Author Archives: Charles Arn

How to Improve Your Welcome (Charles Arn)

Some time ago my family and I moved to a new house and neighborhood, and in the process visited a number of churches in search of a new place to worship. The experience reminded me of how other newcomers must feel in visiting a church for the first time. New faces…new places …new spaces. The truth is, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience!

Here are a few simple ways you can increase the warmth of your church’s welcome; and, as a result, increase the number of first-time visitors who return…and stay.

For Starters…

  • Don’t call them “visitors.” According to Webster, a visitor is “…a person who resides temporarily; one who goes or comes to inspect; one who makes a short stay at a place for a particular purpose.” May I suggest you instead use the word guest, defined as: “a person welcomed into one’s house; a person to whom hospitality is extended; a person held in honor who is due special courtesies.”
  • Stop using the word “greeter” defined as “one who meets or extends welcome in a specified manner; one who gives a formal salutation at a meeting.”  Start using the word host—“one who receives or entertains socially; one who opens his or her home for a special event; one who takes particular care and concern that guests are well accommodated.” And discuss with your “hosts” the new implications of their new title.

First Impressions…

  • Parking Lot Hosts. Deploy a team of your members to greet and welcome folks the moment they step out of their cars. Or, if it’s raining, parking lot hosts should have umbrellas ready before guests step out of their cars! These hosts can greet everyone coming to church, but should pay particular attention to the guest parking area or to newcomers. A warm welcome should be extended and an inquiry made as to special needs or questions guests may have. Parking lot hosts may accompany guests into the building and introduce them to the host at the welcome center. (You do have a welcome center, don’t you?)
  • Celebration Balloons. It’s common to see strings of helium-filled balloons attracting your attention to RV sales and used car lots around town. Does your church have something to celebrate? Why not get folks into the mood with columns of colorful balloons reaching heavenward? How about a great arch of balloons leading into the building? “…it is appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” (Lk 15:32) Sunday should be celebration time!
  • Piped-out Music. Install a number of strategically placed outdoor speakers welcoming people to God’s house with the music of heaven. If you have a recording of your own worship band or musical group, use it. Otherwise, there’s lots of great Christian music available.

Second Impressions…

  • Direction signs. You can’t have too many signs on the church property. If your campus has more than one building, the name of each should be clearly visible. Direction signs should be at every major “intersection,” in and outside the church. Identification signs should be on every inside door (including closets and storage). Children’s classrooms should be marked with age/grade level. Adult classrooms should note the topic, age group, and time of meeting. (BTW, class names exclude, class topics include.) Restrooms, nursery, chapel, fellowship hall, library, and worship center should all be identified with conforming and attractive signs.
  • Welcome Center Support Hosts. Many churches have a person or two working inside a welcome center kiosk or at a welcome table. That’s good. But move from a good welcome to a great welcome by also stationing hosts in front of the kiosk/table where guests will be standing. Those hosts answering questions at the Welcome Center may call on support hosts to escort guests to a particular location in the church (i.e. nursery, classroom, sanctuary, etc.), or simply make a “social hand off” of the newcomer for a more casual conversation with a church member. Such hosts engage the guests in friendly conversation and may introduce them to others in the fellowship area.
  • Guest Information Packet. Every church should have an attractive packet prepared specifically for newcomers. The basic questions your guests are asking should be answered in this kit. They are: “What kind of things are going on in this church?” [The more the better.] “Is there a place for my kids?” [If not, nothing else matters.] “How can I learn more about this church?” [See “Church Tour” below.] One of the best ways to answer all these questions is with a video brochure. This is a well-produced 8-10 minute introduction to the church with words from the pastor, staff, and some new members. Put the video on a DVD in the packet, and include it on your website.  A gift for guests is also a nice touch. I’ve seen coffee mugs, fresh baked bread, complimentary Bibles and CDs, donuts and cappuccino at the snack bar, even free $30 polo shirts with a Christian symbol on the front. All are nice touches.
  • Class Hosts. Every adult, youth, and children’s class should have at least one host. Their task is to look for newcomers, welcome them, introduce them to others, sit with them, and generally be sensitive to their comfort and needs. Hosts may be the same throughout the year or vary from week to week.

In the Service…

  • Worship Center Hosts. Don’t stop being a good host at the Welcome Center. If your sanctuary/worship center is a bustle of activity before the service begins, why not ask some of your members to host a pre-determined area of seats? When newcomers sit in their area, a good worship center host will go over and welcome them to the church, and engage them in conversation. If there will be any special activities in the service which might need explanation, it’s a good chance to give a “heads up.”  Hosts should introduce the guests to the person(s) next to them. Perhaps even sit with them.
  • Pastor’s Welcome. During the service I like to hear someone from the platform tell me they’re glad I’m here. Not personally, of course. No newcomer likes to be singled out in public. But when the pastor spends valuable time in the service telling me that I’m valued by the church, it makes a big difference. And it’s more than just, “If you’re visiting today, welcome.” It means explaining a little about the church, what a wonderful place it is, how great the people are, and why the benefit of getting involved is worth the price of my anticipated anxiety.
  • A Time of Greeting. Many churches include a moment during the service to shake hands and greet those around them. This is either a good idea or a bad idea…and it depends on what happens after the service. It’s good if folks continue their initial conversation with the guest. It’s bad if they pretend nothing ever happened a half-hour earlier and beat a hasty path to the exit. If your people are naturally congenial with newcomers, then a greeting time in the service is great. If not, try the following idea…

After the Service…

  • After-service Hosts. Our research reveals three insights about church visitors:
  1. “Friendliness of the people” is the most important thing newcomers are looking for in their visit.
  2. “Friendliness” is assessed on the simple basis of how many people talk to them.
  3. The most important time for such “friendly talk” is immediately following the service.

