Friday, May 10, 2013

Advice on Church Growth & Assimilation: Open the Back Door!

For a long time now, the church growth world has told us to get as many people to our church services as possible and keep them there as long as possible. The thought is that if they are in church they will hear the Word, be saved and go to heaven.

We even classified people in two categories: "the churched" and "the unchurched" as if they were those in Christ and those who are not. But of course this is wrong and now we are realizing it. Lately the fasted growing segment when it comes to attending church is the "uncommitted." These may actually be highly committed when it comes to Christ, just not church service attenders. I for one fall into this rising category.

In church growth speak we used to hear about assimilating visitors so that they become attenders, and hopefully, members of the church. The language we used was that we need to "close the back door" to the church–implying that we need to keep people from leaving. Wow, when I say that it sounds awful doesn't it? [Cue the sinister Vincent Price laugh–ha ha haaaa!] While it sounds like a mouse trap offering cheese at the end–but no escape–nevertheless (much to the chagrin of the fire department) that is the language that we pastor-types would use.

Lately, however, I am of a different opinion on the matter. Having become more familiar with the important parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20; Matt13:3-23; Luke 8:4-15) I have come to think we ought to open the back door as wide as possible and let the people go. Actually, I've come to realize that this is the Jesus way.

According to Jesus' words, two thirds of the people are not good soil and will not bear fruit (Okay, I know the passage is not prescribing a percentage, but it is clear that more will be bad soil than good). Keeping them in the church really may not be the best solution if you desire a fruitful church.

I think that if people want to leave, let them leave. Don't waste your life trying to make people want something that they don't really want. I often say: If the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus isn't enough to motivate these people, my sermon isn't likely to do it.

Jesus let the rich, young, ruler walk away, even though He loved him very much (Mark 10:17-22). He never tried to convince people to follow Him, in fact, He did the opposite. He intentionally tried to thin the crowd on more than one occasion (Luke 11:29; 14:25-26; John 6:60-71). When a large crowd was gathered He would tell the few disciples it is time to leave and go somewhere else (Matt 8:18; Mark 1:36-38). Jesus invested in a few disciples and never gave his affection and trust to the larger gatherings (John 2: 23-25)

I've said for years: what you win them with is what you win them to. If you entice people to come with entertaining services you need to keep them the same way. Suddenly you find yourself competing with other entertaining churches to keep people attending your service–people that only want to be entertained. Open the back door!

Too often, in our desire to keep people, we change church to accommodate bad soil and end up with larger fruitless congregations that want all their needs met and have no desire to serve others. Open the back door!

Jesus drew huge crowds. But the Gospel accounts specifically tell us that He never gave His heart to the crowd because He knew that their motives were selfish. Open the back door!

Large crowds never changed the world. Real movements always are ignited with a few highly committed people. Open the back door!


Anonymous said...

Mr. Cole first off thank you for following Jesus and sharing the wisdom he has entrusted you with.

I have been praying about this idea as a church planter in Salt Lake City. The harvest is plentiful and laborers are few.

I too am a guy that is apart of the rising category of those that are highly committed to following Christ and making disciples but not attending a church service or being apart of a local church congregation.

My question is with the "back door"...the back door seems to be a expression used for a place that might actually be fairly fertile soil. I see the potential of finding some that truly might land in the good soil that will bear fruit abundantly (I realize Jesus doesn't give us a road map or explain where to plant, but rather to just plant everywhere)when truth is truly presented to them. Someone that truly wants to help them grow closer to Jesus and model to them what it looks like to follow Jesus. They came for a reason or another whether their motives or expectations be wrong or right.

My question is on a deeper level would you explain what this "back door" might look like? Tangibly, is it right to camp out next to this door to invite people to experience the Kingdom? And if so, is it safer to camp next to this "back door" from the inside before they step out into the real world again (after making the conscience decision to exit in the first place) or on the outside? And if so is there a tangible example of fishing for me from outside the back door?

A book or resource would be awesome, I know that you are a busy man and don't have too much time. Like I mentioned this is something that I have been praying about and stumbled across your blog. Feel as if Jesus is trying to teach me a thing or two through the wisdom he has given you.

Thank you so much for your time and passion.

Danny James

Neil Cole said...


The expression is used in church circles when addressing assimilation of new people, and retaining current members as well. Usually pastors speak of programs that get people involved beyond attending on Sunday.

I am sorry if I didn't communicate this idea well.

Here is a post I did about finding good soil, maybe this will help some.


Steve said...

Good words, Neil. Someone said, "Play a man's game, and men will come to play." Why should a high school football coach get more respect than Jesus Christ? Don't insult people by asking little of them.

Anonymous said...

Neil: Here's an original song about organic church based on 1 Corinthians 14:36.

Gary Reinecke said...

I agree Neil and I would also add that we need to open the side door. When coaching missional leaders I find one of the challenges they face is keeping the side door open so groups do not lose the organic flow of people who want to come in but are repelled when the group feels closed. The missional leader is constantly having to keep the doors open for people to "come" and "go" as they sense Jesus calling them into mission.

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I think you've made a great point. Let the people go. We are in a 4th wave of growth momentum in our young church plant, and part of the reason we are in that 4th wave, is the prior waves were squashed by unhealthy people.

We were glad to see them go, but we also see that we tried to appease them for too long.

Lesson learned and you've stated it well.


Dr. Jeff Scott said...

AMERICAN GOTHIC CHURCH: Changing the Way People See the Church, a new book by Jeffery Warren Scott suggests that the unchurched are not likely to be reached unless believers change the mental image of Christians embedded in the minds of the unchurched. Churches which are encouraging, joyful, and compassionate are more likely to reach and retain the unchurched.

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