Creating commitment to your church

Tom Holland and I have been emailing back-and-forth about how small churches keep their members.  Tom and I have both experienced families leaving our churches to go to larger churches where the programs are a draw.  If the two of us are dealing with this issue of “closing the back door” as Thom Rainer puts it in his book, High Expectations:  The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church, some of you must be also.

I asked Tom, who pastors Gatetree Church in Danville, California, to tell me something about his church, to which he replied:

“We have accepted the fact that we have a niche. We haven’t abandoned everything else, it’s just that we have a niche. Ours is leading people to faith and baptizing them. We baptize a lot of people for our size church. The common denominator in every family that has moved onto bigger churches is that one or more members in their family trusted Christ at Gatetree. I can accept that as our niche. I still offer a public appeal at the close of every service and people still respond.”

Tom and Gatetree Church are doing some good things to be able to find and lead new people to faith in Christ.  Tom says he does 4 things to incorporate and encourage new members at Gatetree:

  1. “Class #1: Discovering Gatetree is the entry level class into Gatetree Church. It is a one-hour, one-time explanation of who were are — beliefs, core values, structure and strategy. I have recently re-written a portion to address the pros and cons of being a member of Gatetree. As you can imagine, pros far outweigh the cons.
  2. I have returned to addressing our purpose and how each member shares a part in the purpose on a more regular basis. I’m not legalistic about it, but I will try to do this every six months.
  3. When new folks come into our fellowship, we walk a tightrope between giving them time to adjust and hooking them up to a meaningful task of ministry. The rule of thumb used to be six months. I’ve concluded that is way too long.
  4. Tom also said they have high expectations of their members.  Essentially, we say, “Doing church today is not easy and especially for a smaller church. It’s not easy to be a member of Gatetree. The demands are great and the immediate rewards are few and far between. However, if you sense God’s leadership to invest your life into the greatest enterprise the world has ever known, then there’s no better place to do that than Gatetree.”

Tom is using exactly the “backdoor closing” posture that Thom Rainer observed in High Expectations.  And, if you think that Rainer only wrote about big churches, think again.  Half (50.8%) of the churches surveyed had less than 300 in attendance. 

“High expectations” were one of 8 factors Rainer identified in churches that create commitment in their members:  “Effective assimilation churches have one primary characteristic that sets them apart from churches that do not keep their members in active invovlement.  Effective assimilation churches had high expectations of all of their members.”  — High Expectations, pg 23.

Leave a comment or email me on what your church does to keep the people you find.  Let’s get a conversation going about the stuff we’re doing and help each other!

13 thoughts on “Creating commitment to your church”

  1. Thanks for these good words!

    Having grown up in small churches I have to admit my “historical bias” but I prefer them for more than childhood reasons.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it does seem plenty of people gravitate to larger churches because they can hang on to their anonymity in the crowd; stay on the outskirts; take but not contribute. It’s hard to do that in a small congregation very long!

    When a small church couples high expectations with the relationships that grow deep and strong over time, a sense of community develops! (that’s probably in Tom’s list of pro’s, though I’ve not seen it) 🙂

    I’m looking forward to this dialogue!

    Phil —

  2. Phil, you are exactly right. It is relationships that make small churches, or any church, great! When people know what they’re joining (expectations) and find a nurturing community (relationships), then it goes a long way to incorporating them into the life of the congregation. Thanks for your comment! — Chuck

  3. … and when at the heart of all those friendships there’s a deep and fervent relationship with God Himself,
    *Learning what He likes and doing those things more,
    *Learning what He hates and avoiding those,
    *Spending time with Him
    * and with others who love Him too … Lookout!


  4. Good stuff…I wish I had more insight to offer on “high expectations.” But I am going to have to sit back and learn from you all on this one.

  5. Hey, Brandon, good to hear from you. What’s your experience in keeping folks, or why do they leave? High expectations isn’t the only piece of this. Love to hear what’s going on out there in the heartland!