After-service hosts are responsible for making a beeline to newcomers after the service to welcome them, walk with them to the coffee table, introduce them to others, and invite them back. A variation of this strategy, in one church we visited, was when the pastor reminded the congregation of their “three minute rule”—no one could talk to anyone they knew during the first three minutes following the service! It worked for us. We met a wonderful woman named “Rose” who had been attending for the past year. Our conversation lasted over 15 minutes! As you might guess, we looked for Rose the following Sunday when we returned.

  • Church Tour. Newcomers are hesitant to wander around a new church uninvited, even though they’d like to. So, why not offer a short tour of the facilities after each service? Such a tour is a low-commitment, limited-time, high-information event for anyone interested in learning more about your church. The tour leader guides the guests through various halls and rooms, explaining what activities take place there. It’s natural for guests to ask questions about various ministries or upcoming events. And it’s a much easier “next step” for newcomers who are interested in learning more, but not ready to sign up for a membership class.
  • Follow-up Contact. It’s standard procedure for pastors to send a “Thank you for visiting” letter. We received nice ones from every church we visited. But following our second visit to several of those churches …nothing. In the typical (non-growing) church, 9% of all first time visitors join the following year. But among second-time visitors (those who visit twice within a six-week period), 17% join. And third-time guests unite at a rate of 36% in the ensuing year. In growing churches, the pattern is similar: 21% of first-timers stay…38% of second-timers …57% of third-timers join the church they visited. Whether your church is growing or not, the insight is clear: the more often people visit, the more likely they will stay. Have a unique follow-up strategy for second time guests and another for third-timers.

Conclusion…

Your church probably can’t implement all of these ideas. Nor should you try. But circulate this list among your leaders and see if they resonate to any of them. Get a group together and brainstorm how some of the ideas might work in your church. Set a target date to have the plan in place. Then begin.

After you’ve successfully implemented one idea, find another and consider how it might work. While more than just an outside music speaker or an inside classroom host is needed to see newcomers become active members, such new ideas will raise the awareness level of your members to the importance of welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable in your church home. The newcomers who enter your front doors are the ones Christ wants you to welcome in the same way He would do so, Himself. After all, we are the caretakers of His house…at least until that day when He invites us to His eternal home.  And then we’ll find out what a good first-time welcome is really like!   :)

Identifying the Obstacles to Church Growth (Charles Arn)

Healthy people grow. Healthy animals grow. Healthy trees grow. Healthy plants grow. Healthy churches grow. Growth is a characteristic that God supernaturally breathed into all living things. And the body of Christ—the local church—is a living thing.

So, when a church is not growing, it is helpful to ask: “Why?”  If we understand the reason for a church’s lack of growth, it is easier to accurately diagnose the cause and to prescribe the cure.  Here are the five most common “growth-restricting obstacles”…

Growth-restricting obstacle #1: The Pastor.

There are three different causes if the pastor is inhibiting the growth of a church:

1. The pastor does not have a PRIORITY. Churches grow when they have a priority for reaching the unchurched. When the pastor doesn’t, the church won’t. (See Luke 19:10)

2. The pastor does not have a VISION. Growing churches have pastors who believe God wants to reach people in their community and assimilate them into the Body. No vision for outreach is as much a barrier as no priority.  (See Acts 16:9)

3. The pastor does not have the KNOWLEDGE. Working harder is not the secret to effective outreach. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in most seminaries or Bible schools about how to invest the limited resources of a church for the greatest return.  (See Mt. 25:14-30)

Growth-restricting obstacle #2: The church members.

There are often competent and skilled clergy in non-growing churches, because the problem is not in the pulpit, it’s in the pews. Church members can keep a church from growing when:

Members have no priority for reaching the lost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” some say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should feel compelled.”  (see II Pe. 3:9)

Members have a self-serving attitude about church. When members believe the priority of the pastor and the church should be to “feed the sheep” who are already in the flock, the message that newcomers hear is: “We like our church just the way it is…which is without you!”  (see Mt. 9:37)

Members fear that new people will destroy their fellowship. When “community” is the number one priority in a church, active membership will not grow beyond 100 people.  Beyond that point, members won’t know everyone…and, in their minds, that price of growth becomes greater than the benefit.  (II Cor. 4:5)

Growth-restricting obstacle #3: Perceived irrelevance.

Growing churches start with the issues and concerns of the people in their community, and then relate the gospel to those points of need. Stagnant churches are seen by the unchurched as having an irrelevant message.  (see Acts 2:6)

Growth-restricting obstacle #4: Using the wrong methods.

Any farmer knows you can’t harvest ripe wheat with a corn-picker. Using inappropriate methods can be worse than no methods, since they create resistance to the gospel. A bullhorn on a downtown street corner, English tracts in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, youth outreach in a senior adult community…none of these methods are wrong. But they are inappropriate for the harvest field.  (see Mt. 7:9)

Growth-restricting obstacle #5: No plan for assimilation.

Over 80 percent of those who drop out of church do so in the first year of their membership. A new member does not automatically become an active member without an intentional plan by the church on how to assimilate them into a caring, loving, Christian community.  (see Eph. 2:19)

There are many reasons why churches don’t grow. But there are no good reasons. Healthy churches grow. God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out what’s keeping it from growing, and removing those obstacles. What about your church?

NOTE: For more on how to identify and smash obstacles to your church’s growth, see the new book WHAT EVERY PASTOR SHOULD KNOW—101 Rules for Effective Leadership and Ministry for Your Church  (Baker Publishing.)  And, watch for the new “Church Revitalization Certificate” available through Wesley Seminary in early 2015!

