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How to Connect and Keep New People

Visitor Assimilation. Guest Connection. Closing the Back Door. Church leaders may not agree on what it’s called, but everyone agrees that connecting new people to their church is both a critical priority and a source of frustration. Read as leading pastors discuss their thoughts on the keys to successfully engaging visitors and providing a meaningful connection both to your church and, ultimately, to the Lord.

Deb and her teenage daughter received a postcard in the mail from Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind. After much coaxing from her daughter, Deb agreed to give the church a try.

She wasn’t impressed; in fact, the heavy traffic alone—Granger has traffic guides directing their 6,000 regular attendees on where to park—discouraged her. So when her daughter insisted on going back, she agreed, but only because she’d decided to park as far away from the church’s front door as possible and do paperwork for her job while her daughter attended church and Sunday school.

Deb did this for an entire year. Granger’s traffic guides frequently offered her coffee and bagels and gently invited her inside, but Deb was adamant—she was fine. That was, until she lost her job. With no paperwork to do and inclement weather, Deb finally walked back into Granger. This time, she heard the message—she mattered, and there was hope. With time, she began taking small steps: attending services regularly, joining a small group and agreeing to serve others once a month through the church’s Connection Café. Now, she’s bringing friends with her to church.

“I want to grab our traffic guides and hug ’em,” says Mark Waltz, Granger’s pastor of connections. “They get it! Their spirit of grace and acceptance without any badgering allowed Deb to take steps toward becoming part of our church on her own time and where she was comfortable.”
This process of enfolding people into your church family, which has many names—assimilation, enculturation, connection—looks different for each person, family and church. But no matter what you call the process and how small or large your church is, there are similar paths to effectiveness. 

Outreach has gathered a panel of five experienced pastors and church consultants to help you find the path that fits the DNA of your church. They share what works, what doesn’t and how you can gently, but persistently, walk alongside people like Deb as they take steps toward becoming a committed part of your church body.

Steve Choi is the outreach and missions pastor at Sarang Community Church in Anaheim, Calif. (Sarangem.com). The Korean Presbyterian church is nearly 10,000 people strong and still growing. Choi also leads Sarang’s English ministry.

Gary McIntosh, a former pastor, is a professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, in La Mirada, Calif. (Talbot.edu). He is the author of numerous books on church growth, including Beyond the First Visit (Baker).

Mark Waltz has served as pastor of connections for seven years at 6,000-member Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind. (GCCWired.com). He is also author of First Impressions (Group), teaching churches how to make guests comfortable. 

Kevin Harney is the teaching pastor and evangelism champion at Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Mich. (CentralWesleyan.org), and also serves as a pastor at Faith Church in Dyer, Ind. (FaithChurchOnline.org). He is the author of Seismic Shifts (Zondervan).

Josh Blunt is the founding pastor of five-year-old Wayfarer Community Church (WayFarerCC.org), a church plant of Corinth Reformed Church. The Caledonia, Mich., plant draws 150 people, 50 percent under age 11, to its weekly services held in a local school.

OutreachLet’s say a person or family has been coming fairly regularly to your worship for months, but they won’t commit to a small group or other ministry. Why? What are their reasons?

Mark Waltz: People worry they’re not going to fit in. You know, it’s one thing to come on Sunday and find a place to be comfortable and not noticed, but when you take another step to serve on a team or be part of a small group, suddenly there is this intuitive sense of being one of eight people—you can’t hide or blend in.

I also think there is a real fear of not knowing what kind of contribution you can make and wondering if you’re even needed. When guests walk in and there is a place to park, someone greeting, a clean restroom, a bulletin already prepared and printed, someone preaching, somebody singing, someone watching the kids, and someone providing a great Bible study for them—it’s all being done! People think: Clearly, the church already has plenty of others contributing!

Kevin Harney: I agree. Assimilation means giving back, and I think even people who know what they can do have a built-in fear of failure. That’s why I believe one of the first steps for really being connected is finding a place to serve. Then, when people do come to faith, chances are relationships have already been built through their serving. 

Steve Choi: But I think people fear that they won’t meet others with whom they can build those relationships. Our welcoming team sometimes assumes that shy newcomers don’t want to be bothered. But I tell them, “No, they came here because they want to make friends. Even though guests may be shy and seem a bit reluctant, let’s keep knocking on their door.”

Gary McIntosh: Although some of these fears may be real and tough to combat, I think the biggest thing is just that people are too busy to get plugged into a church. There’s so much competition for people’s time. I remember when Little League baseball didn’t schedule practices or games on Wednesday nights because of church activities. Now they play games on Sunday mornings.

