Marriage Ministry: Where Do I Begin?

Chances are that you are aware of one or more couples in your church who could use some help with their marriages. Chances are that you unaware of more couples who also need help. And, of course, you have more things to do than you can handle and more people asking for your help than you feel like you can help.

How do I know? Before I went on staff at FamilyLife, I was the pastor of three different small churches in Ohio for a total of 17 years, and that was my story at each of those churches.

So where do you begin? Let me give you three options:

  1. Connect with me. While I primarily serve churches in northeast Ohio, I can work with churches anywhere. You can use the contact form on this website to get in touch with me. Once we connect, we can set up a time to talk about some high-impact marriage resources that will take very little time for you to implement in your church and potentially help dozens of couples.
  1. Have someone in your church connect with me. I know that you are busy. Overloaded, most likely. I also know that you probably have at least one church member who has a strong interest in doing something to help others in their marriages but doesn’t know where to begin. Using the contact form on this site, provide contact information for that person, and I’ll get in touch with him or her.
  1. Have me come to your church. If you are in northeast Ohio, then you can schedule me to come and speak at your church on a Sunday morning to share about marriage ministry and some of the resources that we use to help small churches succeed in this area. If you are outside northeast Ohio, then there may be someone else on the FamilyLife team who can come to your church. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

What Small Churches Can Learn from Great Inventors

Greenfield Village

I have always had a fascination with history and especially with innovators and inventors who have changed the course of history with their creativity, skill, and just plain stubbornness in sticking to their principles and goals. That fascination, and appreciation, was sparked again this past week when I had the privilege of visiting one of my new favorite places in the world – Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. If you have never been there, this is a must-see! For those who are unfamiliar with this gem of Americana – and I was until a year ago – it is a place put together by Henry Ford where America’s past can be experienced in the present.

Ford’s idea was that “we ought to know more about the families who founded this nation, and how they lived. One way to do that is to reconstruct as nearly as possible the conditions under which they lived.” And that’s exactly what he has done at Greenfield Village, an enchanting place where there are “83 authentic historic structures, from the lab where Thomas Edison gave the world light to the workshop where the Wright Brothers gave us wings…[to] the farmhouse where Henry Ford grew up.”

As I walked through these “authentic historic structures” and listened to the actors portraying these giants of the past, it struck me that these great historical icons weren’t just technical geniuses; they also possessed a huge amount of wisdom that is still prudent for us to apply to our world today. And, I believe that is especially true for small churches.

Thomas Edison

One of the greatest minds and inventors in American history was Thomas Edison. While probably best known for inventing the light bulb (although what he really invented was a practical, long-lasting filament made of carbon fiber) and “electrifying” America, he also held an amazing 1,093 patents, which included the phonograph, movie camera, storage battery, and the electric generator. He was truly a remarkable and talented man!

But here’s the thing: the biggest reason for his success wasn’t immense talent and intellect, although he certainly possessed those traits; rather it was hard work and belief in himself. So…with that in mind, here are five great truths we can learn from the likes of Thomas Edison and other great inventors.

Lesson #1: Success Begins with Hard Work

Edison understood better than most how important hard work is in reaching one’s goals. It was not uncommon for him to work hours and days on end – often without a break –until a task was completed. He even had a bed installed in his library at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, so that he wouldn’t have to take the time to go home if he was in the middle of an important project. Now that’s an extreme that we are not recommending for pastors and church leaders, but you get the point!

Great churches don’t just happen. Certainly, anything we accomplish in life and ministry is through the grace and power of God, but there is also a huge correlation between the amount of work put into something and the results that are achieved.

Small churches are no exception. They are not going to get larger (or better) without a certain amount of sweat equity, beginning with the pastor. Anyone who thinks that a small church is an opportunity to coast or take it easy or ease into retirement or that it simply won’t make any real difference (or throw in your own excuse for not giving your best) is sadly deluding himself.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  — Thomas Edison

Tieman Edison 90 percent and hard work

Lesson #2: Never Give Up

Edison was once asked if he felt like a failure, because his thousands of attempts to invent a usable light bulb didn’t work. His reply: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”  Well, by not giving up, he finally found a filament (and a bulb created by using an innovative vacuum pump) that did work and, as they say, the rest is history. He literally changed the way that people lived and worked in America and around the world!

