Three years ago when we moved from Chicago to Kansas City, our family began the all-too-familiar church search. We quickly dug in and actually found a small church of about 250 we could call home. On our second Sunday, the pastor took us to lunch with his family. When he learned I used to be a pastor, he said he’d be sure to line up some opportunities for me to preach.
Unfortunately, none of those opportunities materialized. In fact, all of our attempts to get involved in the church—from being on the worship team to assisting with the offering—failed to pan out. After a year there, we felt rebuffed and defeated.
We’d heard a lot about the next church we visited, a large congregation of more than 3,000. Shortly after our first few visits, we started plugging in, and, after our second Sunday, the pastor even asked me to meet him for lunch.
He suggested numerous ways to get involved, and in less than a month I was writing dramas for the worship team and attending a Bible study. I was amazed at how easy it was to get involved this time around.
A UNIVERSAL PROBLEM
Over the years, I’ve discovered that our family is not alone in its relentless quest for a church home. According to Barna Research Group, one in seven people will look for a new church this year, and one in six attends two or more churches on a rotating basis. Moreover, author and church assimilation expert Thom Rainer identifies visitor retention, or “closing the back door,“ as one of the most pressing issues churches deal with today.
After speaking with pastors from more than 300 churches about the challenge of closing the back door, Rainer discovered that each faced the same problem. One church enjoyed 411 new members over four years, yet attendance only increased by 75 because so many others left during the same period.
What keeps visitors returning to a church to the point of commitment? Conversely, why do some churches attract visitors, only to lose them after one Sunday?
Although most pastors know there’s no magic formula for assimilation, many choose to address the problem with programs such as small groups, welcome ministries, worship services and other diverse ministries. Yet these same churches brimming with programs still complain about low visitor retention.
THE RIGHT TOOLS
Church growth experts agree that visitor assimilation systems are critical for any church hoping to build relationships with its guests. Greeters, clear signage and a visitor information kiosk are some simple ways ‘that churches can make a guest feel welcome. Many churches use a communication card in the bulletin to ensure follow-up contact with visitors, but collecting that same information at the visitor kiosk prior to handing out a gift or information packet is another way to catch some visitors you may have missed.
Finally, a good database ensures that all registered guests get a series of visits, calls and communication designed to provide them with the information they need to connect. Software designed specifically for churches can help facilitate this type of follow-up. But while all of these processes are valuable—even foundational—churches often mistakenly assume that these are the keys to visitor assimilation when in fact they are simply the tools.
KEYS TO AUTHENTIC CONNECTION
Do churches that attract and retain visitors share any common characteristics? Pastors of churches that are successfully closing the back door identify three main principles for effective assimilation. A church must be a place where members experience God, find true community, and discover a sense of purpose and personal significance. Consequently, a church’s assimilation programs should be based on these principles, says Randy Frazee, senior pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of The Connecting Church.
“A lot of churches today aren’t going backward to those three major issues,“ Frazee says. “They just start implementing programs for a quick fix, without understanding the rich and deeper purpose behind them. That’s why you see so many churches dealing with this problem.“
James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., known nationwide for its conversion growth, recalls when his church went through some major growing pains.
“I will confess closing the back door is a huge issue for us,“ he says. “A few years ago, it crept up and bit us. We grew by hundreds in less than a year. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we had to get very intentional in our thinking.“
Frazee notes that a church has about six months to connect a visitor. “I’m told that if we connect six out of 100 visitors, we’ve been successful,“ he says. “As pastors, we’re told that you’re not going to close the back door through worship alone.“
In today’s world, people—both believers and unbelievers—are looking inside and outside the Church for transcendent moments in their lives. As author Leonard Sweet has said, “There’s a spiritual revival happening in America, and it has nothing to do with Jesus.“
The experience of meeting God at church is key to closing the back door, White says. “Things like worship, prayer and classic disciplines are more appealing to seekers than ever before. The key is that they experience something at church they can’t get in the world —moments in which they feel like they’ve touched God.In his study of churches’ assimilation efforts, Thom Rainer identified traits successful churches share. On the list was a worship service that connects people to God.
Worship: Heartfelt authentic worship creates an experience, White says, adding that artistic elements such as music, drama and other forms of creative expression, speak to soul issues.
Prayer: Rainer found that high assimilation churches make prayer a priority, while low assimilation churches don’t.
Message: In the last five years, White has seen a shift in how seekers who visit Mecklenburg respond to his message. The Truth, he says, resonates with seekers when it’s delivered in a winsome and understandable way. “Explanation is the new apologetic,“ he says. “If you’re serving up the truth in today’s language that helps and explains, you’re facilitating transcendence.“
Response time. To facilitate transcendence in its worship services, Pantego Bible Church offers 20 minutes of open-ended, silent response time at the end of the message. Worshippers can stay in their seats or go to one of five communion stations around the room.
Small groups. Frazee suggests that churches think outside the worship service for facilitating God encounters. Pantego is intentional about creating transcendence in its small groups that meet throughout the week.
Over the last 10 years, the word “community“ and its many extensions (community-building, community group, etc.) has become somewhat of a buzzword in churches nationwide—for good reason. We are divinely designed for connection, and in this postmodern culture, for many people belonging comes before believing, says author Larry Crabb in his watershed book, Connecting.
