This article is especially for pastors and church leaders who are asking “What do we do next?” and “Is there a better way to do mission?”

Santa Maria cathedral front door in Sassari, Italy

Keeping the front door open is a big job.

The other day I read a job description for a Lead Pastor position. It wasn’t different from a lot others I’ve read. From the way it was written, it was easy to see, this was a smaller church and clearly wanted to be bigger. When reading who they wanted to hire, they revealed something that is common to churches that want to grow – Sunday services were THE front door of the church. Take a look at some bits.

We know what this pastor will need to do. He will be the one who keeps the Sunday machine going. Is this a wrong approach? I’m not sure. Don’t we want our worship services to have high quality? Shouldn’t we work to make the experience attractive? Isn’t a church supposed to be open and available to unbelievers? Shouldn’t people be able to wander in any time the Spirit prompts them to? Shouldn’t they feel welcome when they enter, like we’ve been waiting for them? I would say yes. Yes to all of this!

The Front Door of Ministry is Where Most New People Enter

If you’ve done much reading on church growth, you’ve heard the term “front door”, to describe how most new people get into the church. Think about your house. Our close friends and family may come in through the side door, a back door, or garage door. But guests typically come in through the front door. The front door takes you to the part of the house that is cleaned and ready for company. It’s a bigger, nicer door that makes people want to enter.

Another metaphor for thinking of how we bring people into church life is the funnel. The funnel is used in marketing lingo. It’s the process by which you take people from being part of the crowd, to being loyal customers. The funnel is a term also used in church marketing circles to describe the process of moving people from the crowd to committed disciples. We get them in the front door and make them part of the crowd. Then we offer connection programs that will help them become part of the church relationally. And in time, hopefully, they become committed participants in our vision and mission.

In the contemporary western church, the front door, or the big end of the funnel is the worship service. It’s the spiritual catch-all. It’s the collection point. It is the ministry we use to get people in and win them to the next step of connection and involvement.

The dreaded funnel

Why do we use worship services this way?

  1. Because the worship service can be great at attracting crowds. Crowds are powerful. Crowds are fun and exciting. Crowds make us feel like we’re part of something bigger. The crowd is also less intimidating. People can get lost or be anonymous in the crowd.
  2. The worship service can be an encouraging experience. The messages and music move the mind and heart. They can lift us up and remind us that life isn’t so bad after all.
  3. The worship service is controllable. We can shape the environment of worship. We have trained people who make sure all goes as planned. The message, the pace and tempo can all be designed to help us get the desired effect.

Don’t get me wrong. I love worship services. I really like the crowd. As a pastor and preacher, they’ve been my life-blood. They’ve energized and motivated me. They’ve given me a reason to study, prepare, pray and strive week after week. For 30 years, they were my opportunity to communicate good news to people. They also paid my bills. People gave at worship services and that’s what kept this pastor and his family afloat.

Problems with making worship our front door.

So why not keep the front door, the front door? Because there are some strong indications that making the Sunday event our front door actually works against what we’re called to do. When the service is designed to attract others, we need to rid the service of things that can be misunderstood, uncomfortable or unattractive.

  1. Worship has become a spectator event. Participation has been exchanged for performance. The rooms are dark, with all eyes directed to the lit stage. Scripture isn’t read together if it’s read at all. Creeds aren’t recited. Prayer bookends the service in a way that can feel passionless and obligatory. People who come to worship, the way we have formed it, don’t want it to get messy. They want a quality show and if we don’t offer it, they will find it down the road.
  2. Worship has been super-simplified. I was in a church that passed out the communion elements. We were in the dark as the tray came by. I took a cup, peeled the top layer of foil off and ate the hidden wafer. Then another layer of foil and I drank the juice. There was no prayer, no reflection, no Scripture. In order to “move things along” we’ve reduced this Table of Christ’s suffering, to a plastic cup with stale crumbs, fiddled with and swallowed in the dark, all alone in a crowd of thousands.
  3. The message of this worship is life-improvement. Because we’re focused on getting people in, we address their felt-needs – not a bad thing completely. The result is, the Bible becomes a divine self-help book. God is just our problem-solver. He’s a life-strategist or a life-coach. I wonder how many sermons would make perfect sense on an Oprah broadcast, or TedTalk if we just removed the name Jesus?
  4. The mystical presence is gone. We no longer invoke (or invite) the presence of God. The service is more about God than an experience of being with him. Do we envision that on Sunday morning, the risen Christ is walking around us as he walked amidst the lampstands in Revelation? Do we know he’s looking, speaking, caring, and convicting as we magnify him together?
  5. Few make it to the real discipleship journey. We know that the crowd is bigger than the number of regular attendees. There are more regular attendees than there are members. There are more members than committed. And at each step of the journey, many just stop progressing or fall away. We’re supposed to be making disciples who live lives transformed by the miracle of new birth. But the way we do worship makes the chasm from worshiper to disciple too big for most to bridge.
  6. Lastly, the ones we reach have typically been reached by someone else. Almost everyone who wanders into a worship service on their own has been to church before. And what about the masses who will never walk in those big front doors? We just advertise, specialize, professionalize and pray they’ll come. For the most part, they won’t.

