The Amazing Shift of Four “Front Doors” in Churches

A topic that does not get much attention is the dramatic shift in the front door of churches. By “front door,” we mean that place where a non-attendee or an unchurched person will first check out a church he or she has never visited. In the past few decades, we saw a change in the location of the front door. The change was gradual, almost imperceptible.

But, with the advent of the pandemic, we saw a sudden shift in the front door. We think this change will be sustained for at least a few years. Let’s look at the four major front door eras of churches.

Sunday School and Other Small Groups (1950s to 1980s)

To be clear, not all churches in this era emphasized Sunday school or small groups. Some were primarily worship-only or worship-primary. But tens of thousands of churches in North America alone sought to get guests to “check out” a church by visiting a small group or Sunday school class.

Those guests who took their first visit to a group tended to be sticky. They quickly developed relationships, the glue to getting people to return. And church members commonly would invite guests to their group before they invited them to “church,” the often-used verbiage for worship services.

Worship Services (1990s to 2000s)

For a number of reasons we will examine later, the front door shifted from groups to corporate worship services. Church members would invite people to “church” more than they would invite them to “class.” Many low-commitment baby boomers (born between 1946 to 1964) began shifting the front door to the worship services from groups in the 1980s, but the shift became noticeable around 1990.

As a consequence of this shift, churches began to pour significant resources into worship ministries. Some of the increase in resources was beneficial. Some were more concerned about production value than worship.

The Church Website (2010s)

Eventually, the front door moved from an in-person visit to a digital visit. Prospective guests went to the website of churches to check out the address, the time of the worship services, how attendees dressed, childcare issues, and other details. Churches that spent time and resources on a quality website with the guest in mind benefitted the most.

Fortunately, the cost of a quality website became affordable for all churches. Unfortunately, though, many churches viewed their websites as an information hub for members. For the most part, though, guests were the most frequent visitors. Some churches had low-quality websites with dated information. And even some churches today still do not have a website. For most potential guests, those churches do not exist.

Streaming Worship Services (2020s)

The new front doors today are our streaming worship services. The pandemic moved church members and guests to this medium in the millions. Potential guests today are still likely to visit churches digitally first. Instead of a static website, though, they are visiting a streaming worship service either live or recorded.

These guests can now check out the church’s music, preaching, and priorities in full by viewing a service. Though the number of views a church gets on its streaming services is likely lower than its peak during the pandemic, streaming services are more important than ever. People are “visiting” your church digitally before they visit in person. I pray that your church is prepared for these digital guests.

What do you think of these developments? Let me hear from you.

Posted on February 14, 2022

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Tom Cheyney says on

    Great word and so spot on as always. Thanks you Dr. Rainer.

  • Matthew B Johnson says on

    As always I find your articles very helpful with practical insight on ministry development. Having worked on staff and as a volunteer at in a church I’ve seen the change in how we get the gospel message out to the masses. I tend to lean heavily on the streaming, in which has been very rewarding throughout the pandemic. I beleive the church will do a great job finding a way to interwoven both the importance of streaming and in-person gathering. I look forward to see how the church will grow because of the technology resources we have available.

  • Bobby WIlson says on

    First, thank you for this great piece. (All your stuff is great and so helpful to the church)
    I think there is another front that is rooted in the concept of the Sunday School and Worship Service doors and exists alongside the Website and Streaming doors and has become increasingly important: The exterior relationship. This is a door that exists beyond the infrastructure of the church, physical and digital, and is based on the current church members intentionally developing relationships and trust outside the structure of the church. The generational shift from trust in organizations to distrust in them makes the external relationship door vitally important to the missional and evangelistic reach and success of the church. It is very interesting how the front doors are no longer anchored to the building, but rather are based upon meeting people in the world rather than in the pews or chairs.

  • This is great information that I totally agree with having ministered through all the decades mentioned. A major issue that I have encountered with streaming is competing with mega church online platforms. In a quick comparison of a church of 100 to that of 1000+ is the slick production of visual effects, musical mix of worship specifically for the online audience (in house mix is totally different), camera angles and post production. There are a myriad of sources online for ministry and in a culture raised on Disney and Nickelodeon it can be totally out of budget to compete with those who have the production, staff and equipment to produce a comparable product. I am fortunate to pastor a church with young techs who can make it happen even on a small budget, but there are so many who can’t. My heart aches for those in ministry who desire with all their heart to bring change to a world in need but are impeded by not having the wherewithal to produce a great online presence. On a side note I am looking forward to attending your conference at TheCove this week! Exciting!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks so much, Matthew. I always enjoy my time speaking at the Cove. I am blessed every single time. See you there.

  • As always, your post hits the nail on the head. While the older generation will still find value in the traditional front door of gathered worship, the younger generation are less focused on that door. They are tech savvy and will most certainly do the digital search before making a physical effort to attend a church. The pandemic has opened so many possibilities and we need to tap into these new models, even though they are unchartered waters for us. There is no reason to see this as a threat, but rather as a wonderful opportunity to reach the unchurched. When we have moved beyond the notion that church is the physical place where we gather we will see how blessed we are to have these new models available to us. It requires commitment to ensure we are technically astute, but here is a wonderful opportunity to blood new leaders, those who are attuned to this new digital world.

  • I appreciate that you point out one thing which can be a bugaboo for some churches with regard to Streaming. I almost fell into the trap of making Streaming equal Live Streaming. The problem, at least from the technical standpoint, is the worship layout and dynamics of the Sanctuary. It is not as simple as “running Internet to the Sanctuary” because that was never in the vision of the builders in 1755. But, we are able to record and post the service later.

    The argument supporting retaining an online presence is compelling and could be construed as biblical. Like the 1 that Jesus didn’t leave behind, there is the 1 that needs to reach God digitally before launching into community.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more Thom. I’m concerned for friends who want to cancel the live stream service as not to encourage folks to stay home and watch the service. I don’t believe that most folks will take the time to visit the church web site on Monday in order to watch the Sunday service as their heart and mind is geared up for worship on Sunday mornings. I’m sure that some will visit the website later but folks will make their own decisions on whether they visit church or stay home on Sunday. There are other churches that would welcome them to live-stream with them on Sunday.

    It was good for me to view the sound and video quality of our own service with an unexpected sickness a week go on a Sunday. My heart was most grateful for the time, money, and work that we have invested into our online service. WELL worth every penny.

  • Patricia Lehman says on

    I agree with your article on the “front door” changes in churches. I grew up in the 40s and 50s. The church that I grew up in is very dear to me. The “new front door” via streaming is fine – maybe even necessary today BUT it will never take the place of fellowship. Iron sharpens iron. I know because I did not have a church for many years. I didn’t move away from God, but I just could not find the right “fit” with a church. Then God led me to a new city, a new life, and viola a wonderful church. I said to myself “I am home.” We need each other. We need each other’s energy. God made us to be social creatures. Did He not create us to be companions with Him? So I pray our “front doors” stay open to seekers and believers as well and only use streaming as an extra tool of worship.

  • Excellent. At Mt Hope church of Christ, we have followed the four steps of the front door concept. We also are attempting to gather their opinion about the usefulness of our website. This project does not have complete structure at this time.We’re hoping that by gathering this information we may also be able to extend our outreach efforts through visitors that read our website. Keep up your good work may God bless you Forrest