How to “Hit a Home Run” in Your Next Sermon Series… (Charles Arn)

Here’s how to be guaranteed that listeners will eagerly anticipate your next series of messages, waiting to hear your words—and God’s—on the selected topic.

First, some background…

A few years ago the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps asked me to research the attitudes of incoming 18-, 19-, and 20-year old recruits toward religion and church.  I interviewed young men and women across mainstream America.  One of the questions I asked was, “What is your opinion of church?”  Two words came back over and over: boring and irrelevant.

“Relevance” is one of the hallmarks of an effective, contagious church. Attendees who find their church speaking clearly and creatively to life issues not only return, but bring friends. “Relevance” is found in the words and rhythm of songs…in the style and appearance of facilities…in children’s Sunday School and topics in the adult classes.  But perhaps more than any other area, relevance must be found in the sermon.

In his book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, veteran pastor James Emery White talks about how to make preaching relevant: “The most important thing has to do with your sermon topics. They should address people’s life issues and questions about the faith… That means you try to bring as much of the counsel of God as you can to them through the door of their interests.”

How do you learn the interests, concerns, and needs of your congregation so that you can connect God’s Word with their world in a relevant way?  Rather than guess, why not ask them?

HERE’S HOW… 

Insert a 3×5 card in each church bulletin or program for the next several weeks, and point it out during the service.  Explain that one of your goals, as pastor, is to help the Word of God to be understood and applied in people’s daily lives so that it is relevant to both those in the church, and those in the community.  Describe the purpose of the card—to list key life issues they are facing at the moment.

Give listeners time to think about their responses to three questions, and then write them down on the card. At the end of the service attendees should drop their completed “answer cards” in one of several marked boxes on their way out. The cards should, of course, be anonymous.

THE QUESTIONS ?

  1. What do you wonder about?  What do you just not understand—or wish you did understand—about how life works?  Is it “Why bad things happen to good people?”  Or, maybe “Does prayer really work?”  Perhaps you wonder about “What happens when you die?” or “Why do innocent children suffer?”  If more than one thing comes to mind, write them all down.
  2. What do you worry about?  What keeps you up at night; causes your heart to beat faster, your anxiety to rise?  Perhaps it’s a financial issue.  Maybe a relationship gone bad.  Is there realistic hope in your worse case scenario?
  3. What do you wish for?  If money were no obstacle, time or other commitments could not stop you, what is your dream?  What would you love to see, or do?  Maybe travel somewhere. Have lots of money.  A particular job, or a special relationship?  Dreams are powerful motivators.  What’s yours?

After the service, collect the cards.  Repeat the process for the next two weeks so that people can add additional items, and those who did not attend the previous week can contribute.

On your computer create three different documents (one for each question) and transcribe the responses.  (Asking a secretary or volunteer to help may be a better use of your time.)

Then, review the responses to each question and look for common themes.  Identify general response categories for each question and make tic marks (IIII) for similar answers.  Finally, identify the most frequent responses to each question.  Once you have identified what people wonder about…worry about…wish for… you have tapped into relevance.

Your congregation will be interested in the results.  On the Sunday after your last survey, share the list and frequency of the responses.  A visual illustration or printed document will add interest.

Explain that you will be taking these responses seriously, doing research, and sharing messages in the coming months that speak to these issues.  If you are organized enough, print a list of upcoming dates in which the service will address these topics.  Encourage members to bring a friend or relative on the day(s) which may be relevant to them.

AND THEN…

Ask a group of creative people to help you plan the services.  Use the entire service to focus on the issue.  Consider drama, a panel discussion, personal testimonies, video clips.  You have an hour to address the issue.  Remember that the sermon is not the message…the service is the message.  Make it a comprehensive and engaging growth experience.

Use the series as an opportunity to invite past visitors, parents of VBS kids, inactive members, and other groups with whom you have a connection.  And in this context, communicate to all who come that Christ’s “…grace is sufficient for all your needs”  (2nd Cor. 12:9).  That’s another name for relevance!

 

“New” … Works! (Charles Arn)

Here’s a growth axiom you can take to the bank.  Whether you are pastoring a (large, medium, or small) church…leading a youth group…overseeing a music ministry…or involved with any other aspect of a church in which you believe God desires growth, it is just about guaranteed.  Here it is:

New Units = New Growth

 It’s a proven principle.  New Sunday school classes attract new people.  New small groups involve new people.  New worship services connect with new people.  New churches reach new people.

Why It Works

 The most common application of this principle is in starting new groups.  Here is why the strategy of starting new groups is so predictably successful:

•  New groups respond to human need.  In long-established groups, members just like to be together.  Relationships have become the primary value.  And that’s good.  But, often such groups lose their outward-focus and no longer contribute to the growth of the church.  Starting a new group focuses on a specific human need(s) and how the new group will meet that need.  Starting new groups directs a church’s focus outward.

•  New groups involve new people.  Because new groups focus on meeting needs, those who were not previously involved in a group are much more likely to sign up if the new group addresses their need.  And, the more important the need of the prospective attendee, the more likely he/she will take the risk of joining the new group.

•  New groups assimilate people.  The research is clear: The #1 reason people drop out of church is a lack of friendships—the average active member has seven, the average drop-out has two.  Friendship is the “glue” that keeps people involved.  The best way to make new friends in church is to be involved in a small group.  And people with friends…stay.

•  New groups solve the “saturation” problem.  Here’s another fascinating insight from research: Every small group has a “saturation point.”  Just like a saturated sponge that can no longer hold any more water, groups become saturated to where they can no longer hold any more members.  Approximately 90% of all groups saturate after two years together.  So, if all or most of the groups in your church have been together for over two years, you urgently need to start new groups!

