Side Doors: An Interview with Charles Arn

The following is excerpts from a fall 2014 interview with Dr. Charles Arn. The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.

Dr. Charles Arn, who resides in Glendora, California with his wife Ann, is the president of Church Growth, Inc. He has been active in the church growth movement for 30 years and has written numerous articles on the topic. He also is the author or co-author of eight books including Side Door, which is subtitled “How to open your church to reach more people”.

In this interview, Charles explains what side doors are, gives examples of side doors that are flourishing in churches today, and explains how your church can open its first side door.

The Front Door and the Back Door

Bolinger: Charles, you start your book Side Door by observing that over 80%, or four out of five, U.S. churches have attendance that is flat or declining, and then you begin discussing different “doors” in a church. Tell us first about the “front door” of a church. I mean, we’re not talking about the physical front door, so what is the “front door” of a church, and what are we seeing in terms of trends with the “front doors” of churches?

Arn: Every church has a metaphorical “front door”, which is simply the number of people who, on their own initiative, visit the church on a Sunday or weekend. Every church hopefully has some number of visitors. What’s interesting to realize is that most churches over the history of our country have depended pretty much entirely on people taking the initiative to come through their front door and visit their church, with hopefully enough of them liking the experience enough to come back and eventually stay.

Every church has a front door, but it is important to realize that, in America these days, our churches’ front doors are slowly closing. In other words, there are fewer and fewer people who are taking the initiative on their own to visit a church on a weekend. If a church is depending entirely on people taking the initiative to come to visit their church, then the handwriting on the wall is not particularly positive for the future of that church…

A church also has a “back door”, metaphorically speaking, which is people who leave the church. Perhaps they move to a different city, or they just stop attending, or they die. For whatever reason, some people go out the back door of a church.

The equation for church growth is really pretty simple in terms of the doors: growing churches have more people coming in the front door than going out the back, and for declining churches the opposite is the case.

Side Doors

Bolinger: Since four out of five churches are either flat or declining, they are bringing in fewer people through the front door than they are losing out the back.

Arn: Right. That really is the motivation behind my research and eventually writing this book on “side doors”. I’ve been fascinated with one of the aspects that is fairly common in growing churches, and that is that they have developed what I am calling “side doors”. The churches don’t necessarily call them side doors, and what you call them is not important.

Basically, a side door is where people outside the church can make contact and connection with people in the church prior to their visiting the church. Relational, friendship bridges are established in these side doors, and a side door becomes a bridge, to mix metaphors, into the church in a way that doesn’t require a person taking the initiative to visit the church on a Sunday morning as the first point of contact.

…In the book, I define a side door as a church-sponsored program or group or activity in which a non-member can become comfortably involved on a regular basis. From the research that I’ve been involved in and others have done over the years, in terms of why people come to a church, it’s amazing how consistently there is one ingredient that is present. It’s why people come to church, what they can trace their early connection to, and that is simply relationships. People come to church increasingly because of relationships…

Examples of Side Doors

…Bolinger: What are some examples of side doors that you have seen be successful with churches in terms of reaching out to their unchurched neighbors and friends and developing those relationships that are the precursor to the people outside the church feeling comfortable enough to check out the church?

Arn: There really is not one ideal side door. It’s amazing to me how creative churches are when it comes to building those side doors. I’ll just give you a couple of different examples, just reading from my book here. I’ve seen groups that have been started 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
  • Have spouses who are not believers
  • Are fishermen
  • Are single moms
  • Want to get in better condition

As you can see, a good side door grows out of the interests and passions that people already have. One of the keys for a church to start a side door is to find what is the passion of the people in the church, and how can we use that passion as a bridge or a common denominator to connect with people outside the church around that same passion.

…As I’ve been looking at churches that have these side doors, I’ve found that you can put them into one of two categories. One is recreational. Some people like to train dogs. Others like to fly radio-controlled airplanes. Others like to fly-fish. Others like to quilt or do needlepoint. So one category that people are attracted to is how they spend their spare time in recreational interest. A second broad category that causes passion or interest and can be the potential for a side door is a significant life experience. Some examples here are going through a divorce, losing a child, getting married, moving to a new location. All kinds of life experiences are important enough to us that they’re worth spending a little time learning more about and connecting with others who share similar life experiences. Within those two broad categories, really, the sky’s the limit.

What I found is the first step to a church creating a successful strategy for building side doors is to create a culture in the church – and this doesn’t happen in one simple little step or one day – that says it’s okay for you to have an idea of a new ministry in our church that is based around your interests. In fact, not only is it okay; we encourage it. We want you to come to us and talk about it. Perhaps we could use your interest in motorcycles to begin a motorcycle ministry or maybe God could use your experience at having recently lost a child to connect with other people outside the church who have gone through the same life-changing experience.