It’s so hard to get people to make church a priority, but it is possible. People today will only commit when they believe the church is on a clearly defined mission. They want to be involved in something that’s going somewhere; they want to be making a difference. Unfortunately, churches don’t often communicate a strong vision or direction.

OSo how does a church tell its guests that church is worth their time and investment—worth overcoming their fears for?

SC: When our Lord Jesus Christ was dealing with the disciples, it was a pretty clear call: Come do this, follow me. I do think we need to be aggressive, but before any push comes, there has to be a relationship and trust. We first want to say, “I want to get to know you, I want to hear your story, I want to know what is going on with you.”

MW: Yes, assimilation needs to be about them, where they’re comfortable. For example, our website is interactive; people can register for an event or express interest in more information about something, and that begins a dialogue. It bridges the gap, fills the white space, because immediately they’re in touch with somebody via a letter or a phone call in a very nonthreatening way. Someone meets them where they have chosen to step, and the dialogue begins there. We don’t want to own people’s spiritual journeys. It’s their journey, and we just want to help them. 

JB: There needs to be a very clear, outlined path of what that spiritual journey looks like at your church. We say, “Here’s what you can expect if you plan on sticking around here and growing spiritually. Here’s what we’ll do and what we won’t do.” The more details you can offer, the more helpful it is for them. When we first started out five years ago, we didn’t really have the luxury of a formal process, but we’re creating one now.

OAt your churches or the churches you’ve served at in the past, what are specific ways you help people in their spiritual journey?

SC: Coming to church, in and of itself, is a huge thing. So every Sunday, our first major announcement is about how grateful we are that they came. We acknowledge and appreciate their presence. Then we have a short, nonthreatening 10-minute orientation. Guests can stop in, and I personally connect with them. Sometimes we have 30 or 40 people, and sometimes we have one. But no matter how many people, I make it a point to hear a little bit about each of them before I share about our church.

MW: We are intentional in keeping the lists of available environments in which to engage short enough and small enough that people can actually make choices. There is a danger when churches offer too many choices. People may delay their choice or just not choose. In our weekly e-newsletter, we list a couple dozen opportunities—service projects, small groups, etc.—but on the weekend, we’ll only paint the picture of four or five. And these are things that, regardless of how new you are, you can do. It’s a one-time shot, not a 10-week commitment; it gets your hands dirty and your feet wet. Once people are in those environments, then we’ll paint a picture for yet another, deeper opportunity, like joining a small group for a short period of time. 

GM: You have to help them make friends. Normally, people don’t make friends at worship, especially in larger churches. So you have to help them find a group or class—a sports team, craft group, MOPS, adult Bible fellowship, whatever—as long as they can connect there. 

SC: And with Sarang’s Korean-American culture, we have three generations to connect. Approaching all of these generations effectively can make assimilation much more complex. For example, we have a small group for married couples in which the husbands are non-Korean and the wives are Korean. That’s a very focused-niche small group, but I want them to express themselves as they are and not feel like they have to be squeezed into a certain mold.

JB: Our community is made up of families living in their first home, working in their first job and having their first children. Our church is mostly under the age of 45, and in fact, 50 percent are under the age of 11. So I believe that children are not the church of tomorrow, but of today. We’ve found that the more we focus on the kids and on teaching them, the more often parents are likely to come to us with their own questions.

Right now, I’m trying to develop a spiritual formation program where parents and children are on the same rotation of themes. Then the whole family can talk about the same thing, and the family can talk with other families about it in church, too.

We’re also working on developing a young seekers’ type of mentorship program for our youth when they’re ready, to further assimilate them into the church. We don’t push them; we wait until they hear God talking to them. When they have an interest, they have the opportunity to sit down with a mentor of the same gender. Together, the mentor helps the student walk through a prepared curriculum that helps them with the faith maturing process.

OHow do you measure or track people’s journeys? How do you know you are effectively engaging people in the life of your church?

GM: Based on lots of research over the years, there are some standard guidelines. Ideally, you have a minimum of 60 percent of your adult worship attendees involved in either classes or groups. If you can get more than 70 percent, you’re excelling. Between 50 and 60 percent is fair, and less than 50 percent is poor.

KH: But measuring people, commitment and engagement is a fluid and tricky thing. At my former church, we tracked how many people were actively engaged in serving. We felt that was an important indicator, because if someone is involved in serving, chances are good the other pieces are there. Relationships have been built, they’re engaged in worship and are considering ways to grow their faith through church ministry opportunities.

But it’s also very subjective. A church may say that a person is assimilated because he or she is in a small group or involved in a ministry, but if you ask those people, they may say they don’t feel connected at all.

JB: And I think it’s critical that people are connected in the right way. We want people not just plugged into a certain ministry or even multiple ministries. We want them participating in a way or in an area that they’re good at. Hopefully, they’re doing the right thing; they’re energized, stretched, equipped and effective.

