I began ChurchLead in 2002 to provide consulting and information to church leaders to help them become more effective in achieving their mission. Most church leaders know what they want to accomplish, but they often need some help to successfully navigate the waters with so many competing technology tools and systems.
The methods have changed over the past few years, but the essence of the original mission remains the same. To help leaders use the right technology, at the right time, in the right way, to accomplish their mission.
In a previous blog post "Attendance and the Back Door", I made a statement about closing the back door of the church which prompted requests for some practical ways to accomplish that task. I am very concerned about this issue because we have far too many churches who are just churning people. It is incredibly easy for a growing church to appear healthy, while leaving bruised and battered people in their wake. This is because if you subtract a 20% back-door rate from a 40% visitor connection rate, you are left with a 20% growth rate which appears healthy! I think it's tragic. Just so I won't be picking on the growing churches, I have seen just as many churches who have had the same attendance for years, but the faces are constantly changing. Where did they all go? I would like to think that just found another church that "met their needs". Unfortunately, I am scared to ponder how many have not just left a church, but have left Christianity altogether.
As a point of clarification, when I refer to the back door, I am talking about people who made an initial connection, assimilated into one of main areas of emphasis of the church and made church a part of their normal routine. I am not talking about people who have never connected into the life of the church. If a person never successfully connects, then they just turn around and go out the same way they came in, through the front door. Initial visitor connection requires its own proactive process and has a different set of dynamics. I'll deal with visitor connection and initial assimilation in a separate post.
People stop coming to a church for many reasons, but the biggest factors are the lack of close relationships and the lack of meaningful service. This situation opens the door to a perception among unconnected people that the leaders are apathetic towards their situation. Identifying the factors is the easy part. Doing something about it is a bit harder. In this post, I would like to share what I believe to be the top 7 ways to close the back door of the church. I want this list to be practical, so in order to set the stage, I want to talk a little bit about attendance. Every church I have worked with of substantial size has lamented the inability to capture worship attendance. They are right. It is virtually impossible to get accurate individual attendance of worship services. We're not talking head counts, but attendance that shows who was or was not present. That does not stop churches from trying! I just don't see inaccurate attendance as good stewardship. If you can't trust your attendance numbers so that you can confidently follow up with absentees, then it is a waste of time.
Measure what is Measurable - While worship attendance is hard to capture, adult small groups classes are relatively simple. Children's activities are the simplest of all since security issues require us to keep accurate records anyway. So, measure what you can measure. Yes, you will get push-back from some of your established groups, but if you give them some context, you will get their support. By context, I mean that they have to understand that the issue is bigger than their group. If you show them that you are trying to be good stewards of these people who are your responsibility, they will usually get on board. Ask them to help you be faithful with your responsibility.
Catch people on their way out of the back door. - One of the fundamental mistakes that I see churches make is to focus on what has happened in the past. It is not that looking back is not of value, it just won't help you get anyone back! Gone is gone! Think of it this way. If someone gets upset and you recognize that they are about to leave, you can intervene and smooth the situation. But if that person leaves, gets home and settles into their favorite chair in front of the TV, what are the odds of getting them to come back? Not very good are they? It takes a person about 4 weeks to move from "I don't think the church cares about me" to "I know the church does not care about me". Catch them on the way out and this can be prevented.
Know who you expect to attend. - In order to know who was not in attendance, you have to know who was supposed to be in attendance. This sounds simple but it is often counter to the way that churches have kept their records for years. This means that you are going to have to do some work to keep class rosters clean enough to know the difference. For example, a list of 100 kids who missed the past three classes is too large for you to effectively contact. In reality, there might only be 5 kids in that list of 100 who have been attending in the past few months. These 5 kids represent the 5 families that are on their way out the back door! This is the information that you desperately need to know, and it is so often buried in the attendance reports of the church.
Use the right people to reach out to them. - In a group setting, sometimes the problem is a disconnect between the group itself and the person who is leaving. In this situation, the group leader is not in a position to help the situation. This where the church staff can be very effective by helping people find a place where they fit better or acting as an intermediary to rectify a dispute. Make sure to offer a graceful way back in. I think that people don't want to hurt anyone's feelings and think that the easiest way to solve a problem is to just leave. If they are assured that it is OK to try a new group or a new volunteer position, that might make all the difference.
