks that I wrote with Avery Willis, I identified four keys to small groups success which put a halt to church shopping.
1. Relational – this is why small groups must have less than 20 people. Five to ten in a Bible study is best.
2. Supportive – participants do life together; they actually hang out together during the week outside of Bible study time.
3. Transparent – vulnerability breaks down barriers and keeps things genuine.
4. Accountable – new small groups should be a leader “factory,” so that your church can start new groups, very possibly every six months.
Now, let’s not forget where we started this blog. These four keys not only close, but I have found that they padlock the back door.
Mark Snowden directs the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association