Closing the Back Door

Closing the Back Door

Jan 24, 2013

Closing the Back Door

by Bill Shobe

Dodge Center, Minn.


One of the saddest occurrences in the life of a congregation is to realize that someone we had hoped would become a vital part of our church life has “disappeared.”

We look for them on a Sabbath day and find they are not sitting in their usual spot. Then we discover that it’s been weeks since anyone has seen them. Calls to inquire about them go unanswered, and we realize that we have again lost potential members.

This scenario is not unique to any church or denomination, and is far too common among most. What can we do to close the “back door” to the church and help people find reason to become and remain active in our congregations?

Feat 1 woman behind door

We are relational! Maybe too much?

In Ephesians 4:16 the Apostle Paul wrote about the church body: “…being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” I believe that Paul was noting the important role that healthy relationships have in the growth of the church. God created mankind for relationship, and growing congregations are held together by healthy relationships.

I was recently surprised when a steady newcomer to our congregation commented that our people were not very friendly. Finding the comment hard to accept, I began to look more closely at the situation. The problem I discovered was not an issue of friendliness, but rather of being relationally closed.

Many of the church members are “lifers,” having grown up and lived in the congregation for more than 30 years. When they arrive for services each week they come with a full “dance card”—meaning that they have mentally scheduled each available moment on Sabbath morning with people they need to connect with. As a result they hardly even notice the visitors and newcomers; they have their own people to see!


Um, perhaps some other time?

Many of these connections could be made on other days or at other times, but Sabbath morning has become convenient because they can take care of all their relational business at church. We must choose to seek out those “new people” before we attempt to act on our own agenda, or we will lose them. We need to ask, “Who would You have me talk with today, Lord?” as we arrive at church each week.

I am also convinced that we cannot build the deep relationships that God expects merely in the time we share together on Sabbath mornings. We need to open our lives to our visitors at times other than Sabbath. Perhaps that will involve inviting a newcomer to a Bible study, to join in a ministry group, to simply meet for coffee or come into our home for a meal. For new believers, perhaps a mentoring relationship can help them develop a more dynamic Christian experience.

According to several studies I have read, those who have three or more meaningful relationships in a congregation are the most likely to stay. Sharing “common convictions” or theology alone will not keep people engaged in our churches.


How ’bout them young adults?

The college and career-age group is another one that too often slips out the “back door.” These young adults are in a season of significant transition, especially with respect to their relationships.

Many of them finish high school to go off to college, returning home for holidays and summer break. We welcome them back, still relating to them as our “children”—failing to acknowledge their growth and maturation. In addition, their primary relationships with peers in the church undergo real stress as they spend months separated from each other and grow apart because of their differing experiences.

Virtual communication methods (Facebook, Tweeting and texting) are not sufficient to maintain relationships that need real “face time” to prosper. Others remain in the community to start careers, get married and begin families.


They are a-changin’

All of these life dynamics contribute to their own growth and personal change. We as congregations need to respond to the changes in their lives by appropriately validating their transition from youth to adulthood, and adjusting the character of our relationships with them. Otherwise we can unintentionally alienate them and discover—some months down the line—that they have slipped out that back door.

I recently looked across our congregation on a Sabbath morning and was surprised by the lack of participants ages 20-45. There were some present, but the majority were of my age group or older, and our grandchildren. Where have all the younger people gone?

Later on I reflected on those who were missing—the children of the church members—and realized that most of them are still following the Lord but living in a different part of the country. While there is some comfort in that, there are still too many others who remain in the community and not involved in any congregation. What can we do to prevent this?


Redefine those relationships

We can start by redefining our current relationships or by developing new relationships with these transitioning young adults. If we have known them for most of their lives we need to consciously begin to see them not as children and youth, but as adults. We should engage them in our ministries in ways that will involve them actively in the work of the church, while allowing them to continue to mature before placing them in roles of full responsibility.

Perhaps they can be invited to partner in your work on a committee, to team teach a children’s class, or to go out with you to make visits to the homebound or new church visitors. They may have traits that make them effective in greeting people on Sabbath morning, in serving with the music ministry, or in maintaining the church facility.

Then we can begin to reach out to them as adult friends, inviting them into our homes for meals, spending time with them in activities where we have mutual interest. Or perhaps we might invite them into a mentoring relationship, or to be a prayer partner, where a real spiritual connection can be made.

Feat 1 pizza party

Steps I have taken

I have begun to invite the students who attend college locally to a meal / fellowship time at my house on Sabbath afternoon each month. Participation varies and is informal. One week we may talk about the spiritual opposition they find on campus as we enjoy a bowl of chili, while the next month we may plan a movie marathon with pizza.

I am hoping our time together will help them through some of the pitfalls of this transition season and also allow me to sow some good spiritual seed into their lives. And of course it’s helping to build healthy relationships that can keep them following Christ and engaged in the life of the church.


I believe the key to locking the “back door” to the church is to build and maintain meaningful relationships in our congregations. It must become an intentional priority, or we will continue to lose those whom Christ is sending to add to our churches.

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