In a small church setting, it can be pretty easy to feel like a failure, especially when we start comparing ourselves to larger ministries around us. As a result, there is a tendency to give up, or more likely, not give our full effort. That is a huge mistake! The fact is we reap what we sow. That’s a biblical truth! (Galatians 6:7) Therefore, we need to continue to sow ministry and gospel seeds, if we want to have any hope for good results in the future. It may not happen right away – in fact, it usually doesn’t – but eventually there will be fruit! That’s God’s promise (John 15:5), and the experience of Edison, Ford, and other great inventors!

Tieman Edison try again

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford

 Lesson #3: Believe in Yourself

Henry Ford was a man who came from humble beginnings and a tough childhood. He was born on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan and his mother died when he was 13. And yet, he went on to form his own multi-national company, set the record for most cars built of any one model – the Model T – and revolutionized the manufacturing industry by perfecting the moving assembly line.

Tieman Ford

Like Thomas Edison, the reason for Ford’s success wasn’t that he was smarter than everyone else. It was because he worked hard and believed in himself. And others believed in him, as well. While working for the Edison Illuminating Company, Ford approached Edison with his ideas about gasoline-powered automobiles. With Edison’s encouragement, Ford went on to create his own car company. Ford always believed that he would do something important with his life and work, and he did!

As a small church pastor or leader, your life and ministry is important, too! There are people who are looking to you for leadership and direction. They expect competence, character, and consistency in everything that you do. They believe (or they should) that you have been called to serve them and their community as God’s servant and undershepherd. To behave and think in any other way than that would be a disservice to those following you and a discredit to the divine office to which you have been called. So believe in yourself, believe God has called you to where you are for a reason, and others will, too!

“Your worth consists in what you are and not in what you have.”  – Henry Ford

Lesson #4: Experiment: Try Something New

We have already chronicled the importance of hard work and never giving up. These truisms naturally coalesce in another life lesson, the importance of experimentation. Edison demonstrated his belief in this idea by trying over 10,000 different filaments in his incandescent light bulb. Even after he came up with a workable model, he continued to tinker with success, ultimately settling upon a carbonized bamboo filament that would last over 1,200 hours in his new bulbs.

Tieman Einstein

Edison was never satisfied with his inventions. He not only wanted to improve them, he also wanted to move on to that which could be even bigger and better. In the church, it seems that we often do the opposite. Once we find something that works – or more likely, worked once upon a time, but doesn’t any longer – we stick with it no matter what. This is particularly true in smaller churches. If it was good enough for my parents and grandparents, it is good enough for me! And yet, the reality is that over 80% of our churches are not growing, in large part, because we are still using methods and strategies that haven’t worked in decades.

Why not try something new? What’s the worst thing that could happen? It could fail just as miserably as what we are already doing. What’s the best thing? It might actually work! Remember Einstein’s famous definition of insanity?  “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Maybe it’s time to try something new!

Lesson #5: Trust God for the Results

When Henry Ford was asked if he ever worried, he replied: No. I believe God is managing affairs and that He doesn’t need any advice from me. With God in charge, I believe that everything will work out for the best in the end. So what is there to worry about?”  Another wise man once said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about…what you will wear. But seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25, 33) Oh, that wise man was also God!

In the end, we don’t know how all of our hard work, perseverance, self-belief, and experimentation will pay off. (Although I think we would all agree, that things will be way better than if we hadn’t invested in those pursuits!) What we can be sure of is that our great and loving God will be with us every step of the way and that He will give us the results that He desires!

Edison, Einstein and Ford were great inventors and thinkers, and there is much that we can learn from them. They believed that with hard work and dedication to an idea anyone could accomplish anything. In so doing, they accomplished some amazing things.

