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)