Helping Your Small Church Embrace Positive Changes

To strengthen or revitalize a church, you often have to change how that church does certain things. Changes involve the adoption and implementation of new ideas. Ideas for potential changes in a church can come from anywhere: the pastor, a member of the church’s board or council, a long-time attendee, or even a first-time visitor.

Regardless of its source or its apparent merits, every new idea will be met with some resistance. That’s because most people, in general, are resistant to change. An idea will need a champion who can persuade the majority of the congregation that the church should support the new idea and the changes that it entails. The church’s governing body can and should endorse the initiative, but the champion must be an individual. It does not have to be the pastor, but often it is.

The job of the champion is to persuade the majority of the church members to support the idea and its implementation in the church. The challenge is to convert resistors – those who resist the idea, at least initially – to adopters.

The Adoption Bell Curve
Not everyone in your church will respond in the same way to a new idea. The response of an individual member of your church will fall into one of five categories, and can be visualized with the following bell curve:

Let’s look at the five categories of respondents:

  • These are the dreamers and visionaries in your church. They regularly talk about the future of the church rather than the past but are not generally acknowledged as leaders or policy makers. Many have the spiritual gift of faith (I Cor. 12:9).
  • Early Adopters. These members know a good idea when they see it. Their opinions are generally respected by others, and they are influential in moving the church forward in new directions. They often receive credit for ideas that really were not theirs. Many have the spiritual gift of wisdom (I Cor. 12:8).
  • Middle Adopters. These represent the majority of your congregation. They tend to react to the ideas of others rather than generate their own. While these people generally are reasonable in their analysis of a new idea, they are more inclined toward maintaining the status quo and more easily influenced by those opposing change than those supporting it.
  • Late Adopters. These are the last in a church to endorse a new idea. In congregational and committee meetings, these people often speak against and vote against proposed changes and new ideas. They may never verbally acknowledge acceptance of a new idea, but they will eventually go along if the majority agrees to support it.
  • Never Adopters. New ideas are seldom, if ever, accepted by this group. Their commitment is to the status quo or the past. They often sow discord after change is adopted, and they eventually will leave if they don’t get a following.

Implications of the Bell Curve
Based on the above bell curve, here are several things to remember when you introduce a new idea into your church:

  • Not everyone will be happy. Innovators are on a collision course with Never Adopters. Early Adopters are frustrated by the lack of vision of Late Adopters, and Middle Adopters may encourage this disagreement to buy time for an adequate consideration of both sides.
  • You should encourage discussion. Shortly after a new idea is introduced, you should allow the expression of differing opinions. If people are not allowed to express their opinions early, then you can be assured that they will express them later, at a less appropriate time
  • Some members will leave. Don’t think that avoiding controversy or even managing it will avoid the loss of disenchanted members. David DeSelm, in the video A Church for the 21st Century, observes that “you’re going to lose people even if you don’t change.” He’s right. If you introduce change, some folks from the right side of the bell curve will leave. If you don’t, some visionaries from the left side will leave. The question is: which dissatisfied members would you rather lose, the Never Adopters or the Innovators? If it is any consolation, neither group will drop out of church life when they leave your congregation. The visionaries go to more innovative churches, the stalwarts to more traditional ones. The question is, who would you rather keep?
  • The battle is for the Middle Adopters. You won’t need to work very hard (if at all) to convince your Innovators and Early Adopters of the value of the new idea, assuming it’s a good one. The Late Adopters will not be convinced before the new idea actually becomes successful. But if you can convince the majority of Middle Adopters to support the initiative, then you are on your way.
  • Middle Adopters are more easily swayed by Late Adopters than Early Adopters. Most Middle Adopters, while good and reasonable people, prefer the known to the unknown; the present certainty to the future’s uncertainty. This does not mean Middle Adopters are closed to reason, or cannot catch the excitement of a new vision. They’re just normal people, with normal fears of the unknown. As Aubrey Malphurs observes, the majority of these people “… tend to vote for the status quo unless they are given a good reason to change, or are assured that change will not result in a loss of quality. (Pouring New Wine Into Old Wineskins; Baker Books)

Facing the Challenge
The last two points are your challenge:

  • You need to win the majority of Middle Adopters.
  • These folks are more inclined to stay with the status quo than to embrace change.

