In the previous post, I identified 9 tips to help keep people from leaving your church (i.e., shutting the back door). I believe all 9 are important, but in this post, I want to address one of the more critical back door shutting mechanisms.

TIP 1 – Prioritize relationships.

Consider for a moment the power of relationships. How many churches have you seen (or attended) where people stay in spite of bad preaching and lack of leadership? Why do people stay? I’ll tell you – relationships. While an engaging, relevant environment might attract people, it’s ultimately a relationship that makes them stick.

So how can a church better build relationships into their model, essentially increasing the odds of a closed back door? Here are some tips from my experience at Watermarke Church:

1. Make a relational environment the ultimate win.

If you want people to stick, you must move them towards a sticky experience, and nothing is stickier than a relationship. For adults, we’ve recognized forcing a relational element too early in the process might work against reaching new people (I’ll address this below). So as a church, we systematically attempt to move people from large, corporate gatherings toward smaller, relational gatherings.

We call this strategy “foyer to kitchen.” Basically, we work to move people from our entry point (intended for guests) to kitchen-like small groups (where we become family).

At Watermarke, our ultimate win for every person is to be connected in a small group environment. Not because we don’t value Sunday services, but because we recognize long-term discipleship is better lived out in the context of a small group. AND, because discipleships requires time, and time can only be found when the back door is shut!

2. Build relationship into every ministry area.

For every age group (not just adults), relationship is the goal. Our preschool children (in Waumba Land) are in a classroom with the same Small Group Leaders (we call them Small Group Leaders, not volunteers) every week. That’s right. We have men and women Small Group Leaders who serve every week with the same children in the same room. Why? Relationships. You can’t effectively build relationships with a volunteer rotation.

As children grow up through Elementary School, Middle School, and High School, we continue to make the small group relationship a more significant part of their church experience. Sure, we have amazing large group environments with bands and dynamic hosts and speakers, but the core of what our kids experience is in a relational-driven small group. And that’s why our kids want to come back every week.

So with adults, while a deep relational connection in our Sunday service is not really possible, our small group options are always promoted, celebrated, and encouraged. We allow adults to move toward relationship as they feel ready. Here’s a secret: When a child is locked in relationally, it’s only a matter of time before the adult follows suit.

3. Don’t try to force relationships in non-relational environments.

Here is where many churches can allow relationships to become a detriment to growth. Ultimately relationships should be leveraged to shut the back door, but to reach new people, a wide open front door is required, as well. It’s essentially worthless to lock down the back door if nobody feels comfortable walking in the front door.

At Watermarke, we prioritize anonymity in our adult large group gatherings while making it easy and obvious to engage in a more relational environment as people become ready. The point is simple: Not every environment should be a relational environment. I would argue the entry point in your church should NOT be relational dependent, but should lead to relational connection.

4. Allow adults to relationally connect as they are ready.

Continuing the above thought, we make relational engagement optional for adults. As an adult, you can attend Sunday services as long as you like anonymously. Considering we target the unchurched crowd in our community, that is a necessary strategy to keep our front door wide open.

The key for us is offering several options for relational connections when a person is ready to engage. We primarily do this through a short, post-service information meeting called NEXT. In NEXT, we explain the logical “next steps” for adults in our church. We then encourage them to join a volunteer team (where great relationships are formed volunteering along side others) and/or join a small group. What’s important is we allow adults to engage easily when they are ready.

5. Make relational connections immediately with children and students.

When it comes to kids, we don’t give them a choice. From the minute a child or student enters our church, we place them in a small group experience (i.e., with two adult small group leaders and a group of kids just like them). The initial relational connection with an adult leader and their peers connects kids quickly and creates a better experience. We have found that kids just aren’t as relational-adverse in church as adults.

Here’s the best part. After one or two weeks connecting in a group, kids are hooked. The back door for them is closed! And they end up begging their parents to attend church! Yes, you read that correctly. You can guess what parents do when their kids beg to come to church – they engage, too, in relational teams and groups.

6. Limit competing, non-relational environments.

At Watermarke, the primary reason adults choose to engage in relational environments is because that is all we offer. No, seriously. Outside of our Sunday morning services, programmatically, all we offer for adults is group experiences. That is our discipleship model, but it’s also our “shut the back door” strategy.

I’m sure softball teams and men’s prayer breakfasts can be fruitful, but I’ve yet to find anything more relationally connecting than adult groups. I can play softball all day without ever really knowing anyone on the team deeper than his or her position and order in the lineup (I say that from experience). That’s not a sticky relationship.

If you want adults to engage in a group, don’t offer any alternatives or competing programs.

7. Create relational steps.

I alluded to this in point 4, but let me add a little more explanation. At Watermarke, we desire to move adults from large, non-relational gatherings to small, long-term relational groups. That would be easier if our church were only full of mature Christians, but with a very healthy percentage of non-believers and skeptics, we must offer incremental steps toward long-term community.

Strategically, we offer short-term group options that serve to introduce the concept and experience of a group without a lengthy commitment. We offer groups for seekers, starters, and returners (Starting Point) and other topically driven short-term groups. All of these groups serve to introduce the concept of relational connection via group. And as you probably guessed, most people who attend these groups move into a long-term group as a next step.

Lastly, our volunteer teams create wonderful, relational connections. Because most of our Sunday service opportunities are weekly (not all, but most), people develop great connections with their volunteer peers. Again, this is just another way to engage people relationally.

In the end, relationships help shut the back door in the church. I’ve stayed far too long in churches with bad preaching and terrible leadership just because I liked the people suffering along side of me. So if you want to shut the back door, be sure to incorporate relational connections into the fabric of your church or organization. As I said in the beginning, an attractional environment might draw a crowd, but it’s the relational environment that keeps them coming back.

How have you seen relationships shut the back door? Have you experienced the other side – where introducing relational connection too early kept people from walking in the front door? Leave a comment and tell me about your experience.

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