Below is a “template”—in the form of ten questions—that will help you successfully start new groups.  When you can answer these questions, you will be well on your way toward new growth through new groups.  And, by the way, when your new groups are focused on connecting with UNCHURCHED people, you will have taken a giant step toward greater outreach, as well.  (See my article on “side doors” for more on this topic.)

How to Start a New Group

 1.  Who is our target audience?

2.  What kind of group would best meet their needs?

3.  How will potential group members be identified?

4.  What are the specific goals of the group?

5.  Who will lead the group?

6.  Will training be necessary for the leader?  If so, how will it occur?

7.  How will we  publicize the group and attract visitors?

8.  When and where will the group meet?

9.  What support will the group and leader need to assure success?

10.  How will this group contribute to the purpose of our church?

New What Else?

The principle of starting new units is like pixie-dust.  New groups?  It works!  New classes?  It works!  New services?  It works!  New churches?  It works!

Here’s one more mind-stretcher.  If you are in a church of 50-75+ average worship attendance, consider the possibility of starting a new site!  “Multi-site” is a rather new idea on the American church landscape, but simply refers to one church meeting in multiple locations.  It’s another application of our “new units = new growth” principle.

The multi-site idea has traditionally been a strategy of larger churches (1000+).  But I would urge readers to consider the idea of adding a new site … even if you have just 50 people in your present worship service. I was recently invited by Warren Bird of Leadership Network, to chat on this topic.  Here’s a link to their 8-minute video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FL7zqOOsN8A&feature=youtu.be

(For more helpful tips on effective small groups, see Chapter 5 in the new book, What Every Pastor Should Know.)

Do You Treat Your Church Newcomers Like Cancer Patients? … I Hope So! (Charles Arn)

Date: October 18, 2013  (Friday)
Time: 02:35 p.m.
Place: California Urology Medical Clinic, Pomona California 

“Dr. Arn…your biopsy came back positive.  I’m afraid you have prostate cancer.”

I thought he must have been talking to someone else in the room.  But we were alone…and the doctor was looking straight at me.

“Are you sure?” was all I could think of to say.

“Well, you are certainly welcome to get another opinion. But these biopsies are seldom wrong.”

“So, now what?” I asked, which led to a 20-minute conversation about what this newly discovered disease was…how far advanced it might be…and what were the options.

To make a long story short, three months after the biopsy report I had an IV in my arm and was being wheeled down the hallway at the City of Hope Medical Center to what would be a 3-hour surgery. (Robotic-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy to be exact.) For those of you (men) who have been there and done that, I won’t remind you. For those who haven’t, I won’t bore you. But as I think back on the events of the past three months, I’d like to share with you what I learned from hospital staff, doctors, nurses, and even patients at the City of Hope about being a newcomer. I realize that a cancer hospital may not be the first place you would look for insights on welcoming church visitors and new members. But then, again, maybe there are more similarities than we might think…

They Anticipated My Uncertainty. Turning into the hospital driveway, I came upon a kiosk with a large sign: INFORMATION. I stopped, rolled down the window, and received a warm welcome from the man inside. I was given a brochure of the hospital, a map, a letter from the CEO, and told of the complimentary valet parking for first-time guests.
APPLICATION QUESTION: What and where is the first contact you have with your newcomers?
Do you control that contact and make a good first impression, or just hope that it happens?

“First time?” I was asked by a smiling lady as I entered the lobby. It must have been my body language. I’ve been told that a good host can spot a newcomer a mile away.

“Yes,” I responded.

She escorted me to the “Welcome Desk” where three people stood ready to help. After explaining that my wife and I were there to see a certain doctor, the host called a man over and told him where we needed to go. Bill introduced himself as a volunteer and said, “Just stick with me and I’ll show you the quickest way.” I learned, in our hallway conversation, that Bill was an 11-year veteran who had fought and won the same battle in which I was now engaged. I felt an instant bond and wanted to ask him a dozen questions.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you have volunteers available to help guests find their way?
Do you match newcomers with members who share things in common?

“We Are Family Here”. More than once I heard this phrase spoken by staff, volunteers, and patients. The words appear in the hospital’s literature and billboards around town. After my surgery I reflected on the value of family. My wife had taken time off work, my mom and sister had visited me after surgery. Other family members around the country had kept in regular contact. The faith, hope, and love one finds in a healthy family is a particular blessing in times of need. I thought about those patients who had no spouse to push their wheelchair, no parents or children to visit and pray for them. The City of Hope motto—“We are family here”— makes sense, especially for those who don’t have any other.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you intentionally nurture a sense of “family” (i.e., caring, support, love) in your congregation? Do newcomers experience it, or is it just for the old-timers?

Someone to Hold Your Hand. On the second visit I was introduced to my “patient navigator” and given his e-mail and direct phone number. If I had questions, he either knew the answer or would find the right person to call me back. In addition, I received a directory of names and contact information for key people in the hospital.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do your new members have someone to help them get involved and connected in the early stages of their relationship with your church? More members drop out in their first year than any other time.

A Connection Center. In a 20’ x 40’ open area, plus several private conference rooms, information was available on various support groups that were sponsored by the hospital. A variety of free mini-books were provided on anything related to cancer. I was given a flyer and explanation of when and where the next prostate cancer workshop would be held. There were free DVDs of staff physicians giving lectures on various topics. Times for the new patient/ family orientation were posted. I could pick out a Christmas ornament, hat, or scarf from a collection that had been handmade by volunteers for patients/families. Here I discovered that a social worker had been assigned to me, and a volunteer walked me down the hall for a pleasant introduction.
APPLICATION QUESTION: How do you introduce your church’s ministries, groups, and activities to newcomers? Do you have descriptive literature and knowledgeable volunteers to help newcomers connect to places, people, and events?