So how do you win them over? You must make your Early Adopters more persuasive than your Late Adopters. Generally, Early Adopters are well respected in the church. The words are given serious consideration and their leadership often is followed. Here is the approach that I recommend:

  1. Make a list of your Early Adopters.
  2. Solicit their active support.
  3. Ask them to endorse the new idea not just in formal meetings but also, more importantly, in informal discussions. Explain that it is often conversations in the halls and on the telephone that influence other members (especially Middle Adopters) more than anything else.
  4. Make it clear that their support may make the difference between success and failure.

A new idea will not be adopted automatically on its merits. To maximize your chances for success with vital changes in your church, enlist the active support of your Early Adopters to counter the natural resistance that many of your members have to change.

Are Your Church Facilities an Obstacle to Growth?

Check out the interior of national chain stores (grocery, pharmacy, clothing, restaurants, etc.) in your community. On average, retail businesses remodel their facilities every 4-7 years, and with good reason. There’s something about “new”. New additives to toothpaste. New vitamin potency in cereal. New styles in cars. New versions of software. “New” attracts. By contrast, most churches renovate their facilities every 25-40 years; some go even longer without a significant makeover.

Facilities can have an effect on a church’s corporate self-esteem. The effect is similar to the way your house or apartment subtly influences your own self-esteem. If you live with junk in the backyard, unwashed dishes in the sink, dirty clothes on the floor, rooms in need of paint, etc., then these things affect your self-image, whether you know it or not.

The design and architecture of your church actually has a more important influence on your visitors than it does on your regular attendees. Why? The longer a person attends your church, the less he/she is able to see the building through the eyes of a newcomer. Long-time attendees don’t notice the rain marks in the ceiling, the chipped paint on the wall, the hole in the carpet. And, for long-time attendees, those things don’t really matter, anyway, because they are coming for the people, the relationships, the fellowship, the spiritual growth…not the facilities.

How visitors feel about your church, however, will be influenced heavily by their first impressions. As the old saying goes, you don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. And one of the first impressions visitors have of your church is its building; first the outside, then the inside. Visitors don’t need to be professional architects to sense that the ceiling is too low, the halls too narrow, the windows outdated, or the color schemes from a different generation. Marshal McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message.” Your building is the medium. If the medium is outdated, the message will appear outdated.

Think of it this way: When your home is messy, do you want company dropping in unannounced? Probably not. When you are expecting guests, you probably pick up your clothes, clean the kitchen, and put on your home’s best face. Why not have the same attitude about your church facility and the guests who are coming to visit God’s house?

While nice facilities won’t cause your church to grow, poor facilities can prevent it from growing. If your church building has not had a significant makeover in 15 years or more, then your building is probably a growth-restricting obstacle.

Seeing through an Outsider’s Eyes

An outsider’s perspective is quite valuable. Invite a friend or neighbor who has never been on your church campus to walk through the facility with you. The “visit” need not be on Sunday. First, drive by and around the church. Then park and walk toward, and eventually into, the building. Ask the person(s) to “free-flow” about their impressions, sharing what catches their attention, what they like, what they don’t like, what they aren’t sure about. Either take notes or use a recorder to document their comments. Tell them not to worry about hurt feelings—you want their honest first impressions.

Conduct this exercise at least three times with three different people. That way you won’t put all your “eggs” into one person’s “basket”. See if different people notice the same things. Finally, compile your notes into categories and review them. You don’t need to make every suggested change. But you do need to know how visitors and newcomers see your facilities.