God has made you as unique as a snowflake, and it’s through some of those unique qualities and experiences and passions that you have that God can use in building a new connection and bridge to people outside the church who have those same passions and interests and concerns. So the first step is really a culture, an ongoing process. The imagery that comes to my mind is a greenhouse. You’re creating an environment where a little seed of an idea can sprout and grow and blossom and become a really exciting part of life in the church, and certainly for the people involved in the ministry.

Location

Bolinger: As you’ve been talking, Charles, about how to develop this type of culture and how to get some side doors started, I thought of several questions. Let’s start with location. When we think about starting a ministry that is designed to bring people into our church – of course, our ultimate goal if they don’t know Christ is to bring them to Christ – but then we would love to have them become a vital part of our church after that. I’m sensing that the ideal location for most side doors is not the church building. Is that correct?

Arn: That’s correct. Many people who are outside the church and who haven’t been to church for a while find going to church, going inside a church building, rather intimidating. I find myself empathizing with some of those people when I think about the prospect of going to, say, a Jewish synagogue or a Mormon temple. I haven’t been to either of those, and the prospect of going to one, just for my lack of experience with those kinds of places, is a little intimidating. It would not be something that I would go out of my way to be a part of.

Place is an important part. Ideally, it is a neutral location. If it’s a motorcycle ministry, then the best location is out on the road. I know of churches that have side door meetings in local libraries. Homes certainly work. It depends on the purpose or focus of the side door as to where it meets…

Three Stages of a Side Door

Arn: One of the things that’s in the book Side Door is that the more successful side doors have a goal not just of talking about motorcycles or losing a child or quilting or dog training. The goal is to develop relationships between each other.

As I observed many of these churches and the side door process that they were involved in, I came up with three stages of a side door, or a three-step process:

  1. Begin with felt needs: the felt need of the loss of a child, the felt need to ride motorcycles, etc. It’s the agenda of the person that I was talking about earlier.
  2. Move to deeper needs, when the relationships have become so strong and intimate and nurtured in that greenhouse where relationships can grow where the time that the folks get together for those side door gatherings is not so much to focus on the topic but just to be with each other. In these days where relationships are so few and far between, it’s like a breath of fresh air. I live in Los Angeles, and that metaphor means more out here. Being in a relationship or relationships with friends and people that you can love and trust and go to when you’re in need is something that far exceeds anything that people will ever get anywhere else – at work or in their own local social clubs.
  3. Move to eternal needs. As we discuss our deeper needs and our relationships grow, the issue of religion and faith and God and our love of Christ and forgiveness of sins and our theology come out. It doesn’t come out in the early stages. It comes out when we’re honest with ourselves and we’re struggling. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we have a faith in a God who does have the answers and we’re in his hands.

A good side door will have all three of those. It doesn’t happen on the first meeting, because the deeper needs happen and the deeper relationships happen over time. It may be months. It may be years. But that’s the guiding light that’s taking us in the direction we will go.

Leadership

Bolinger: Who should start a side door? Who should lead a side door? Does it need to be a church leader: an elder or a pastor? Can it be anyone? What are some of the issues that relate to who leads a side door?

Arn: In my study and experience with side doors, it’s that issue of leadership, more than anything else, that determines what problems a side door has and what success a side door has. What I’ve found in looking at how churches are doing this is that, as I mentioned before, it needs to begin with someone who has a passion in an area. Maybe one person, or maybe a couple of fellows or ladies, who have a passion in whatever area it may be, but it starts with a passion.

However, not every person in the church has equal leadership skills or ability to move from the present to the future in a strategic manner. So one of the things that we suggest in the book is that, once a person or several people with a passion have come to the pastor or to a church leader with the idea of starting a ministry around their passion, the church leader needs to form a team. In the book, I use the term “lay ministry planning team”. It’s a group of three to five people who agree to share the dream and the pursuit of the dream. It may be that the original visionary who had the idea of dog training or whatever as a ministry may not end up being the leader. It may be that someone else on that team is better able to organize and communicate and visualize where we’re going with this thing. So it’s a fairly important thing to find a group of people or generate a group of people who have the right mix of gifts and passions and leadership abilities.

At that point, when there’s a ministry planning team, the second suggestion that I make in the book is to get a group of maybe three to five people who are willing to pray, as a prayer support team for this new ministry. It’s not the same people who are on the planning team. It’s just a group of folks who say, “Sure, I’ll pray for you on a regular basis. Keep me informed about how things are going.”

With that combination of prayer support and leadership teamwork, the odds go up tremendously that this dream will actually become, at some point, a ministry…


For the rest of my interview with Charles Arn, pick up a copy of Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.

While you can get a copy of the book Side Door at your favorite bookstore, I encourage you to visit http://www.wesleyan.org/sidedoor. There you can get the book and the Side Door Planning Guide, an 80-page free resource that will help your church make its first side door a successful one.

Copyright 2015, 2016 Revitalize Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved.

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