Places to Contribute. Sitting in the lobby waiting for my blood work, I was surprised to hear the melodic notes of a harp. (My first thought, as you might suspect, was to check and be sure I wasn’t in heaven.) It turned out the harpist was a volunteer who had been sharing her talent with patients for the past seven years.
APPLICATION QUESTION: Do you have positions where church members can contribute their gifts and skills toward the mission of your church? Create roles that complement the strengths that your members already have.

Well, there is more to say than I have space…or you have time. So, here are just a few final observations:
Great signage all over campus. Do newcomers know how to get where they want to go in your church?
My wife loved the creative and tasteful decorations. How is the interior décor in your facility?
Literature available in multiple locations. Why limit visitor information to one place in your church?
Floors, windows, and walls were spotless. How would the cleanliness of your buildings compare to a hospital?
A website full of helpful information. What do prospective visitors think about your church based on your website?
A billboard near our house says, “At City of Hope, we live to cure prostate cancer.” How does your church communicate who you are and what you’re all about to the community?
Volunteers and staff seemed like they actually enjoyed what they were doing. What’s the attitude your people bring to church?

In my post-operative consultation a week after surgery, the doctor looked carefully at the test results, then turned to me and said: “You’re cancer free.” I must admit that as those words sunk in, I could not hold back tears. It was probably a variety of emotions. But as I look back on that moment, I recall the joy of realizing that I was free from the ravaging effects of cancer. I can’t help but compare the experience to the joy of realizing that, through Christ, we are free from the ravaging effects of sin. And while a good hospital facilitates the healing of our physical body, a good church should facilitate the healing of our spiritual body. More than one person has shed tears of joy upon realizing that they have been healed by Christ…for eternity!

When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.  I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”  Mark 2:17 (NLT)

hospital(CA)

As you might guess, this was taken BEFORE surgery! :)

Charles Arn is Visiting Professor of Outreach at Wesley Seminary, and co-author of the new book, What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Rules of Thumb for Effective Ministry (recently awarded OUTREACH Magazine’s 2014 Book of the Year in the field of Leadership).

SIDE DOORS—How to Open Your Church to Your Community…and Vice Versa (Charles Arn)

Anyone who has written a book knows the feeling of satisfaction when you finally see your long, hard hours of work make it to the printed page. (It usually takes about a year even after the completed manuscript is turned over to the publisher before the book finally arrives!)

So, I am particularly excited about a book I have been working on for nearly ten years which Wesley Publishing House will soon be releasing—Side Door. It’s my effort to share with church leaders a powerful missional process that has a proven track record in almost every larger growing church today. But the strategy of building church side doors is definitely not limited to larger churches. In fact, it has tremendous potential for medium and smaller sized churches that want to “break the mold” of traditional (and often ineffective) outreach methods, and begin a strategic new missional ministry in their community.

I have reproduced a conversation that recently appeared in the Wesley Publishing House blog about the idea of side doors. I hope you find it instructive in learning more about the principles behind the book, and that you will be encouraged to consider how a side door building strategy could be a breakthrough for new ministry and outreach in your church…

Wesley Publishing House: Thanks for joining us, Dr. Arn! Your book is called Side Door. What is that all about?

Charles Arn: Every church has a metaphorical “front door”— referring to the people who visit on Sunday, some of whom like the church and stay. Then, of course, every church has a “back door”— those people who leave through transfer, inactivity, or death. “Side doors” add a positive new aspect to the “people flow” equation of a local church, and provide a tremendous opportunity to increase the number who become part of their faith community.

WPH: So, what exactly is a “side door”?

Arn:  A side door is a church-sponsored program, group, or activity in which non-members can become comfortably involved on a regular basis.  Such gatherings provide an opportunity for non-members to develop meaningful and valued relationships with people in the church.  The goal of an effective side door is to provide a place where participants (both Christians and non-Christians) can develop friendships around something important that they share in common.

WPH:  Why are side doors so important?

Arn: A big problem most plateaued and declining churches have is that their major source of prospective members comes from their church visitors. This passive approach is becoming less and less effective as fewer and fewer people take the initiative to visit church. In contrast, side doors are a “proactive” way to increase the number of connections the church has with unchurched people, and then nurture those connections into genuine and meaningful relationships with members.

WPH: What are some examples of church side doors?

Arn: Most successful side doors are started by lay people, and are based around special interests, needs, concerns, or passions. A side door can grow out of a recreational interest or a significant life experience. It can focus on a specific age, or span generations. It can be based on a challenging circumstance or a favorite past time. Todd Pridemore, an associate pastor in Missouri and practiced facilitator of side doors in his church, says: “There is almost no activity that is so secular that it cannot be used to create a side door into your congregation.” What makes side doors work is that they bring together people who have something in common.

For example, I have seen successful side door groups in churches for people who: ride motorcycles…have children in the military…own RVs…are recent widowers…are newlyweds…enjoy reading books…are unemployed…suffer from chronic pain…have husbands in jail…enjoy radio controlled airplanes…are nominal Jews…have spouses who are not believers…are fishermen… are single moms…want to get in better physical condition…wish to help homeless families…play softball…are interested in end-times…have a bed-ridden parent…are raising grandchildren.  When I think of the hundreds of possibilities for creative side doors, I can’t help but be reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor. 9:22).

WPH: So, the key to a successful side door group is that it’s based on people’s interests?

Arn: Exactly. Pastors have told us that one of their greatest challenges is motivating people to be involved in the ministry and work of the church. As a result, in most churches, 10% of the members end up doing 90% of the work.  But the idea of starting new ministries around topics that people are already interested in means that pastors don’t need to try and change people’s interests, they simply need to channel them!  That is, churches with a good side door strategy allow people to do what they already like to do…but now it’s with a great commission purpose.

