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.

Revitalization Game Plan: An Interview with Terry Tieman

The following is excerpts from a fall 2015 interview with Terry Tieman. The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.

Terry Tieman, who lives in the Memphis area with his wife Becky, began his career in ministry as a pastor in Michigan and Arkansas. He then served for 13 years as Mission Executive of the Mid-South District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS).

In January 2009, Terry became the Executive Director of Transforming Churches Network (TCN), which helps churches become more effective in reaching their communities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. TCN’s transformation process – which is based on Biblical principles and was developed through worldwide research on effective mission movements and pilot projects – has successfully changed hundreds of churches from the inside out. Terry continues to gain front-line experience as Revitalization Pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Memphis.

In this interview, Terry explains how a church can put together a revitalization game plan.

An Inward Focus

…I began to get frustrated with our church planting process. We planted so many churches that got stuck at 75 or 100 in worship — some grew to be larger than that, but most didn’t. Now some of that was because they were in smaller communities, but there were some, especially in larger cities, that should have gotten bigger.

Several of us Mission Executives around the country formed a task force and did a study…What we discovered was that most of these churches were planted out of convenience. They were Christians, primarily Lutheran Christians, who just didn’t want to drive 25 or more miles to the nearest church of their denomination, so we had helped them start new churches in their area. (In a few cases, it was more of an ethnic or immigrant situation.) Once they got to around 100 in worship, they thought that they had enough people to support themselves, and so they didn’t work very hard at outreach. That “outreach DNA” just wasn’t in most of those churches. The planted ones were just like the old ones. They were inward-focused.

Bolinger: They were just attracting like-minded Lutherans in their communities, not bringing in people who didn’t know Christ.

Tieman: Right. They were bringing in some dechurched folks – who had gotten disgruntled with their former church or who were excited about a new church plant – but there wasn’t a lot of conversion growth, people going from not knowing Jesus to coming into the Kingdom.

Bolinger: Were you seeing a similar dynamic in established [LCMS] churches?

Tieman: Yes. And that’s what got me started with TCN. It was a realization that most of our churches were inward-focused. Outreach and connecting to the community were really not a passion. They knew they should do it – it’s Scriptural – but it wasn’t very well organized or at the top of the priority list for pastors or churches. Only when they got desperate, seeing so many fewer people in the pews, did they consider making outreach a priority. But it wasn’t in the DNA of a lot of churches. It was not seen as the primary reason they exist: to make disciples for Jesus and reach lost people.

People in our denomination started talking about what we could do to get churches to start focusing outward instead of inward…Most older churches are declining, because they have forgotten their first love, they have forgotten why they started. A church gets complacent after a while. It gets a building that it has to maintain, and programs to keep going, and these things become more important than sharing the Gospel with the community and making disciples. A church often gets complacent because its decline is so slow that it doesn’t even recognize that it’s happening…

Things don’t have to continue to decline and deteriorate. They can be better. Your best days can be ahead of you. From a Biblical perspective, it’s Law and Gospel. (Laughs.) The Law is that what you’re doing is wrong and needs to change. The Gospel is that there’s good news: God can change the situation; He can empower you and use you to make disciples.

Of course, you really need to have outward-focused pastors and help them through the change process. That’s why we have developed Learning Communities, where we bring pastors together and show them a new and better way. The challenge is to help pastors change the way they do ministry so that they’ll stick to it and not blow up their church by going too fast or making too many changes without getting ownership from the congregation. Directional coaching can help here, too.

Hinge Factors

Bolinger: Let’s consider a church that recognizes that it’s declining and has a sense of urgency about turning things around. Leaders at the church are willing to “shake things up” and do things differently. People at the church have a sense of hope that they can do this. What are the critical things that they need to do in the first year?

Tieman: The four components are vision, relationships, ministry, and structure. You need to have these components in the right places in your church.

Imagine that a church is a car. A declining church usually has structure – governance, how you run your church – in the driver’s seat. The church focuses on maintaining facilities and programs. It’s about survival. A typical small, declining church does not have enough people to man all the positions that are required by the constitution and by-laws. Boards and committees don’t get completely filled, and many people wear numerous hats. They spend all their time and energy essentially going through the motions, having meetings, and trying to maintain the traditions of the past. Meanwhile, they’re not getting into the community and sharing the Gospel. There’s no sense of excitement or the power of the Holy Spirit working amongst them.

When structure is driving, the church is focused inward. We want to put structure in the back seat, because we want vision in the front seat. The vision is a clear picture of a preferred future. Where does God want this church to go? To determine that vision, the leaders of the church must stop focusing inward and start focusing on the community that they want to reach.

…there are human factors, or hinges, that open the door for the Gospel into the local community. Through our research, we have identified eight Hinges that churches can use to open their doors to the community. So the first step is for a church to do an assessment survey to find out how well they are doing in each of the eight areas.

