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Closing the Back Door

Fall 2005
PAGES 4, 5
[original publication]

Bill came to Christ and to Hillside in one of the best ways possible—he saw the body of Christ in action. One of our members had a baby, and Bill watched as this family received meals and support from their small group at church. Bill felt a need to experience that kind of community, started attending church, made a commitment to Christ, and then joined the church and was part of a small group himself.

Five years later Bill drifted away. He wasn't mad about anything. He just sort of slid away. Occasionally one of us will see Bill and ask how he's doing. He sometimes attends another church (more charismatic), but not regularly. He says maybe he'll come back to Hillside, but neither of us thinks we'll see him. Bill's not the only one we've had this experience with. We've worked hard at reaching out to people who are not Christians. We've seen them discover something new in a relationship with Jesus Christ. They become a part of us, but then a year or two or three later, we stop seeing some of them. They drift away. What do we do? How do we hold on to those whom God has found? And what about long-term Christians and members of our church? How do we keep them from joining the large number of Christians who continually move from one church to another?

We wish we could give you a short list of the things we've done that have solved the problem, but we can't. We're still struggling to figure it out. What we intend to do here is to share some of our thoughts and struggles on our journey. Here are five lessons we're learning.

First, we're learning that the best way to keep people in church is to get them connected to something more than the Sunday morning worship service. The sooner we can get them involved in a small group or serving in a meaningful ministry, the more likely they are to feel connected and stay with us. If the only connection people have to the church is Sunday morning worship, they may stay for a while but will often drift away. We've also found that if we depend on Sunday mornings to keep people connected we feel tremendous pressure to make that time ever-more exciting, new, and (dare we say it?) entertaining. If we put all our eggs in the Sunday morning basket, we need to hit a home run with every service because that is why people are coming. If we're not good enough for a few weeks in a row, they'll find someone who is. We believe that it is much more helpful (for keeping people and for discipleship) to get people involved in a small group or serving in a ministry of some sort. When they are connected in those ways they have much stronger reasons to stay.

Second, we're learning that we need to keep preaching and teaching on what the Bible teaches about the church. In an age in which the church is seen as a service station and members consider themselves customers and consumers, we need to help people see what the church is really supposed to be. Certainly the gospel is good news and we are passionate about sharing that news. But we also need to teach a biblical ecclesiology that keeps Christ at the center rather than man. Until people understand the role and purpose of the church we will forever be looking for new strategies to satisfy the demands of our customers.

Third, we've learned that it's best to be very clear about the vision, goals, and expectations of the church. At almost every new members class we will say that Hillside is not a church for everyone. This is not to say that we don't welcome everyone, but to recognize that we have a certain theology (Reformed) and we have certain passions and practices. Even something like our size allows us to do certain things (offer a greater variety of programs) but also prevents us from doing other things (knowing everyone in the church). Being clear about these things helps people to have a better idea of whether our church is a place that God is calling them to serve and grow.

Fourth, we're learning that those who are leaving can provide some of the best help in learning where we have room to grow. It is not fun to call folks who are leaving the church and ask them why they are leaving, especially when you have a sense that you might be at least part of the reason they are leaving. We've heard things about our failure as pastors to contact members at important times in their lives, such as at the loss of a loved one or the birth of a baby. We've heard about how our need to control things has caused deep hurts. We've heard about frustrations with other members or programs that weren't working well. While we'd like to believe that these things aren't true, we have had to recognize that some (more than we'd like to admit) of these criticisms have been exactly right, and we have had to apologize and make a commitment to do better.

Finally, we're learning that sometimes it is appropriate to clearly challenge someone on a reason for leaving. If members are leaving because of a conflict with one of us or with another member, we attempt to challenge them and say that even if you do leave the church, you still need to deal with the conflict you are having with this person. If someone is leaving to avoid dealing with a difficult issue in his or her own life, we want to encourage that person to deal with the real issue and not run. These conversations are not easy, but we believe they are necessary.

It's a lot more fun to celebrate the people who are joining the church than it is to face the fact that there are also people who are leaving. But those people matter to God as well, and they might be able to teach us some of the lessons we really need to learn. Working on the back door isn't easy, but it is part of being faithful in ministry.

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