WPH: Most larger churches have a variety of these creative side door groups and activities.  But what about smaller churches?

Arn: While side doors are an important part of the growth mix in many larger congregations, it is a strategy that is also very well suited for churches under 200. The personal relationships that develop among people in these side door groups provide the best way for smaller churches to connect with people in their community, particularly since they can’t compete with the facilities or programming of larger churches. The key to effective community outreach is: meaningful relationships with unchurched people. Any size church can—and should—be doing that.  Building side doors is simply an easy, yet effective way to do so.

WPH: Why did you write this book?

Arn: In my 30+ years of church consulting, I’ve become convinced that side doors work. The examples are all over. I wrote this book because I have found that many pastors and lay church leaders are not aware of:
1. what side doors are, or how missionally effective they can be
2. how to go about building them in their church

So, my goal in this book is to introduce this important idea to readers, and then provide a hands-on guide for how to apply it.

Speaking of applying the idea of side doors, I am also very excited about a free resource that Wesley Publishing House is providing to readers. It is an 80-page downloadable workbook called the “Side Door Planning Guide.” This is a practical guide, especially for laypersons who have an interest in starting a new ministry around their passion. For example, suppose you are a pastor and you approach several young motorcycle enthusiasts in your church with the idea of starting a motorcycle ministry. Their first question will likely be: “How would we do that?” This 80-page guide is the answer to that question. It’s a workbook that provides a step-by-step process for starting a successful new ministry. The book (Side Door), together with the guidebook (“Side Door Planning Guide”) are a powerful combination of tools to help any church apply this idea in their context.

WPH: What one message do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Arn: It is that fewer and fewer people are visiting churches today. If your church is primarily dependent on visitors as your source of new members, the handwriting is on the wall. Your church will die. You need a new approach to connect with the people in your community and see them become part of the Christian family.  I can guarantee that—when done right—side doors will help you do that.

Pre-order your copy of Side Door from WPH at 800-493-7539.

“Charles Arn’s Side Door is a much-needed resource for the church…”   Jim Dunn (Executive Director, Church Multiplication and Discipleship, The Wesleyan Church)

“Side doors are a very useful approach that can help churches become more missional.  This is a well-articulated book…”  Alan Hirsch (author, missional spokesperson)

Side Door is a must-read for missional practitioners looking to connect incarnationally with their communities…”   Mike Slaughter (pastor, Tipp City, OH)

 

Are Your Church Facilities an Obstacle to Growth? (Charles Arn)

Check out the interior of national chain stores in your neighborhood (grocery, pharmacy, clothing, restaurants, etc.). On average, retail businesses remodel their facilities every 4-7 years, and with good reason. There’s something about “new.” New additives to toothpaste…new vitamin potency in cereal…new styles in cars…new versions of software. “New” attracts. By contrast, most churches renovate their facilities every 25-40 years; some go even longer without an extreme home make-over.

If your church building is over 15 years old, it is probably a growth-restricting obstacle.

When it comes to church visitors, you don’t have a second chance for a good first impression. And, one of the first impressions visitors have of your church is its building; first the outside, then the inside. Visitors don’t need to be professional architects to sense that the ceiling is too low, the halls too narrow, the windows outdated, or the color schemes from a different generation. Marshal McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message.” Your building is the medium.

The design and architecture of your church actually has a much more important influence on your visitors than it does on your regular attendees. Why? The longer a person is at your church, the less he/she is able to see the building through the eyes of a newcomer. Members don’t notice the rain marks in the ceiling, the chipped paint on the wall, the hole in the carpet. And, for long-time attendees, those things don’t really matter because they are coming for the people, the relationships, the fellowship, the spiritual growth…not the facilities. But for visitors with none of these reasons to attend, other things shape their first impressions…and your building is one of them.

Facilities also have an effect on a church’s corporate self-esteem. The effect is similar to the way your house or apartment subtly influences your own self-esteem. If you live with junk in the backyard, unwashed dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor, rooms in need of paint…it affects your self-image, whether you know it or not. And, with such an appearance, do you want company dropping in unannounced? Probably not. When you are expecting guests you probably pick up your clothes, clean the kitchen, and put on your house’s best face. Why not have the same attitude about your church facility and the guests who are coming to visit God’s house?

While nice facilities won’t cause your church to grow, poor facilities can prevent it from growing.

What You Can Do About It

An outsider’s perspective is quite valuable. Invite a friend or neighbor who has never been on your church campus to walk through the facility with you. The “visit” need not be on Sunday. First, drive by and around the church. Then park and walk toward, and eventually into, the building. Ask the person(s) to “free-flow” about their impressions, sharing what catches their attention, what they like, what they don’t like, what they aren’t sure about. Either take notes or use a recorder to document their comments. Tell them not to worry about hurt feelings—you want their honest first impressions.

Conduct this exercise at least three times with three different people. That way you won’t put all your “eggs” into one person’s “basket”. See if different people notice the same things. Finally, compile your notes into categories and review them. You don’t need to make every suggested change. But you do need to know how visitors and newcomers see your facilities.

A Christian architect recently told me that the more an interior of a church looks like the facilities people are in during the week (i.e., decor, restrooms, lights, paint, doors, classrooms), the more likely the facility will present a positive first impression. Conversely, the more out-of-date that facilities appear, the more negative are their first impressions. When a visitor enters a church building that is 50+ years old—and it looks it—he/she is subconsciously wondering: Is the message of this church as outdated as its building?

