front-door evangelism, side-door evangelism, back-door evangelism

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Your church doesn’t need to be “mega” sized to have three doors. Today we look at three evangelisms that are named after doors: front-door evangelism, side-door evangelism, and back-door evangelism.

front-door evangelism, side-door evangelism, back-door evangelismChristians literally have hundreds of names for different kinds of evangelisms, a few of which have been discussed before on the Dictionary of Christianese website. Sometimes there’s a pattern to the names, and that’s the case with these “door” evangelisms.

The front door and side door referred to in these evangelism terms are metaphors for the ways that visitors first get involved with a church.

When non-Christians visit a church service on Sunday morning, they are coming in the church’s “front door,” figuratively speaking and probably literally too unless they get lost and wander in through the church office. Front-door evangelism is direct and uncomplicated. When you invite a friend to come to church with you, you’re doing front-door evangelism.

But that’s not the only way to get into church. When non-Christians start getting involved in a church not by coming to a Sunday service but rather by joining a Bible study or attending a social event, that’s called coming in the “side door.” It’s called the side door because the visitor is coming in by a way other than the “front door.” Typical examples of side-door evangelism are Sunday school classes and Bible studies or recreational and social events like parties, meals, and games. Side-door evangelism allows visitors to get a feel for the people at a church before they commit to attending an actual church service with all the usual preaching and theology.

Finally there’s back-door evangelism (sometimes also called “rear-door evangelism”). This “door” evangelism is different from the first two because its target audience is people who have already been a part of the church for some period of time but who seem to be slipping toward the exits. In other words, back-door evangelism is geared to reach Christians, or at least to reach people who have been attending church for a little while. Back-door evangelism is about connecting with people who seem to be slipping away and finding out why they want to leave and what they need in order to stick around. (The Christianese name for the people who do eventually quit coming to church is “back-door loss,” so the metaphor of the back door sees a fair bit of use when talking about people leaving the church.)

For the most part, these “door” evangelism terms started being used in the early 1980s and have continued to be used by pastors and theologians when they talk about how and why some churches grow in numerical size.

See below for dictionary definitions and a comprehensive collection of quotations that feature these evangelism terms.