Focus onFamilies - For the most part, children do not attend church on their own. So, if little Johnny has not been to his 4 year old sunday school class in 3 weeks, it is a very safe assumption that Mom and Dad have not been there either. Since it is much easier to track children and students, use that information to prompt your efforts toward the families of those kids. This is particularly true of a family where the parents are not active in any other area than worship. Let the ministry area try to reconnect the individual, but treat a 3rd or 4th time absentee as an opportunity to connect a family.
Build retention mechanisms and processes. - Mechanisms are just ways to find out who is leaving. This can be in the form of reports from your attendance records. It can also be from feedback from people in the church. You have to establish some policies on what kind of attendance pattern will trigger your retention processes. In some churches, this might be 3 absences in a row, while others might use 4 or 5. Just make sure to stick to what is happening rather than what happened! Your processes are the methods you put in place to make sure that those who are identified are contacted and assisted. This might include phone calls, e-mails, letters, texts, Facebook notes or any other method of communication that would be effective. These contacts have to be personal. No matter the form of communication used, sincerity and authenticity will be of the utmost importance. If people in the church trust that you have good processes to follow up with people, I have found that they are much more willing to share information with church leaders. They will not share information with you if they don't think it will make any difference.
Build processes for the major emphasis areas of the church. - The difference between good intentions and success is often determined by the presence of a logical process. Constructed correctly, no one should ever slip through the cracks once they are identified. This is the same thing that must be done in an assimilation process for a newcomer to the church. The only difference is that it has to be handled a bit differently. The processes you build will be logical steps that will lead to participation in that particular area of your church. This might be connection groups, serving opportunities, leadership roles, spiritual formation steps or any other activity that you consider to be part of your "church core".
I have spent thousands of hours helping churches build connection, assimilation and retention processes. As every church is unique, the processes are always slightly different. The most important element is an acknowledgment that it is critically important to guard the back door of the church. Church management systems (ChMS) today offer many ways to facilitate these processes, but they still require careful configuration and a very intentional approach to be effective. I have a good deal of experience in these systems, and it is important to choose one that fits your needs and is flexible enough to work the way that you need it to work.
I encourage you to step back and critically look at the situation at your church. If possible, bring in an objective third party to help you see what you can't see because of your proximity. As I have worked with churches across the country, I have found that I can see both problems and possibilities in a situation just because I am a little removed from the day to day ministry of that particular church. I have been told many times by Pastors that their stress level was lowered considerably when they established good processes of connection, care and retention. This is not one of those problems for which there is no answer. I believe that any church can guard their back door if they are serious about it.
I hope that this is helpful information. Drop me a note if you want to discuss this further or use the comment section.
Week in and week out, Christian churches across the world dutifully take attendance. This takes great effort from both paid staff and volunteers alike. It could be said, sadly, that we are more consistent in taking attendance than we are at living as Christ followers.
One might think that I am about to take issue with the unnecessary expenditure of effort of taking attendance, but I'm not. My biggest issue is not that we are wasting our time with attendance, it is that we are wasting the effort by leaving the collected data on the roll sheets or in the church management system. Bottom line is that it is impossible to close the back door of a church unless you create ways to catch people on their way out. Gone is gone. I am convinced that part of good stewardship in a church is to be faithful with the lives entrusted to those in leadership. Please indulge me in the following train of thought.
Attendance records are just attendance records until they are turned in to useful data.
Data is just data until it is turned into a useful report.
Reports are just reports until they are analyzed and turned into a plan.
A plan is just a plan until it is put into action.
Actions are just actions until they are managed to change a situation.
Changed situations are just... wait a minute... this is what we are after!
If we intend to fix the "back door problem" in our churches (and I hear this all the time in churches), we must make sure that we are measuring what is measurable, applying proper context and formulating good plans in order to act strategically.