Here’s a starting checklist to evaluate your facilities. Grade each item on a 1-7 scale
(1 = “poor” 7 = “excellent”). Perhaps have different people share in this exercise and then compare notes; it’s a great conversation starter!

Building
Ease in finding the location … First impressions from the outside … First impressions of the inside upon entering … Impressions after walking around

Parking
Appearance … Adequacy of spaces … Proximity to entrance

Signs
Directions from parking area to appropriate building entrance … Where to get information … Directions to the sanctuary/worship center … Directions to the restrooms … Directions to the nursery

Nursery
First impressions upon entering … Confidence in security … Confidence in nursery staff … Impressions upon leaving nursery

Sanctuary/Worship Center
First impressions upon entering … Visibility of platform… Sound/acoustics … Ease in finding a seat … Seat comfort … Lighting

Restrooms
First impressions upon entering … Adequate number to accommodate everyone in 15 minutes … Cleanliness

Classrooms
First impressions upon entering … Adequate furniture for age level … Room décor

The story of the paraplegic who was brought to Jesus (see Mark 2:1-5) presents us with several pointed questions: “Are our facilities keeping people from Jesus?” And, if so, “Are we willing to tear up our roof (and, perhaps other parts of our building) in order to let them be healed?”

Selective Evangelism (Charles Arn)

If your church could reach more people for Christ by focusing on one “people group” in your community, would you do so?

Certain people around your church are more receptive to the Gospel than others.  I suggest that good stewardship of your church’s human and fiscal resources calls you to find and focus on these receptive people.  They are the “fertile soil” (see Mt. 13:1-23) who are “ripe unto harvest” (Jn. 4:35).  And your successful evangelistic results will be praised by the Master with the same words heard by those who returned more talents than they had been given: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (see Mt. 25:14-30).

The “Receptivity-Resistance Axis” below illustrates a person’s openness to becoming a new creation in Christ.  Every non-Christian is somewhere on this Axis.

screenshot_75

Some people are open and responsive to the Good News—the “good soil,” as Christ described them in the Parable of the Sower.  Others are resistant to the Gospel—the rocky soil.  When Jesus concluded this parable with, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” I believe he was suggesting that the Good News we proclaim will not be received with equal receptivity.  And we are called to identify those who will hear, listen, and respond.

It is also important to note that people are always moving on this Receptivity-Resistance Axis; some are moving toward greater receptivity, others toward greater resistance.

A key question I hope you’re asking is: “How do we identify the receptive people in our community?”

One proven way is through life events.  Or, more specifically, transitional life events.  Here is the principle: The more disruptive a life event is to a person’s psychological equilibrium, the more it will cause him/her to be spiritually receptive.

Robert Pierson rightly observes: “People most often make decisions for Christ when they are going through transitions. Most do not make decisions about new commitments and directions in their life when everything is going well. We make those decisions when we are in the midst of stress and difficulty. When the church is there to help and share the gospel at the point of their greatest need, people respond, because those are the times people are the most open” (Needs-Based Evangelism, Abingdon Press, 2006, p. 28).

The “Social Readjustment Scale” below was originally developed by two cardiology researchers at the University of Washington Medical Center.  The events were identified as precipitators of a heart attack.  (The numbers to the right are the relative severity of the event, from 1-100.)  I, and other researchers, have found that these same events are also excellent indicators of a person’s openness (receptivity) to Christian conversion.

Put simply, people who rate high on this Scale will be more receptive to repentance and conversion than those who rate lower.  And, when multiple events occur, in relative proximity, receptivity increases even more.

screenshot_74

As you think and pray about responding to Christ’s command to “…go and make disciples,” use this “Stress Scale” as one way to begin identifying the people in your community whom the Holy Spirit may be preparing to invite into the Kingdom—through you and your church.  Creative, caring, genuine, need-meeting Christian love—at these times when people are most receptive—will bring great fruit.  Watch… listen…be sensitive to these windows of opportunity… and then be ready to “give witness to the hope that is within you” 
(I Pe. 3:15).

 (For more on applying the principle of receptivity in your church, see “The Receptivity Rule” in What Every Pastor Should Know, by Gary McIntosh & Charles Arn, Baker Books, 2013.)

[i] T. Holmes and R. Rahe, “The Social Readjustment Scale,” The Journal of Psychosomatic Research 2, 213-218.  Copyright by Elsevier Science, Inc.

Are You Helping—or Hurting—Your Mission? (Charles Arn)

One of the keys to a church’s missional success is how its members are deployed. There are two approaches—one facilitates the church’s mission; the other often frustrates it.  Few in the church ever clarify this choice, but every church makes it, and every church lives with the consequences of its choice.

The institutional approach to lay ministry begins with the needs of the institution.  Every church needs Sunday school teachers, committee members, musicians, ushers.  In the institutional approach, when a job opens up, the response is to search for a person who seems most suitable to fill it and/or is most likely to say yes.  Success, in such churches, is when a member says, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  Hopefully the person is qualified, gifted, and motivated for that ministry; but there are no guarantees.  If it turns out there is a mismatch between member and task, the result is a job poorly done and a member mostly frustrated.  “Plugging warm bodies into ministry slots in a congregation,” says Pam Heaton, “tends to increase volunteer burnout, dissatisfaction, and departure.”[i]  With the institutional approach to lay ministry, church members exist to serve the needs of the institution.

The individual approach is far less widely practiced, but significantly more effective for missional success.  Here the goal is not to fill a vacancy but to find or create a place where members can joyfully and productively participate in the mission.  Rather than beginning with the needs of the institution, the individual approach begins with the strengths of the person.  Church members are encouraged to try a position related to their interest and see how it fits.  If it does, the member may choose to spend more time in that ministry and/or receive additional training.  If the task is not comfortable, or the person does not feel a sense of calling, he or she is guided to explore other ministries that might be a better fit.  If a match cannot be found, creating a new ministry is explored.  In the individual approach to lay ministry the institution exists for the benefit of the people rather than the people for the benefit of the institution.