front-door evangelism n. See various senses.
1. [called front-door because the evangelistic encounter often takes place at the front door of the person being evangelized] Evangelism done through *door-to-door evangelism.
1970 Østerbye The Church in Israel (Studia Missionalia Upsaliensia XV.) 12 : Front-door evangelism. The most direct form that direct mission can take must be that practised by the exclusively evangelical missionaries. One or two missionaries try to start a conversation with an individual, or with a group of people, in their homes, or at their work. Through conservation, and by giving away tracts, Bibles or New Testaments they try to spread the Gospel. Most of us are familiar with these methods.
2. [called front-door because people are being invited to attend a church service—to “come in through the church’s front door,” as it were; compare with the etymology for *back-door evangelism 1] Evangelism done by inviting people to attend a church service or an evangelistic event.
Similar evangelisms include: *back-door evangelism 1, *invitational evangelism, and *side-door evangelism.
1981 Australasian Record 86/49 (7 Dec.) 11 : Front-door evangelism is more direct than the strategies outlined above. This kind of evangelism can work where a church has … high-visibility events held at the church or in the church grounds…. Some people are open to attend a mid-week prayer-fellowship, or a School of Biblical Studies if they were invited by friends or through a direct publicity campaign. 1986 Wagner, Arn, Towns Church Growth: State of the Art 52,53 : Front Door Evangelism describes all the efforts a church makes to attract people through its front door where the lost will hear the gospel, respond, and be converted. Front door evangelism, also called “ingathering evangelism,” depends on the corporate church activities to reach and win people to Christ…. Critics of front door evangelism maintain the church is designed for worship or Bible teaching of the saints; it is not an evangelistic crusade. They maintain there is no command in Scripture to bring the lost into the house of God, nor is there an illustration of unsaved coming into a church service. 1987 Towns Winning the Winnable: Friendship Evangelism 60 : The pastor is working to win the prospect through front-door evangelism (getting him to come to church, hear the gospel, trust Christ and join the church)…. If front-door evangelism fails—and it often does—the process of evangelism can be carried on to completion through side-door effort. 1987 International Pentecostal Holiness Advocate vols. 71–72 28 : Evangelism is many different things. We talk about saturation evangelism, bus evangelism, media evangelism. But front-door evangelism means bringing people through the front door of the church where they can hear and respond to the Word of God. This is usually accomplished two ways: through visitation and events. 1988 Towns 154 Steps to Revitalize Your Sunday School 59 : There are several ways in which churches have expressed evangelism in recent years. Perhaps the most common of these is “Front Door Evangelism,” also called “Inviting Evangelism” because it centers around inviting people to enter through the front door of the church where they can hear the Gospel in an event and be saved. 1991 Towns Your Ministry of Evangelism: A Guide for Church Volunteers 8 : In recent years churches have expressed evangelism in several ways but they can all be summarized in two evangelistic strategies—front-door and side-door evangelism. Front-door evangelism involves inviting and bringing a person through the “front door” of the church to some event or opportunity to hear the gospel. It is also known as inviting evangelism or event evangelism. This is often done with campaigns and programs to attract large numbers of people to the church and ultimately to the gospel. Despite the major limitations of this approach, the church has expended most of its evangelistic efforts in this way. 2001 Towns in Church Leadership (1 Nov.) : Front door evangelism is inviting people into the church where they can hear the gospel and be converted. This is also called inviting evangelism or it implies event evangelism. This means people are converted as a result of a sermon or a Sunday school lesson. Statistics reveal that front door evangelism is not nearly as effective as relationship evangelism. But don’t completely rule out front door evangelism, some will get saved. 2002 Towns, Toler What Every Pastor Should Know About Sunday School: 18 Secrets to Bring New Life and Growth to Your Church 16 : Historically, Sunday School has been called the reaching arm of the church. Contests, Sunday School buses, visitation programs and other techniques have pulled newcomers into the fellowship of the church. Through what was called front-door evangelism or inviting evangelism, many of those newcomers are now leaders in the church. Historically, visitors to the church came through the Sunday School door. Today, most visitors to the church enter through the worship door. 2005 McNamara, Davis The Y-B-H Handbook of Church Planting (Yes, but How?) 411 : “Front door evangelism” uses a variety of techniques and programs such as banquets, musical presentations, and AWANA [=A Worker And Not Ashamed] programs to attract people to the church where they can hear the gospel. 2011 (Sep.) : Front-door evangelism or event evangelism incorporated an invitation or event that would have the effect of drawing people to the “front door” of the church. 2013 (1 May) : We intend to meet him right where he is, in spite of the risk we face. Our intention is not front-door evangelism—rather, love through empathy and shared time.
