The front doors of many churches today are closing. “Front doors” is a term that describes how most newcomers first come in contact with a church—as visitors to worship or to some other special event. It is out of this visitor pool that churches have traditionally identified prospective new members. However, in the past 20 years both the total number of church visitors has been declining, as well as the percentage of visitors to total attendance in most churches.
If you want to see your church survive, let alone thrive, I suggest that you build some new “side-doors” that will create new ways to connect with people in your community.
What is a “side-door”? Here is a definition:
Side-door: A church-sponsored program, group, or activity in which a non-member/non-Christian can become comfortably involved and develop meaningful relationships with people in the church.
A side-door provides a place where church members and non-members develop friendships around something important they share in common. And such friendships are an important key that describes the most important means by which people come to Christ and the church. (See The Silver Bullet for Disciple-Making.)
Here are just a few examples of actual side-doors that churches have created where members and non-members are developing friendships around common interests. There are side-doors 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 • are nominal Jews • have spouses who are not believers • are fishermen • are single mothers • 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 • are moms with teenage daughters • need help managing their finances • enjoy scrap-booking • are children in blended families • have children with a learning disability • are married to men who travel frequently • enjoy radio controlled airplanes • are pregnant • are affected by homosexuality • struggle with chemical dependency • are empty-nesters • enjoy camping • are divorced with no children • have a family member diagnosed with cancer • are single dads • enjoy SCUBA diving • are hearing-impaired …and that’s just a start!
About 10% of the churches in the United States are side-door churches in which “…most of the new people who connect with the church made first contact through a ministry other than the worship service.” We also know that approximately 14% of churches in the U.S. are experiencing growth in the worship attendance. While I have not tried to correlate these two numbers, it would not be surprising to find a strong relationship between “side-door churches” and “growing churches”. Rev. Craig Williford, recalling his experience in leading two growing churches, says: “Our weekend services were very vital. But the side door ministries produced more evangelism and brought far more new people into our church.”
What You Can Do About It
How can your church begin creating side doors—new groups, new classes, new activities where members and non-members can build friendships? Here are some guidelines for starting new side-doors:
1. Find the Passion. Everyone in your church cares deeply about something; sometimes it’s a number of things. Such passion generally falls into one of two categories: “Recreational” or “Developmental”. The first relates to how people like to spend their free time. Topics may range from baking apple pies to studying zoology. The second category, Developmental, relates to major life issues. Topics usually center around: health, finances, relationships, or employment.
2. Hold an “exploratory” meeting. Invite three or more people who share the same passion to a brainstorming session to discuss the idea of your church starting a new ministry for people who —– [the area of passion]. Include an announcement in the church bulletin inviting interested worshippers to the meeting. Explain that participants in the meeting are not being asked to get involved in the project, just to share their ideas and brainstorm possibilities for a new ministry. Gather the group, perhaps over a meal, and explore the possibilities of your church starting such a ministry. Explain that one of the primary purposes of the new ministry is to build friendships with non-members through connecting around a common interest. Let the meeting take its course, and see what kind of interest is generated. If there is any enthusiasm, take the next step:
3. Research other churches. Chances are good that there are churches that have already developed a creative ministry in the area you are considering. If the brainstorming group is interested and willing, ask individuals to go online and search out any other churches that might have a ministry for people with that particular interest. Then compare notes with others who have done similar research.
4. Describe what such a ministry could look like in five years. Assess the enthusiasm of the group in taking the next step to explore a new ministry. Don’t expect 100% success in all exploratory gatherings. If there aren’t at least three people with the desire to help start a new ministry, put the idea on the back burner. You’re looking for a spark of enthusiasm that might catch hold of a group of dreamers in your church.
5. Form a “Ministry Planning Team” with at least three people who are willing to help build a new ministry (side-door) in your church. Develop a timeline with dates and events for the next year. Agree that in six months the activities will be evaluated as to whether there is a possible future for this new ministry idea. And discuss how the church can be most supportive in this new initiative.
There is, of course, much involved in creating a fully-functioning side-door ministry. But most growing churches today have at least one side door that grew out of the passion of members, and has become an entry-path to life in Christ and that church. Why not try it and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised…
(For a more information and a planning guide for building side doors, see the book Side Door published by Wesley Publishing House, 2013.)
 Gary McIntosh. Beyond the First Visit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006, p. 22.
 Denver Seminary Magazine: Fall 2004 Sep 15, 2004 Emergent Dialogue.