What about you? What’s your dream for the future? What would you like to see God do in your life and ministry? Whatever it is, if you are willing to work hard, keep after it no matter what, keep believing in yourself and your dream, and willing to try new things, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t accomplish your God-sized goal. Never underestimate the power of God, yourself, or your church!

Done and Gone…or Are They?

In my role as the Director of Church Publishing at Group, I spend a considerable amount of time chatting with pastors, denominational leaders, and church trend watchers.

About five years ago, I’d say that most of my conversations centered around whether churches in America were actually in a state of decline. Then, about three years ago, those conversations shifted to focusing on how fast are churches declining and what’s causing the decline.

As for my conversations now, the finger-pointing has essentially stopped. Many pastors I speak with are simply resigned to the fact that their church is in irreparable descent and, regardless of the cause or culprit, there’s not a lot that can be done except hold out for retirement or reassignment.

Or is there?

The Dones 

In June 2015, Group published a book by sociologists Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope called Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. After sifting through hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews, Packard and Hope concluded there were four primary reasons why people are leaving the American church in droves:

  1. They are seeking community but have found judgement.
  2. They want to make a difference but have found church bureaucracy stifling.
  3. They want to have a conversation but have experienced only lecture.
  4. They don’t encounter God at church.

Millions of these “dones” are walking out of churches in search of something they simply feel can’t be found within our institutional walls. So where do they go? Have they lost their faith? And will they ever come back to church?

The answers to those questions may surprise you.

According to Packard and Hope, most dones are finding the community they were looking for. And, they haven’t lost their faith – they often say that they’re in active pursuit of more authentic ways to experience Jesus.

As for whether they’ll be back, that answer may encourage or discourage you based on how you define “church”.

According to the research, most dones will not return to the institutional church. It’s not that they have a particular disdain for the local church; they actually appreciate the important role that the church plays. They just feel that their spiritual and relational needs cannot be satisfied in a traditional church setting.

Rather than expending energy on trying to find ways to get the dones back in the box, maybe we should prayerfully be considering ways to think outside the box.

Reaching the Dones 

Back in 2010, we launched a highly relational (out of the box) outreach ministry called Lifetree Café. Lifetree Café is a weekly, one-hour, host-led experience that addresses a plethora of thought-provoking and relevant topics in a coffeehouse-style setting. Group provides the presentation and training materials via a monthly subscription delivered online. Churches or faith-based organizations typically sponsor these Lifetree Café ministries in existing church spaces appointed to look like a coffeehouse or at offsite locations like community centers, secular coffeehouses, wine bars, pubs, or cafes.

Many pastors have found Lifetree Café to be a much more economical and sustainable model than planting a church. We now have hundreds of Lifetree Cafes located in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.

When we first started launching Lifetree Café branches, we felt that this ministry would most likely appeal to people who had little or no experience with church. What we actually found was that most of the people coming into Lifetree Cafés had a considerable amount of church experience. In fact, many of our participants talked about growing up as regular attenders or even serving in leadership roles within the church. At some point in their journey, they just decided that church wasn’t for them. They were done.

Unintentionally, we had stumbled upon a ministry model that was attractive to people who were seeking community without judgment, free from bureaucracy, where they could ask questions and share doubts, and experience God in fresh, new ways.

The dones aren’t the only ones to which Lifetree Café appeals. We found that spiritually mature Christians enjoy their experience at Lifetree as well because it provides them a natural way to share their faith in a setting that encourages spiritual conversations. For the first time, people of all walks and beliefs can come together each week to grow in relationship with each other…and with Jesus.

For any church leader who may be reading this blog post and wondering what to do about the decline of their attendance, I’d like to quote the famous poet Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There are amazing opportunities for ministry in today’s ever-changing, postmodern climate. It just may not perfectly match how you thought ministry is supposed to look.

The most critical tool in your toolbox is your willingness to consider change. I’m not talking about abandoning the foundations of the Christian faith, but I am challenging you to look objectively at whether or not the foundations that we’re often guilty of protecting are more self-serving than Jesus-centered. It’s when you focus on exploring any means possible to help people encounter Jesus that the doors of opportunity swing wide open.

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.


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.


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 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.