side-door evangelism n. [called side-door because people are not asked to attend Sunday-morning church services (which would require them to literally come through the “front door” of the church building) but are instead offered the opportunity to meet Christians informally through social and recreational events; thus, since the people are coming into the church community by means other than the “front door,” the figurative image of a “side door” is used]
Evangelism done by inviting people to come to a social or recreational event or a small-group meeting rather than by inviting them to attend church services.
The objective of side-door evangelism is for non-Christians to develop friendships with Christians through the meetings and in the context of these friendships to learn more about Christianity and hear the gospel. Typical examples of small-group meetings used in side-door evangelism are: Bible studies, Sunday school classes, prayer groups, choir, community-service groups, social or recreational groups, supper clubs, and sports teams.
Similar evangelisms include: *fellowship evangelism, *group evangelism 3.
See also: *back-door evangelism, *front-door evangelism, and *rear-door evangelism.
1981 Australasian Record 86/49 (7 Dec.) 10 : Side-door evangelism—where we attempt to meet people on neutral ground, and lead them to know Christ…. Other side-door approaches to evangelism as well as the public mission include the sponsorship of local community events such as picnics and concerts. These occasions can often provide a relaxed atmosphere where church members can meet non-Christians and begin to build friendly and loving relationships. This prepares the way for leading people to Christ and His church. 1986 Wagner, Arn, Towns Church Growth: State of the Art 53 : Side Door Evangelism describes the route that many take in coming to salvation. They do not come through a church service, rather they are reached by other agencies or ministries of the church. People attend a group Bible study, a recreational program, or other types of fellowship where they are confronted with the gospel by life-style evangelism or personal evangelism or oikos evangelism…. Side door evangelism is usually a result of Christians bringing their friends and relatives to Christ through a church ministry. 1987 Towns Winning the Winnable: Friendship Evangelism 60 : On Sunday morning, while the newcomer is at the church for the second visit, one or more members of an appropriate cell group should meet him…. The group is working to influence the prospect through side-door evangelism (establishing friendships, getting the newcomer involved in the group, making him feel like a vital and needed part of the group, winning him to Christ and then bringing him into the fellowship of the local church as an accepted member). 1987 International Pentecostal Holiness Advocate vols. 71–72 28 : Side-door evangelism … is when we bring people into our Sunday School by networking the unchurched first to the individual Christian, second to the church, and third to Jesus Christ. Side-door evangelism usually is the result of things we do as a body: involving kids in a soft-ball team; involving ladies in Bible study or aerobic classes; involving men in regular outings. 1988 Towns 154 Steps to Revitalize Your Sunday School 64 : In contrast to “Front Door” approaches to evangelism, “Side Door Evangelism” is first networking people with church members, second, networking them into the activities of the church, and third, through these relationships, networking a person to Jesus Christ. 1991 Towns Your Ministry of Evangelism: A Guide for Church Volunteers 9 : Side-door evangelism, in contrast, is a strategy that attempts to bring people into the church to hear the gospel through personal contact with a church member or attender. This evangelism takes place through the informal contacts that people have everyday. Christians getting to know those in their workplace and bringing them to church represents one example of side-door evangelism. Hopefully, the nonbelievers will get plugged into the activities of the church, and through this contact hear the gospel. Statistically, far more people have come into the church through personal invitations from relatives and friends than by vast advertising campaigns designed to bring them through the “front door” of the church. Front-door evangelism is where most of our evangelistic energy is being expended, but it is side-door evangelism which is proving more successful in reaching the unsaved for Christ. 1993 Lee, Miller First Impressions 67 : New Hope Community Church in Portland, Oregon, offers “side-door” evangelism. They use small groups that meet needs—such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, blended families, separation survival, and survivors of rape—to begin the contact and pull people in. 1994 Murren Leadershift 109 : At Eastside, we discovered that 90 percent of the people who allow themselves to be discipled, and who stay in our church, were brought by a friend or relative—as it were, through the side door. Side-door evangelism is when people are brought into the church by a friend. 1995 Wright Unfinished Evangelism 119 : Mission opportunities can also serve as side door evangelism tools. For example, a church member might invite an unchurched neighbor to help install plumbing in a home the church is building for a homeless family. Through the involvement with that mission, the unchurched person finds a sense of fulfillment, meets some great Christian people, and might decide to check out the church. 1998 Arnold Small Group Outreach: Turning Groups Inside Out 34 : A team of people (let’s call them a small group) decides to evangelize their friends…. they invite one non-Christian friend (or possibly more) to join them…. Lyman Coleman calls this “side door evangelism.” It allows seekers to avoid the front door of a church (figuratively speaking)…. Instead, people are allowed to question, probe, learn and open their hearts in a caring small group environment. 2002 : Traditional American methods of evangelism have been in a state of rapid change for almost half a century. From the 1950s and 1960s emphasis on campaigns, crusades, and gospel meeting efforts which more much fruit, to the mass media explosion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the focus in the late 1970s and 1980s moved to “body life” evangelism, “discipling,” “side-door” evangelism, and “individual” evangelism. The 1980s and 1990s provided friendship evangelism, conversational evangelism, worship evangelism, and multiplied other variations on the basic themes of the last quarter of the century. Today’s evangelism vocabulary speaks of webs, networks, cells, small groups, and relationships. 2003 International Pentecostal Holiness Church Issachar File : As Americans become more concerned about their relationships, side door evangelism can network friends to the gospel through classes, cell groups, special ministries, or support groups. 2004 McDonald The Disciple Making Church: From Dry Bones to Spiritual Vitality 214 : Churches need to discover the power of “side-door evangelism”—inviting unchurched people into existing small groups and ministry teams. 2005 McNamara, Davis The Y-B-H Handbook of Church Planting (Yes, but How?) 411 : “Side door evangelism” is geared to attracting people to the church where their “felt needs” can be met so they can hear the gospel. 2007 (29 May) : The most effective outreaches are those that target a felt-need in the Japanese people at large. For example, our English classes; the Japanese have a felt-need to learn the most common language in the modern world, we provide the means to meet this need and end the time with a 15-minute Bible lessson. A captive audience who comes to learn English and recieves a bonus! We call this “side-door” evangelism and we have found it to be a very effective tool in reaching the lost. 2007 : Back door and side door evangelism don’t work either, neither do seeker friendly programs. These types of witnessing only fill the church with many many lost people, who in turn dilute the good influence of the church. 2010 Michael Spurgeon on Leadership: Key Insights for Christian Leaders from the Prince of Preachers 91 : He established a county-wide church softball league, building multiple ball fields to host the league on their church grounds. Hundreds of people came to play softball at Second Baptist, and many of them came to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Through side-door evangelism, the church … sharing the gospel on the ball fields of Houston. 2011 (5 Sep.) : Side-door evangelism incorporates organizations, relationships, service, recreation, Bible study, and life-style evangelism. 2013 sermon at Trinity Lutheran Church (Austin, TX) (15 Sep.) : They use what is called side-door evangelism. People don’t want to enter the church through the sanctuary’s front door but the side-door of the gym through athletics, the side-door of the school through education.
back-door evangelism n. See various senses.
1. [called back-door because people are being invited to take part in church activities without having to come to a church service first; compare with the etymology for *front-door evangelism 2] Evangelism done by inviting people to spend time with the members of a local church through social and recreational events.
See also: *side-door evangelism.
1905 Washington Post (Washington, D.C.) (12 Jun.) 9 : Dr. Doney declared that the preachers are lifting too high a standard before men, and said that though sermons have been much criticized they are of a much higher average than the deliverances of public speakers. The minister spoke of the fact that while three ministers condemned the playing of golf on Sunday, another persuaded a landlord to lease Sunday golf links adjoining his church, and that as a result this minister has more young men in his congregation than any of the other three. Dr. Doney designated such methods as back-door evangelism. 1976 Kansas City Star (MO) (17 Jul.) 4 : Be a quitter! That’s the paradoxical prescription being handed to smokers these days by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church…. Now the 5-day sessions for would-be quitters are offered several times a year in metropolitan Chicago. Each session is led by an Adventist clergyman and a physician or dentist…. Seventh-Day Adventist leaders insist the program is not a form of backdoor evangelism calculated to make converts to their faith. 