SC: Measuring is something we continually work on improving. About every two to three months, we look at our list of visitors by the cards they fill out. We track where people are. Are they just coming on Sunday? Are they in a small group? Our ultimate goal is that they join a small group and mature in becoming a servant.

MW: We continually track the hard measurements like Steve’s talking about: the number of people who attend, how many go through our membership class, that sort of thing. But even with those numbers, what is the appropriate percentage of people to have in small groups? How do you determine what that is? We believe having 40 percent of our weekend crowd participating in groups is pretty awesome.

For softer measurements, we do a survey about every six months asking people to tell us how they are doing in five or six primary areas—Scripture reading, serving, giving, etc. These surveys communicate our vision that everyone matters, that although you are responsible for your spiritual journey, we want to help you.

Another soft measurement we use is stories. During our weekly staff meetings, we share specific stories about where God has shown up in our lives recently. Most often, these come from within our circle of ministry. We also allow folks to log in and share their story on our website. Then periodically, we’ll take time on the weekend to share these stories. It helps validate those environments we are trying to create, where transformation can happen—a marriage is repaired, a work situation is seen differently and, ultimately, purpose is rediscovered.  

OThrough these measurements and your experience of connecting people, what have you learned doesn’t work?

SC: When my ministry was smaller, I made the mistake of asking guests to stand up in front of everyone in the middle of service to tell us their name and where they come from. That is just horribly scary, and I was so insensitive to that. In fact, most people have a fear of public speaking, so I really hope there is no church that still makes its visitors stand. 

GM: For the younger audience—under 30 or 40—the assimilation process must be organic. Having greeters at the door, shaking hands, is outdated. We still need to have trained greeters, but they should be positioned in a way that they don’t appear to be programmed. For instance, one church I visited had greeters with yellow armbands that said “greeter” stationed outside the main door. Now that may work great with 70-year-olds, but anybody under 35 is going to say this isn’t authentic. It feels preprogrammed.

Anything that makes the younger generation feel as though we’re processing them like a can of beans in a factory is going to turn them off. We need assimilation, and it isn’t going to happen by accident. So, yes, have greeters, but not wearing buttons or armbands, and not stationed 10 in a row.

MW: The biggest ongoing lesson for me is follow-up. When you paint the picture, cast a vision, invite through messages or promotions, ask for participation and people say, “OK, I will,” and then they don’t get a call back? Bad! After one or two failed connections, people just stop trying. It doesn’t matter what other systems are in place. You can have the greatest technology, but if there’s no follow-up, it’s a huge mistake.

KH: I think we can force people into settings that don’t fit who they are. For example, neighborhood-based ministries can work well, but saying that just because you live close, you’re going to be connected to a particular group doesn’t always work. Interests and common passions draw people together more.

Also, in the past, I’ve thought of the assimilation process as something taking place on the church campus. We say, “Come here and get connected,” when really you can connect in a home, at the hockey rink, riding motorcycles together … whatever. I think we’re too hung up on location. 

JB: As a church plant, we didn’t always have the opportunity to really get to know someone before giving them responsibility. Plugging in someone who hasn’t grasped the whole purpose and ethos of the church can create conflict. I’ve learned that it’s really worth taking your time and slowing down the front-end process of enlisting people. They need time to show their character in community for their sake and the congregation’s.

OHow do you make sure that the passion of engaging guests isn’t instilled in just one person, but in your entire congregation?

SC: In a large church, you need someone devoted to assimilation, but that doesn’t mean that the others are free from that duty. It’s the whole church’s job. There’s a danger of making assimilation into a ministry, with just one guy in charge hanging out with all the new people. The whole staff needs to be there to shake guests’ hands, listen to their stories and walk with them. If a guest comes and sees the pastor—the main leader—up there preaching, and then someone else comes to take care of them, it gives the impression that they’re not as important. And your members will begin to adopt the mentality of celebrating and appreciating your guests if your leaders are exemplifying that.

KH: Your people will get burnt out if they’re at church six nights a week trying to do lots of ministries. The passion and excitement among your members for bringing new people in can start waning if they’re tired and overextended. We can get our people too busy to be the salt and light. So I think being very careful of not overextending your members is critical to maintaining excitement about bringing in and connecting with new people.  

GM: It’s important to constantly remind your congregation that the assimilation process is never done. People can become unassimilated. Even after 10 years, people can become unassimilated in a church. Very simply, we have to always get people involved outside the worship service.  

by Heather Johnson
Now writing for Outreach as a freelancer, Heather Johnson is a student at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and is the magazine’s former managing editor.

Copyright © by Outreach magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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