  6. I think our case is common: we are small (very small–60 AWA) and we are older. We have lots of visitors who are younger (my age, around 29 or 30), but many leave because they look around our worship service and see so few people who are like them. We have bare-bones childcare options and programming, and that is key for that group.

    The folks who do stay are our people who fit into the average age of the congregation (around 60).

    It’s good we are experiencing a bit of growth, but it is not “younger” growth that I think is important for a church to thrive long term. It’s retaining the younger people that we are struggling with.

  7. Our body meets in a small college town, Kansas State University, Manhattan KS. Services typically run 125-150. We are basically at our building capacity. For America…an Asian church would make 200-250 work comfortably here but we Americans and our personal space issues would not allow this. A key to keeping our members is small groups and service. The small groups create community and service responsibilities foster commitment. This weekend I am working on job rosters and job descriptions in order to make our roles more well defined, eliminate any cross over and create an accountability system. We believe feeding our flock and teaching them to feed others is part of our responsibility.

  8. Tunz…cool thoughts. It’s interesting that for your church, considered small, one of your keys is still small groups. Usually you hear about the importance of small groups in large fellowships.

  9. Well, this topic got us going! Sorry I’ve been internet-less for a couple of days. Worse than withdrawal, or maybe it is withdrawal. Anyway, Brandon and Tunz, thanks for keeping the conversation going in my absence. Anybody else out there want to say something about keeping folks?

  10. Hi all,

    From all I’ve been able to learn, small groups become a useful tool as soon as there are 40 – 70 people attending, since that’s about all most of us can easily relate to. They may be informal and unofficial at first, based more on affinity or fellowship (fun!) than a structured study or life-stage, but they become important rather early in a church’s growth cycle. Chuck, do you recall Lyle Schaller mentioning small groups in congregations of 100±?

    I get excited when I hear about ministry groups or service teams who have a small-group mindset as they serve: Praying, growing, serving together, caring for each other because they know everyone on the team loves and serves the Lord in spite of their flaws ( Dad liked to call them “idiotsyncracies” 😉 ) to bring the Lord glory.


  11. One of our most successful small group stories is our Monday Night Men’s Bible Study.

    We start it in the fall…around the time of the first Monday Night Football game on TV. We meet before the game…have a Bible study and time of prayer. Then, we turn on the game and watch it, all whilst eating food that each guy brought.

    It’s low-key; easy for new guys to come to. And effective in connecting guys to each other and discuss guy things. And we are a church of 60 or so…we meet tonight, and will continue all year, even though Monday Night Football is long gone.

  12. One way to keep people, is to not “plant churches”. We should have over 600 people in our fellowship right now. Instead, we have a bit under 200. Where’s everyone else at? Surrounding us, in smaller communities.. in one of 5 plants.
    I’ll be honest. Once you begin to peak 100, you loose the family feel. Where once, you could get the koinonia on Sunday.. now, you have to create small communities within the community to see those family relationships getting built.
    Beyond what we provide, by way of services and programs.. I think the greatest thing we as pastors have to offer.. is love. Ultimately, this is my goal: to find out how I can effectively serve the people in my community, in the pulpit and out of the pulpit. One of our church plants is led by a guy who isn’t much of a teacher. He doesn’t have any programs. But, he loves those people and they know it. I personally think: “how do those folks sit through those sermons?”… – but those folks think.. “Ahhh, bless his heart.. he’s really stumbling through this passage… ” and the love him more because of it..
    Teach your people how to serve one another, by serving them. High fallutin programs might bring in the hoards.. but to what avail?

    BTW.. I know Chatham. I took my lifeguard training at the Academy. Used to be in child care and we had our company vehicles serviced there. I’ve spent many afternoons sitting on park benches on main street. Nice town.
    I lived in Bedford in those days.. Now, I’m on the same Highway as you.. just a bit farther north.

  13. What a pity this conversation died out. Just the same thanks for sharing eventhough I have come round to it a couple of years latter.

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