Consider the difference in results of these two approaches to lay ministry…screenshot_611

Take a Lay Ministry Check-Up…

The chart below can help you discern whether your present approach to lay ministry is increasing or decreasing the liklihood of missional success. First, write in line 1 the number that represents your total church constituency—all church members, plus regular attenders who are not officially members (above age thirteen).  Next, determine in which column your church falls on rows 2-18.  All the numbers in the chart are percentages.  Calculate your percentages based on your total church constituency (line 1), unless otherwise noted.

If you find your scores are primarily in the left columns, it is likely that your members are seen as “workers” and the focus of your ministry is on the church institution.  The farther your scores are to the right, the more likely your members are seen as “ministers,” and the focus of your ministry is on people.

screenshot_645

Ask a team of 3-4 people in your church to do this research and report back what they have found.  Then use the following questions to focus discussion among your leaders about how to best accomplish the work Christ has given your church:

  1. On which side of the chart do most of our scores fall?
  2. Are the results of this assessment consistent with our previous perceptions?
  3. Which items seem to be most important to address?
  4. What activities do we engage in that have brought us to this point?  Can they, or should they, be changed?
  5. What steps would be involved in moving toward an individual approach to lay ministry, and away from an institutional approach?

(See What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Rules for Effective Church Leadership [Gary McIntosh & Charles Arn] for more practical tools on this and other topics related to church health/growth.  Available April, 2013 from Baker Books.)

[i] Pam Heaton, “Every Church Needs a Profiler” at BuildingChurchLeaders.com, http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/downloads/practicalministryskills/cultivatingactivechurchmembers/ps07-g.html

Pastoral Longevity and Church Growth (Charles Arn)

Several years ago a study by the largest Protestant denomination in the country found a startling relationship between the length of time pastors had been in their churches, and the growth or decline of those churches.  Their finding?  Approximately 3/4 of their growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than four years, while 2/3 of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than four years.  Their conclusion (with which I agree):  Long-term pastorates do not guarantee that a church will grow.  But short-term pastorates essentially guarantee that a church will not grow.

So, why do pastors leave their churches?  Here are the results of one study where pastors were asked that question …There is an undeniable relationship between pastoral tenure and church growth.  While most growing churches have long-term pastorates, and some non-growing churches have long-term pastorates, it is almost unheard of to find a growing church with many short-term pastorates.  Frequent change of pastors seems to negate all the other complicated ingredients that go into a church’s growth mix.

What To Do About It

If you are a pastor, personally and publicly commit to staying in your church for least seven years.  (The average pastoral tenure is less than four years.)  You may get an itch to leave sooner.  But if you stay into the sixth or seventh year, you will likely begin to experience unsurpassed effectiveness and fruitfulness.  Once you get past year seven there’s a good chance you’ll want to stay much longer.  I agree with Roger Parrot, who says: “Lead as if you’ll be there forever!  Imagine that the organization and position you are in right now is what God wants you to do for the rest of your professional life” (Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders,  Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2009, p. 19).

I was curious about pastoral longevity in the Wesleyan Church.  A more comprehensive and correlational study should be done, but last week I called the 25 largest churches in our denomination to find out:  1) When the church was founded,  2) How long the present senior/lead pastor has been at the church, and  3) How long the previous senior/lead pastor had been at the church.  What’s your guess?

Senior pastors in the 25 largest Wesleyan churches have been serving in their position for an average of 17.8 years!  The previous pastors of these same churches had been there an average of 15.2 years.  And 4 of the churches are being led by their founding pastors, who have been there an average of 18.2 years.

Of course, it may be demotivating to imagine being in a church where you see no likelihood of a growing ministry or influence.  But why not have faith that there is sufficient opportunity where God has placed you in that church and community…and your task is to tap into it?  Don’t fall for the myth that greater ministry is somewhere else!  When you plan to stay where you are for the next 20 years, you will approach your ministry with a commitment that will be unshaken by the winds of change, challenge, and time.

But…

If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s good advice for most pastors, but…” don’t let these excuses masquerade as reasons to move:

More money.  Human nature is always dissatisfied, however much we make.
Conflict.  Another characteristic of human nature: conflict is anywhere there are people.
You’re getting stale.  Commit to being a life-time learner. It will keep you and your church in touch with today’s issues.
Greener pastures.  See Philippians 4:12.
Boredom.  To quote Rick Warren, “It’s not about you.”
Burn-out.  Whether you have reached that point or not, take time to retreat and renew.
An exploratory call.  We all like to be liked. But just because a church is calling doesn’t mean God is.
• You’re out of sermons.  If that’s your reason for moving, I suggest you shouldn’t be in the ministry.
Too much pressure.  So your next church will be without pressure?  If your motivation to move is to avoid pressure, see the response above.

If you are a lay church leader, the next time you look for a new pastor, make intended longevity a criteria.  If you are a denominational leader, encourage pastors to remain faithful rather than abandon their church in difficult times.

I believe there is a relationship between the three following statistics:
1.  A pastor’s most productive time usually begins in years 5, 6, and 7;
2.  The average pastoral tenure in Protestant churches is less than 4 years;
3.  Nearly 85% of today’s churches are not growing.

It’s sad that the vast majority of pastors miss potentially their most fruitful—and enjoyable—years of ministry.  Remember the Apostle Paul’s wise counsel:  “So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good.  At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.  Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith” (Gal. 6:9-10 The Message).