A Christian architect recently told me that, the more an interior of a church (i.e., decor, restrooms, lights, paint, doors, classrooms) looks like the facilities people are in during the week, the more likely the facility will present a positive first impression. Conversely, the more out-of-date that facilities appear, the more negative are their first impressions. When a visitor enters a church building that is 50+ years old—and it looks it—he/she is subconsciously wondering: Is the message of this church as outdated as its building?

A Helpful Checklist

Here’s a starting checklist to evaluate your facilities. Grade each item on a 1-7 scale 
(1 = “poor”, 7 = “excellent”). Perhaps have different people share in this exercise and then compare notes; it’s a great conversation starter!


  • Ease in finding the location
  • First impressions from the outside
  • First impressions of the inside upon entering
  • Impressions after walking around


  • Appearance
  • Adequacy of spaces
  • Proximity to entrance


  • Directions from parking area to appropriate building entrance
  • Where to get information
  • Directions to the sanctuary/worship center
  • Directions to the restrooms
  • Directions to the nursery


  • First impressions upon entering
  • Confidence in security
  • Confidence in nursery staff
  • Impressions upon leaving nursery


  • First impressions upon entering
  • Adequate furniture for age level
  • Room décor

Sanctuary/Worship Center

  • First impressions upon entering
  • Visibility of platform
  • Sound/acoustics
  • Ease in finding a seat
  • Seat comfort
  • Lighting


  • First impressions upon entering
  • Adequate number to accommodate everyone in 15 minutes
  • Cleanliness

The story of the paraplegic who was brought to Jesus (see Mark 2:1-5) presents us with several pointed questions: “Are our facilities keeping people from Jesus?” And, if so, “Are we willing to tear up our roof (and, perhaps other parts of our building) in order to let them be healed?”

Adding Side Doors to Your Church

The “front door” of your church is closing! The “front door” is the traditional way that a church connects with potential new members—through a visit to a worship service or to some other church event. Over the past 20 years, both the number of church visitors and the percentage of visitors to total attendance has been declining. Churches that depend on their front doors to connect with new people in the future simply will not grow.

Your Church Needs Side Doors
If you want to see your church not just survive but thrive, I suggest that you build some new doors—“side doors”— that will provide new ways to connect with people in your community.

A “side door” is a church-sponsored program, group, or activity in which a non-member can become involved and develop strong friendships with people in your church. A side door provides a place where your church members and non-members can develop relationships around something they share in common. Research clearly shows that it is “friendships with Christians” that accounts for over 80% of the people who come to Christ and the church.[i]

Here are just a few examples of churches that have developed side doors — 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! In these examples (and there are hundreds more), the side doors enable members and non-members to develop friendships around their common interests.

Researcher Dr. Gary McIntosh observes that about 10% of the churches in the United States offer side doors in which “…most people who connected with the church made their first contact through a ministry other than the worship service.[ii]” We also know that only about 14% of churches in the U.S. are growing in worship attendance. I believe there is a strong correlation between “side-door churches” and growing churches.

When commenting on his growing congregation, Rev. Craig Williford says, “Our weekend services are vital. But the side door ministries produce more evangelism and bring far more new people into our church.[iii]

Getting Started
How can you build new side doors in your church—new groups, new classes, new activities where members and non-members can make friends?  Here’s how to get started:

  1. Find issues of passion in your members. Everyone cares deeply about something or, more likely, several things. Passion generally falls into one of two categories: recreational or developmental. The first, recreational, relates to how people like to spend their free time, and may range from raising artichokes to studying zoology. The second, developmental, relates to major life issues such as health, finances, relationships, or employment.
  1. Hold an “exploratory” meeting. If you find three or more people who share a particular interest, invite them to a brainstorming session to discuss whether your church might want to start a new ministry for people who share that passion. Put an announcement in the church bulletin and invite any interested members to the meeting. (Explain that participants are not being asked to “sign up” for the project, just to share their ideas and brainstorm possibilities.) Gather the group, perhaps over a meal, and explore the idea of starting such a ministry. Explain that a primary goal of the new ministry would be to build friendships with non-members through connecting around that common interest. If there is any enthusiasm for the idea, take the next step:
  1. Research other churches. Chances are good there are churches that have already developed a creative ministry in the area you are considering. If the brainstorming group (described above) is interested and willing, ask a few individuals to search the Internet for other churches that have a similar ministry.
  1. Dream. Ask yourselves the question, “What might such a ministry look like in our church five years from today?” If there is a spark of enthusiasm that might catch hold of a group of dreamers in your church, take the next step:
  1. Form a “Ministry Planning Team”. If you find at least three people who are willing to take the next steps in creating a new (side-door) ministry, download a copy of the free “Side Door Planning Guide” – available at – and follow the directions in this 52-page guide.

Side doors are a great way for smaller churches to connect with new people. You don’t need a big building, a loud band, or master orator to build a successful side door. All you need are people who like to be with people they like to be with—namely, people with whom they share things in common. Take the first step (above) and see what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

For more information, get the book Side Door by Charles Arn.

[i] See The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples by Charles Arn (Baker Books, 1998).
[ii] Gary McIntosh. Beyond the First Visit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006, p. 22.
[iii] Denver Seminary Magazine: Fall 2004. Sep 15, 2004. Emergent Dialogue.

How Can Your Church Reach Young People for Jesus?

How do young people come into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ? The research is clear: the vast majority of people (young, as well as old) come to faith through a relationship with a Christian friend or relative.[1]

Jesus often modeled the process. To the demon-possessed man (Mark 5:19) he said, “go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you…” When Zacchaeus believed, Christ told him that salvation had also come to his friends and family (Luke 19:9). After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that the Centurion, and all of his family and friends, believed (Mark 2:14-15). Jesus knew that the way the Gospel would travel around the world would be through relationships.

How to Get Started
The foundation of an effective outreach strategy for young people is building relationships with them. How do you start building relationships? C.S. Lewis gives us a wonderful insight: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”[2] To reach young people, we must create times and places where friendships can grow between Christians and non-Christians. Think of these as “relationship greenhouses”.

How do such friendships flourish? Two ingredients are required: (1) time and (2) common interests. In other words, young people need to spend time with Christians with whom they share things in common. Once you have these two ingredients, you’re well on your way to effective outreach.

These days, finding one of those two ingredients — time — may prove difficult. What do you do when people tell you that they can’t make it because they don’t have time?

Change the Question
The leaders of a Lutheran church in Burnsville, Illinois encountered this problem. They conducted small group meeting after small group meeting but had few attendees. The common excuse? “We just don’t have any time.” Then an insight hit them and they solved the problem. Rather than asking, “Would you attend our group?”, they started asking, “What kind of a group would you change your schedule to attend?”[3] When they found people’s “hot buttons” for which they would make time, they solved their small group attendance problems!

There are two categories of groups for which young people will change their schedules to attend: recreational and developmental. The first category relates to how young people like to spend their free time. The second category relates to dealing with major life concerns, such as health, finances, relationships, and employment or school.

To attract young people, you need to build your “relationship greenhouses” around felt needs. If the attraction is strong enough, the promise appealing enough, and the first step small enough, then young people will come.

From Felt Needs to Deeper Needs
But focusing only on felt needs limits your potential for nurturing deeper relational and spiritual growth. A good “relationship greenhouse” moves from felt needs to deeper needs. What are the deeper needs of young people where real relationships will grow? Young people are looking for five things:

  1. a place to belong
  2. a sense of balance
  3. authentic relationships
  4. help through transitions
  5. spiritual answers

If you can provide for these deeper needs, then you will see people coming back even after their felt needs have been met.