I’m sure I’ve overstepped. I know these are caricatures of modern worship. I am using broad language to make a point. We are “using” worship to do what it was never meant to do. Our worship is the holy exercise of God’s people meeting together in his presence to magnify him and humble ourselves. This is neither attractive, comfortable, or controllable.

This approach is not just a big-church phenomenon. As you can see from the job description above, this distortion happens in medium and small size churches too! Their fight for survival and desire for impact drives them to adopt this approach. They see it working because crowds mean success. But because of limited resources, they’re just not as good at it. Worship is an expensive front door!

We need a new front door in the church.

We need a new front door that is no front door at all. In an Ethos retreat, with Cam Roxburgh, he challenged us to consider a different way. It’s where my heart beats and has for a while. I believe its what the church will need to be in a culture that is becoming more secular.

If we’re going to flip this thing on its head, we must get away from our drive to attract people to something they like, rather than helping them experience the life they need, and deep down, they long for. The approach we take should fit who God is. God is a god of love. It’s his love that motivated him to create a creature who could have a relationship with him. It’s his love that motivates him to redeem, reconcile and restore.

Love is how we are called to participate in his life. It’s reflected in the commands he’s given us. “Love the Lord your God.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” “Love your enemy.” Letting others experience this kind of transformational love is our witnessing superpower. As we participate in this life, we will be motivated to invite others to join us and know this love.

If making disciples, who live in the fullness of Christ’s commands is our aim, there are better ways than the big worship gathering to start the process. There are at least two avenues of engagement that let our neighbors experience Christ, his community and his love. These two approaches help people understand Jesus’ imperative, “follow me” before they make the faith decision. And they both require Christians who are engaged in life with one another and with their world.

1) The first approach is the community of a small group of believers. This is more than a Bible Study or prayer group. It’s a group of believers who do life together. They are involved with each other, helping bring the presence of the Spirit into one another’s lives. They gather around the table and the Word. They practice the 4 loves of Christ. And they are consumed, like Jesus, with the need of the world for redemption and restoration.

Imagine the impact of a group like this meeting in your neighborhood. Imagine if they were praying for each neighbor. Imagine if they had an open-door policy and helped when they saw a need. Imagine if that was combined with words that pointed people to Christ as the source and motivation in their little community. This kind of presence in a neighborhood is transformational.

Reaching people this way communicates that the church is a people who are sent, not just gathered in one central location once a week. In the traditional church, we win them to big church, then we have to pester people to get back into their neighborhoods. We spend tremendous resources convincing them relationships with others are essential. In a neighborhood faith community, they see faith belongs where life is lived. And that others are essential to their journey.

2) The second approach builds on the first. It’s an invitation for people on the outside to share in good work. Let me give you an example. In a lot of neighborhoods, there is one house where all the guys meet. They don’t meet in the kitchen, or the living room. They meet in the garage. The garage is the entry point of participation and belonging. In fact, you have to participate before you belong. You bend over the fender of the car, hand a wrench, share a tool, or offer an idea on the car that won’t start. Maybe, you tell a story about a time when that red light was flashing in your rearview mirror. You bring something to the garage. Do that enough and belonging is built.

In our contemporary brand of church, we reverse the two. You have to belong before you can participate. And then we try to convince them to participate, once they belong.

How do we take the “garage approach with gospel work?” Include your neighbor who shares a heart for the needs of the world, to join your small group for a night at “Feed My Starving Children,” or ministering to the homeless, or even work on a mission trip. Create a place for them to get their hands dirty in serving with Jesus. It helps them taste Christ’s heart for the world and them. It makes the gospel message tangible.

Reach them this way and they’ll never need to be convinced to live as a disciple, or join Christ on mission because they’ve seen the life! Their faith is established on the reality that Jesus is impacting lives, changing the world and wants to change them.

Restoring worship and mission.

If we work to reach people outside of Sunday morning, our worship has a chance to become what it should be. It’s the fruit of a life lived together on mission with God. We trade that big funnel with a relational and missional path. We trade that one front door with many garage doors, side doors, patio doors, and kitchen doors spread all over our mission field.

Those leading on the journey

I want to thank my friend and colleague, Cam Roxburgh who serves with Forge, Canada and the North American Baptist Conference for all his insight in how to see the church thrive on mission. I also want to mention my appreciation for the NAB Conference and their leadership in helping the church rediscover its calling to be on mission in a changing world.

Thank you for reading. If you’re in ministry leadership and would like to talk more, I’d enjoy connecting. Leave a comment, or head over to the About page and reach out.