The eight Hinges fall into two different groups of four. The first group applies to leadership, especially the senior pastor, and the second group refers to the congregation as a whole. Specifically, the pastor factors are:

  1. Empowering God’s People for Works of Service
  2. Personal Leadership
  3. Visionary Leadership
  4. Bridge-Building Leadership

The congregation or church factors are:

  1. Community Outreach
  2. Focused Prayer
  3. Functional Board
  4. Inspiring Worship

Of course, there are lots of surveys and assessment tools out there for churches to use. The big difference is that ours is tied to a systematic revitalization process called Seasons of Discovery. This is a step-wise church transformation process delivered in four seasons over two or more years, designed for easy integration into the parish calendar, that helps the congregation engage their community with the Gospel. This approach has been very effective in hundreds of congregations all over the country. In every case, congregations that were inward-focused have begun to open the doors of their church outward and have had a missional impact on their community.

The key ingredient in the process is that the pastor receives a trained coach. The coach, who is an expert in the revitalization process, helps the pastor and congregation work through the various hinge factors, especially those where improvement is most needed. TCN provides a whole package of resources, including sermons, bible studies, training guides, leadership lessons, etc., for each of the four seasons. And what are the four seasons you ask? They are 1) Preparation, 2) Visioning, 3) Outreach, and 4) Empowerment.

First Steps

…after the Hinge Survey is taken and a coach begins working with the pastor, the next step is to recruit a core group of people to begin doing missional activities. We call these folks People of Passion because they are passionate about Jesus – they love their Lord. They love their local church. They love their community, and they want to see it change for the better. They want to see people coming into the Kingdom. Every church, no matter how small, has some people like that. We ask the pastor to recruit as many as he can. We start with that group. This will be the leaven in the loaf, a way to establish critical mass.

We have them start with prayer walking. That’s the first session. What most churches want to do is study things to death, and they never get around to doing anything. We give them 10 minutes of orientation, and then we go do it. There are lots of variations of prayer walking, which I won’t go into now. They just pray for what they see, and they get a sense of their community and what God’s already doing. They almost always come back excited, because they see God doing stuff, and they realize that things can change. So it always begins with prayer. They need to go into a period of prayer and pray like they’ve never prayed before.

The next step is community surveying. You go back to the same places you prayer walked – perhaps joined by additional people who are excited about the possibilities, so your group is expanded – and you ask people questions. We have three very simple, non-threatening questions that we recommend you ask:

  1. Describe our church in three words. – This indicates if anyone in the community knows who your church is and, if so, what their perception is. That’s very powerful.
  2. What needs do you see people struggling with in this community? – You ask about other people’s needs instead of the needs of the people whom you are asking the questions.
  3. If you were interested in finding a new church, what qualities or characteristics would you be looking for?

All of the questions are non-threatening. You’re not trying to witness or solicit, unless, of course, they ask you. Some groups knock on doors. We generally don’t recommend that. Just go someplace where you’ll find people.

Then you go to community leaders: the mayor, the city council, the Chamber of Commerce, schools, police. We have a list of questions you can ask them, but you’re basically asking what the needs of the community are. Usually, they’re happy to tell you. You finish with a very important questions, which is, “How can we help you meet the needs of the community?” In other words, “How can we partner with you to help you do your job better?” Community leaders love that. Nobody asks them that! People usually come to complain. You’re starting to establish partnerships in the community.

…Once you have worked through these missional activities under the guidance of your coach, the next step is a visioning day. You bring the leaders of the church, the influencers of the church, the people of passion together, and you go through a process where, by the end of the day, you can write a vision statement. You are trying to discern what God is telling you to do. You choose the mission targets where you are going to start based on your prayers and where the needs of the community intersect with the gifts of the church. Depending on the size of the church, there will be one to four targets. A tiny church can handle only one; a large church may have four.

Once you have determined your vision and your initial mission targets, then you need to determine your main strategies or ministries. Most churches are doing way too many things, and they may not do any of them all that well. Even if they do them really well, the ministries may not be connected to the community – they may just be serving their own members. We try to help them narrow it down so that they do a few ministries really well and connect them to whatever targets they are trying to reach.

All your activities, all your events, and all your programs should be in alignment with your vision and your targets. You should connect all of this to Scripture as to why you are doing it. That becomes the accountability mechanism for the future. You measure an outreach activity or event on how many people from your target showed up.

To determine if all of a church’s activities are aligned with its vision, we would ask the church to do a ministry audit. If they are not [aligned], then the church needs to quit doing them or change them so they are [aligned].

For the rest of my interview with Terry Tieman, pick up a copy of Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1. And be sure to get a copy of Hinges, the book co-authored by Tieman.

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

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.