From Deeper Needs to Eternal Needs
Ultimately, the “pilgrim’s progress” will move from deeper needs to eternal needs, and the pilgrim will develop a relationship with Jesus that fills the God-shaped vacuum inside every human being. But young people won’t make those jumps from felt needs to deeper needs to eternal needs with people they don’t know or trust. Disciple making is a process. And such journeys take time. I recommend Bob Whitesel’s book, Spiritual Waypoints,[4] for a helpful discussion on facilitating people’s journey from ignorance to intimacy with Christ.

What’s Our Product?
A marketing executive with Ford Motor Company once said to me, “I’ve often imagined what it might be like if our church were a business. What would be our product?” He went on to answer his own question: “I think our product would be ‘relationships.’ A relationship with God through Jesus Christ, relationships with others in the body of Christ, and, finally, relationships with people in our community.” Hmmm. That’s a great product, isn’t it? And there’s certainly a need in the “marketplace”!

[1] See Side Door: How to Open Your Church to Reach More People by Charles Arn, Wesley Publishing House, 2013, p. 9.)
[2] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, & Company, Orlando, FL: 1988 p. 247.)
[3] David Stark. Growing People Through Small Groups. Bethany Press, 2004, p. 94.
[4] Bob Whitesel. Spiritual Waypoints: Helping Others Navigate the Journey. Wesley Publishing House, Indianapolis: IN, 2010.

Why Churches Don’t Grow

Healthy people grow. Healthy animals grow. Healthy trees grow. Healthy plants grow. Healthy churches grow. Growth is a characteristic that God breathed into all living things. And the body of Christ – the local church – is a living thing.

So, when a church is not growing, it is helpful to ask: “Why not?”

Here are five “growth-restricting obstacles.”  My purpose is not so much to describe the solution, but to help correctly identify the cause. If we understand the reason for non-growth, it is easier to accurately diagnose and prescribe the cure.

Obstacle #1:  The Pastor. One of three pastor-related reasons may stunt the health/growth of a church:

  1. The pastor does not have a priority for outreach. Churches grow when they have a priority for reaching the unchurched. When the pastor doesn’t, the church won’t.
  1. The pastor does not have a vision for outreach. Lack of vision for outreach is as much an obstacle as lack of priority. Pastors of growing churches believe God wants to reach people in their community and assimilate those new believers into their church.
  1. The pastor does not have the knowledge to lead the church in outreach. Working harder is not the secret to effective outreach. The secret is working smarter. Unfortunately, little is taught in seminaries or Bible schools about how to effectively reach and assimilate new people.

Obstacle #2: The Church Members. There are often competent and skilled clergy in non-growing churches, because the problem is in the pews. Church members can keep a church from growing when…

  • Members have no priority for reaching the lost. “Sure, our church should reach people,” some will say. “But me? I’ve got three kids, a job, membership at the health club, and a lawn to mow. Someone else with more time should feel compelled.”
  • Members have a self-serving attitude about church. If people believe the pastor’s primary concern should be to “feed the sheep,” the flock will never grow, and will eventually die.

Beyond the pastor and members, there are other barriers that keep churches from growing…

Obstacle #3:  Perceived Irrelevance.  Growing churches start with the issues and concerns of the people in their community, and then relate the Gospel to those points of need. Non-growing churches are seen by the unchurched as having an irrelevant message to their life.

Obstacle #4:  Using the Wrong Methods. Any farmer knows you can’t harvest ripe wheat…with a corn-picker. Using inappropriate methods can be worse than no methods, since they create resistance to the Gospel. A bull-horn on a street corner…tracts in an urban neighborhood…youth outreach methods in a senior adult community… None of these methods are wrong. They are just inappropriate for the harvest field.

Obstacle #5:  No Plan for Assimilation. Over 80% of those who drop out of church do so in the first year of their membership. A new member does not automatically become an active member without an intentional plan by the church on how to assimilate them into a caring, loving, Christian community.

There are many reasons why churches don’t grow. But there are no good reasons. Healthy churches grow. God wants your church to grow. He created it to grow. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding out why it’s not growing, and removing those obstacles. What about your church?

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.