Now, let me be clear. God causes the change in the situation. We are merely being good stewards of those people with whom we have been entrusted. That being said, do you want to close the back door? Then guard it!
Part 2 of Series: Leading the (Not So) Simple Church (view part 1>)
There are quite a few church models and concepts in use these days and my point in this article is not to promote (or bash) any one of them. The point I want to make is two-fold: Churches need models, and models are not enough.
Churches Need Models: I have to wonder how many of the thousands of churches that have set out to become “simple” or “sticky” or “relevant”, have actually achieved this goal. In my consulting work through recent years, I have spent thousands of hours in hundreds of churches of virtually every evangelical Christian denomination. I have found that the decision to change or refine ministry focus is not enough to result in missional success. Many times, success or failure will be determined by what happens after the leadership retreat where the new direction was chosen. I believe that a properly conceived model that is understood by the staff and congregants, and logically moves people and efforts toward agreed goals puts a church into a good position to achieve their mission.
It is important to understand the difference between a models and concepts. A church model provides a systematic method of applying concepts to the various ministry processes. A model is an illustration or map of the interconnected ministry processes in the church. It should demonstrate the intended movement of people in areas such as connection, assimilation, evangelism, spiritual formation and responding to congregants needs. A model will begin with the mission and vision of the church and it will have clear metrics for determining operational success.
A concept is an ideology or approach. It is often confused as a model but concepts are not models. I read a recent blog post by Thom Rainer where he commented on churches wanting to see the "Simple Church" model. His response goes like this:
"We struggle with that request because Simple Church is not a model. It is a concept that helps churches focus on disciple making that aligns with activities. And no church will ever “arrive.” It’s a process. It’s ongoing. There is no perfect example. There is no model church because there is no model."
The fact is, I like church models. (feel free to roll your eyes here) A model can clearly illustrate the intended flow of people, information and processes in a church and serves both as a filter and a reminder of what is supposed to be happening in a church. There is enormous value in church leaders critically considering all of the ministry activities and processes and then producing an illustration of how they all fit together. hint: If your church is too complex to model, then it is probably just too complex. Many church leaders have expressed to me that this process of creating their unique model was the most valuable part of our time together. Its not easy, and I don't suggest this process unless you are willing to change! It takes work to align everything, but it is worth the effort.
All churches have a model, but they don’t all realize it. It can be very formal, or it can be more organic in nature. In many cases, a church’s model grew out of a denominational approach to ministry. I don’t think that it is possible for a church to be intentional in their ministry if they do not formalize their model to a functional level. Chaos reigns in the absence of a consistent approach to ministry.
Models are Not Enough: As valuable as models are, they don't produce good outcomes on their own. For example, the fact that I have a map in the glove compartment of my car does not help me get to a place I have never been. Only the correct use of a good map at the right time will give the driver much of a chance of getting to their desired destination on time.
The problem in many churches is not the model or concept, but in the implementation. Poor ministry processes always hurt a church's ministry. There are plenty of examples where God blesses a ministry even though they have poor processes, but I believe that our goal in church leadership and management is to be good stewards of that which we have been entrusted. I am afraid that in many cases, the new approach to ministry never had a chance of success.
Series: Leading the (Not So) Simple Church - Part 1
It seems logical that it would be a simple task to implement a “simple” approach to ministry, doesn’t it? I mean, simple equates with easy, right? As many church leaders have found, the decision to become "simple" or "sticky" or even "relevant" does not necessarily result in the church reflecting that decision. The inspiration and decision to change anything in your church structure is merely the first step. The planning, execution and the way that change is managed will make all the difference.
I have the utmost respect for Thom Rainer and his model of “Simple Church”. I think that it is a very healthy process for church leaders to figure out who they are and ask themselves whether they have become too complicated and less effective. The Simple Church concept provides a fresh perspective on ministry that is great for creating a more intentional and focused ministry. I applaud any church that chooses to look at themselves with the willingness to change if necessary. This is critical because there are far too many churches who keep doing things the same old way until there is no one left to do those things with!
In this series of articles, I will examine the following areas: