The first way to keep people at the church is to make sure they are welcomed in properly.

Welcome them at the door, and notice them before they leave.

Many churches have greeters at the beginning of the service, but the best ones also have them on the way out.  The greeters help them find their way.  The ones after the service make sure the visitor doesn’t leave without a chance to reflect on what just happened.

Paco Underhill, in his book “Why We Shop” notes that the foyer of a store, the first 10 feet, is a transition zone, and it’s there to help the customer get their bearings.  The usher at the door escorts them from the world at large into the safe space of the church.  They help with parking. They help them get in, such as providing umbrella escort in the rain, or help to the parent with 3 kids and two diaper bags – or a box of snacks for class.  They don’t leave the new person to fend for themselves, but instead guide them to a classroom or a seat in the sanctuary.

The 3 key questions here are: “I’m <your name>..  How long have you been coming?  Is there some need I can pray about?

The first question usually gets their name in response.  The second tells you if they’re new or a regular you don’t recognize – or a returning former member.  The third is the reminder this is a church, a house of prayer.  They came to feed a need, and you’ve just offered to help them find the answer. Because if they say something, offer to pray a short prayer right then. Thank God they came (use their name), and pray they find the answers they came for. It’s only 2 minutes, but it will set the tone for the morning.

The greeter on the way out wishes them well, and stands ready to talk and pray with anyone who seems hesitant to leave. They may have questions about the church or a coming event, or when the next event happens.  It’s possible not enough people talked to them to satisfy the loneliness.  It’s possible the sermon touched a memory or concern that didn’t get answered. (Wouldn’t you like to turn the foyer into a salvation altar?)

Remember their name.  Have a system to collect their contact information.  Welcome them  This lets you provide a follow-up, such as a letter, an email, or a call.  I’ve found it most useful to send a thank-you email that day or the next, and mail a letter to arrive on Wednesday or Thursday.  Thursday is when people start thinking about the weekend, and if your letter comes by then, revisiting church becomes a priority option.

A modern autoresponder sequence is useful for this.  It sends emails on a regular basis in a set order you decide.  So the first one is the ‘thanks for coming’ that comes the first evening. The regular letter arrives  Thursday.  On Saturday mid-morning it sends a second email reminding them of the service times and options.  Repeat this sequence for 3 weeks, using each to tell a little about the mission statement, since many churches tell their story in 4 to 6 key concepts.  Give a paragraph explanation on each.

Also, involve them in special events.  Invite and invite again.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve attended a service only to be told about a wonderful concert or activity that happened just a day ago, on a day I was sitting home alone, hoping they were more friendly on the second or third Sunday.  Or I saw it in a bulletin, but forgot until just before it started.  Or I didn’t know what the dress code was, or the food expectation, or where it was.  And no one called to check on me.

Give people something to do.

One of the challenges in a disaster event, like a hurricane or tornado, is that people want to help out.  Sometimes they will show up, just because they heard about it.  They want to be part of a solution.  Unfortunately in a disaster, there are controls on who gets in.  An untrained person can sometimes do even more damage.  These are sometimes called SUVs – Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteers.  You want to honor their gift, but in a way that adds value, and doesn’t bring new burdens.

We tend to put SUVs to simple tasks.  They sit at the reception desk and manage the sign-ins and work request forms.  They provide encouragement to the people standing in line for food, water or portable toilets.  They serve coffee and packaged snacks.

You can do the same in church.

Let people volunteer somewhere before they become a member.  Obviously some tasks are restricted.  Working with children requires a background check done by the church, even if they come credentialed from somewhere else.  It’s a safety and insurance thing.  Or if you serve meals, make sure they’ve had at least basic food safety training.  Most churches want their teachers and leaders to  be members, and affirmed for that role by the staff or membership meeting.  But there are many things even new people can help with, such as:

  • If there’s a choir, let them come sing.  An open choir brings people into the life of the church, and creates an obligation for them to come each week.
  • Teach them the three questions and let them greet newcomers
  • Let them help direct traffic in the parking lot
  • Teach them how to help parents drop off & pick up their children in the children’s area
  • Let them help serve coffee
  • Invite them to help chaperon a youth or children’s event (under supervision)

The main thing volunteering does is it helps them feel a part of the congregation, and puts them in regular close contact with other members.

As a side note, studies show that volunteers are twice as likely to contribute financially where they are involved, and tend to give three times as much as a casual attender. If you want to grow the budget, involve more people in the service of the congregation.

Maintain Communication

I’ve heard it said that people don’t want a friendly church. They want a church where they can have friends. 30 seconds of mandatory handshaking during the service is not being friendly. (It’s actually pretty scary for some new people.)

I mentioned the autoresponder sequence.  It’s really good to maintain communication with everyone in the congregation.  They have mechanisms to email to a couple hundred or a couple thousand all at once, where your personal email account will only let you put a couple dozen at a time.  And be sure to add your new people to the all-church email blast that goes out twice a week, starting with the very first week they attend.

  •  On Monday or Tuesday, you give a recap of the weekend.  One church does this as a Monday morning video, where the pastor sits at his desk and retells the main points of the sermon and finishes with the main takeaway for the week.  It’s 2 or 3 minutes, but keeps the message fresh.
  • Every Thursday at noon, send an email will give a preview of the coming Sunday.  It tells them what to expect, gives the scripture passage, and provides a word of encouragement.
  • Send a note a couple days before special events.  Send reminders.  Warn of deadlines. Over-inviting is better than not sharing at all.

Invite the new people into a small group quickly. I was at one church two months before I learned about their groups, because I had the bad fortune to visit in the summer.  I started attending another church a week after their semester of classes started, meaning I was four months unconnected except for the weekly preaching.  (I will note that within a month after my wife started attending with me, the membership team was after her to join, but I just got friendly handshakes – maybe it’s me.)

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Doing these will go a long way toward closing the back door and keeping people involved in church.  And it will be attractive to those on the margins, who are curious about your congregation. Because people want to be friends with people that do stuff, and pray for one another

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