Vernon Armitage, senior pastor of 3,000-member Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., notes that over the last decade people aren’t looking for a friendly church. “You can go to Wal-Mart and get a friendly greeting,“ he says. “People want to go to church where they can find real friends.“
Frazee agrees, adding that one of the key issues today’s Church deals with is fragmentation. “People are beginning to search for community in a much stronger way,“ he says. “Once you create that connectivity, the back door closes in a major way.“
But true church community, he says, won’t happen through once-a-week small group meetings. “In many ways, churches are getting people connected to activities. But if the average person is involved in three different ministries, at the end of the day he feels disconnected. He’s not around enough for others to truly know him.“
At Pantego, worshippers develop community outside the church in apartment complexes, neighborhoods and gyms. The goal, Frazee says, is to get people connected before they come to church. “We establish a relationship base that allows us to draw non-Christians into a Christian community,“ he explains. “When they do decide to try out a church, they come with the people they’re already in relationship with.“ Targeted small groups. PleasantValley’s ministries include more than 100 specific kinds of small groups related to age, leisure interests and station in life (married, divorced, single, etc.).
If your church makes people wait to join a small group, either until the beginning of a new quarter or after they’ve finished a membership class, you’ll lose them, White says. If you connect people with a small group just because it’s the only one with “open slots,“ you’ll lose them. Churches that close the back door offer wide-open small groups, quick, six-week opportunities to get involved and fast access to membership and seminars. Orientation. Every Sunday after a worship service, many successful churches offer a newcomer’s coffee where visitors learn about the church’s relational communities.
Youth and children’s ministry. Rainer found that churches with strong emphases in their youth and children’s ministry grew and kept visitors coming back.
Significance and Purpose
Tied to transcendence and community is the third integral principle: giving visitors a sense of their personal significance. Once someone understands that she is a person loved by God and valuable to His kingdom, she begins to discover a new meaning and purpose for her life.
“Knowing God ultimately answers life’s greatest question, ’Why am I here?’ says David Tscherne, former pastor and church planter. “Once they’ve met Christ, people want to know how they can use their gifts and passions for an eternal purpose.“
White agrees that meeting a seeker’s need for a higher purpose—not a need for new friends—helps visitors connect. “We used to put the emphasis on getting them a friend,“ he says, “but we’re finding that these people are not unhappy relationally. Now, it’s more about getting them connected to the church because people have a quicker connection through mission.“
And with that need for purpose comes a desire for accountability to that purpose, Rainer’s research discovered. He found that churches, which expected more of their members, kept the most members and assimilated more people than churches, which didn’t require much from their worshippers. In other words, people respond to being wanted and needed.
Facilitating Significance and Purpose
Communicating purpose. Lake Forest, Calif.-based Saddleback Church’s phenomenon, the “40 Days of Purpose“ movement headed by Saddleback Senior Pastor Rick Warren, is perhaps the clearest testimony to the power of significance today. There, members, guests and unchurched people alike are welcomed into home groups to discover their purpose in life. The classes have resulted in salvations and church growth around the world.
Raise the bar. Rainer’s study showed that regardless of the methods employed by effective assimilation churches, each church demonstrated clearly stated expectations in their ministries.
Welcome Ministries that Work
Gene Galloway, founder and former pastor of 6,400-member New Hope Community Church in Portland, Ore., identifies a church’s guest services ministry—everything from parking cars and greeting to ushering and manning welcome tables—as one of the most practical steps to closing the back door. In the book Making Church Relevant, Galloway advises church leaders to consider how many “personal touches“ a newcomer receives when he visits your church.
“There’s a direct ratio between how many touches someone receives and whether or not they’ll return,“ he says. “Make it impossible for anyone to leave your church without being greeted by at least five to 10 people.“
Newcomer receptions, where guests can grab a cup of coffee and some food, work well at Mecklenburg, White says. “The best thing we can do is quickly tell them what this church is about and how they can get involved,“ he says.
“Discovery“ classes. Thousands of churches use a series of “Discovery“ classes to lead guests through a process of increased involvement at a church. Daybreak Community Church in Carlsbad, Calif., gave its “Discovery“ series a twist. “We switched what would typically be the 201 (Christian maturity) and 301 (spiritual gifts/ministry) discovery classes,“ says former pastor David Tscherne. “We found that new people were often more willing to usher than to be in a small group, for example. By being involved in a task-oriented team, they found significance and developed relationships, which made them feel comfortable enough to get involved with a small group.“
Pleasant Valley Baptist has discovered that helping new people find a place of ministry quickly develops significance and purpose. The church recently turned its lobby into a “fair“ at which various community organizations and church ministries set up booths to inform attendees about current needs and to provide information on how to get involved.
Frazee encourages churches to adopt a “pull mentality.“ Eight out of 10 people have to be pulled, or invited, before they join anything, he notes. “Few people have the confidence to push their way into a group,“ he explains. “People feel significant when they’re invited to join a community.
“Through our words and actions, we have to make it clear to newcomers, ‘Your presence here today means something to us. We have room for you.’ “
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