Do a Google search on the phrase back door and you will get lots of options for purchasing or fixing the back door of your house. Add the word church to your search and you suddenly get lots of articles about why people are leaving our churches.
Some articles say “Don’t worry about it – it’s God’s problem to fill the church.” Others suggest our churches may collapse if people continue to mysteriously escape our church through the back door. The reality is, in my 30 years in church leadership, I don’t remember meeting one church leader who didn’t care about both expanding the Kingdom by bringing more people into the local church (front door) and helping them stay engaged and growing for the long term (back door).
What are some potential indicators that your church may have back door issues?
Declining weekend worship attendance numbers; lots of new families registering in kids ministry but overall attendance staying flat; and number of giving units and/or per capita giving decreasing — just to name a few.
But what’s the root cause of the issue? Here are a few I’ve seen throughout the years, along with some suggestions for addressing them.
1) You can’t solve the back door problem until you really know who’s using it.
Focus groups are my personal favorite way to gather feedback from your congregation. Start by listing the demographic groups in your congregation. Here a few to start your thinking:
- People exploring faith (do you have an Alpha type class?)
- New members (specifically those who have joined in the past year)
- College age
- Members of 5 years or more
- Young parents
- Strong financial contributors
For each of these groups, create an individual focus group. Invite 8 – 10 people to a 45-minute session. Host the focus group at a convenient time. (I like doing these around the weekend service when people area already on site). Make the invite to the focus group simple and nonthreatening. For instance, say something like “We want to get to know our attendees better and gather some ideas from you.”
Select a facilitator from within your congregation who is people-savvy and friendly. In addition to the facilitator, have someone in the room to casually take notes.
Ask questions like:
- How long have you been attending?
- What brought you here?
- What do you like best about our church?
- Is there anything that is confusing about our church?
- Is there anything that you hope will change or be different about our church in the next 6 months to a year?
- Anything else? Anything that I didn’t ask about that you would like to say?
The idea is to keep the questions open ended. As you hold multiple focus groups, you are looking for themes and patterns. This will give leadership a benchmark for the current reality.
Focus groups almost always surface unique insights – many positive themes that you will want to celebrate but also areas in your church that you can improve in efforts to better serve people and close the back door.
2) You can’t solve the back door problem without more accountability.
For staff and volunteers, that is.
It’s a story I’ve seen too often: An attender sincerely wants to get connected somewhere in the church; they sign up for a class, a small group, or a serving opportunity, and then — no one calls them back.
We staffers spend a lot of time marketing our church activities to draw people in. We fight for the announcement slot to get our ministries advertised, and yet way too often we drop the ball in actually making the connection between the person and the activity they became interested in.
Churches that do a great job at connection have a created a complete system that follows a person from the time they sign up all they way through an acknowledgement that the person did actually get connected AND an acknowledgement that this is the right connection for the person.
So what does this system of connection look like? There is generally a point person (often a staff member), a team of Connection volunteers and a computer database (many churches are using Church Community Builder to track connection).
Your system of accountability is key.
Here’s one I’ve seen work well:
When an attender wants to serve in Children’s Ministry, the Connection Team enters the person’s name in the database and ensures Children’s Ministry receives it. The Children’s Ministry team contacts the new volunteer and communicates back to the Connection Team to signal this step has occurred.
A few weeks later the Connection Team follows up with the attender to make sure they actually did get started and that they are enjoying serving in Children’s Ministry. If Children’s Ministry dropped the ball on connecting the person, the Connection Team can circle back with the ministry for a second try.
This system may sound complex at first, but once you get it in place, it will not take a lot of time. I have seen this work well in all sizes of churches — from 300 to 10,000+.
These are two of the best strategies I’ve seen churches use to start closing their back door. What other methods have you used?