1994 (1 May) : There are so many other ways that people are coming into the life of faith now that there has got to be a lot of what I call “back door evangelism.” People come into the life of faith because they are volunteering for tutoring or because they are interested in arts or because they are cooking for the homeless. 2004 (4 May) : Back Door Evangelism … for instance inviting people to help with a Habitat house or similar enterprise: that’s generally a workable approach and also one that surprises lots of non-church people. 2012 (Mar.) : These opportunities for fellowship are extended to include English-language camps, Bible studies, and a sports camp. The latter began in 2007 at the request of Czech United Methodists who expressed an interest in learning more about American sports, such as baseball. “Sharing the gospel around baseball has been very successful,” said McKinnon-Young. Frye calls this type of relationship building “backdoor evangelism.” “[You] find a way to connect with the community and then you have an opportunity to share faith,” he said. The camps are evangelistic tools, but in a secular culture, they offer opportunities for the sharing of faith in nonthreatening settings. 2013 (3 Jan.) : As a new part of worship, and backdoor evangelism, Saints days celebrated by the ELCA which are connected to particular professions (for example the Festival of St. Luke’s is connected to healthcare professionals) are being used as an opportunity to bless people practicing those vocations/professions both in the congregation and in the community. 2014 (3 Dec.) : What does softball or English lessons have to do with evangelism? This is what we call “back door” evangelism. Since the Czech Republic has such a high rate of atheism, most Czech citizens would never think of attending a church service or listening to someone preaching on a street corner. These programs are a way for Czech United Methodists to invite their non-believing friends and family to participate in a fun activity, and learn about the love of Christ in a non-threatening way.
2. [called back-door because it refers to people who have recently converted (and “have come in through the church’s front door,” in a manner of speaking) but do not remain long in the church community and seem to slip out through the back door (so to speak) nearly as quickly as they came in through the front door] Evangelism that produces new converts who do not persevere in faith or who fail to remain in church membership.
2007 (26 Jun.) : This is not to say that conservatives have improved on “backdoor evangelism,” i.e., the rate at which members leave. 2010 (13 Aug.) : “Back Door Evangelism” is what this is called. A “convert” will “walk the aisle” and “give his life to Christ”, and continue right out the back door, never to return. All of us have known people who claimed to have committed their lives to Christ, but do not produce any fruit
3. [see etymology for sense 2] Evangelism to reach out to Christians whose participation in the church community is waning in order to encourage them to stay; evangelism to reach people who may be considering leaving the congregation or dropping out of church altogether.
The term back-door evangelism in this sense is often associated with Warren T. Carr, an American pastor.
See also: *backslider.
1982 Carr “Evangelism at the Exits,” sermon at Wake Forest Baptist Church (Winston-Salem, NC) (24 Oct.), as quoted in Carr The Glad Irony of the Gospel: Sermons Preached at Wake Forest Baptist Church (1985) 63 : I venture the possibility that we have been appointed by God to practice evangelism at the exits, exercising a backdoor evangelism in order to intercept those people who are departing from the church and its mission. 2006 sermon at Myers Park Baptist Church (Charlotte, NC) (19 Feb.) : One calling of this church is what Warren Carr called “backdoor evangelism” or “Evangelism at the Exits.” There are many people in this world on their way out of the church. They’ve despaired of the church’s narrowness of faith and life, the way the church tells us to stop thinking and to be quiet; the way it can shut down people’s spirituality; the way it closes its eyes to the world and shuts certain people out. The church has often preached a false gospel, a Jesus scarcely different from our cultural ways, and people are looking for the exits. 2007 sermon at Wake Forest Baptist Church (Winston-Salem, NC) (3 Mar.) : Warren Carr discerned the need for a new and ironic kind of evangelism—not the winning of souls to Christ for the first time, but rather the keeping of Christians in the church when they are tempted to leave it. He wittily called it “rear-door evangelism,” for its aim was to snare believers as they were attempting to exit the church. 2010 sermon at Lakewood Presbyterian Church (Jacksonville, FL) (17 Oct.) : Author Warren Carr has written about what he calls “Backdoor Evangelism” or “Evangelism at the Exits” and suggests that there are many people in this world on their way out of the church. They have become disinterested in the church’s narrowness of faith and life, the way the church tells us to stop thinking and to be quiet; the way it can shut down people’s spirituality; the way it closes its eyes to the world and shuts certain people out. The church has often preached a false gospel, a Jesus scarcely different from our cultural ways, and people are looking for the exits.
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