Suppose, hypothetically, there are 1,000 people in your community that might be open to going to your church. And every weekend, 10 of them step through your door.
You pull all the stops. You do whatever it takes to make those 10 people come back. You tell them about every conceivable way they could get involved with your church. You make a point of identifying them so your members can make them feel welcome. After the service, a staff person or a volunteer shows up at their house with a free gift and an encouragement to come again next week. You throw the metaphorical kitchen sink at them.
At the end of the weekend you convince four of those 10 people to come back next week. Three of them are undecided and could go either way, depending on how good your visitor follow-up plan is. And three of them are totally turned off by how uncomfortable they were. They’re not open to any more of your follow-up efforts, and the suggestion of going to your church years later recalls the bad taste the service left in their mouth.
You still got four new people to come back. There are still three people for you to follow up with. Maybe you’ll get one. Or two—even three now and then. And every week your members do such a great job evangelizing their local community that 10 brand-new people come to your church. It’s not so bad, really, right?
But there are only 1,000 potential new members in your community. You’re going to keep growing for quite a while (100 weeks, to be exact). But eventually, you’ll have worn out your pool of potential new members, and completely turned off 300 of them.
Now, on the other hand, suppose you use less aggressive tactics, and out of the same 10 new people you only wind up with one who can’t wait to come running back inside next week, and one person who was totally uninterested in ever attending your church again. But there are still eight people you can follow up with every single week.
During the service you directed them to the info booth to receive a free gift, and it comes with a letter from your pastor thanking them for coming, sharing what you hope they experienced, and your desire to get to know them. They gave you their email, so you start a series of emails that speak to them like a new person—instead of lumping them into your weekly newsletter that’s written for members. Over the next few weeks you share your church’s origin story, examples of ways your church is impacting the community they live in, the personal testimony of a staff member, ways for them to meet other new people or connect with members, and an invitation to meet with someone on staff—if they want to. They get to know your church without being there, and hopefully, eventually, they develop a natural relationship with someone who attends your church.
Over the same 100 weeks, you only wind up with 100 new members as a direct result of the way you treat new people during the service, 100 people who will never come back again for whatever reason, and 800 potential new members in your community that you can continue interacting with.
Obviously, these numbers aren’t an accurate reflection of your community, or how visitors respond to your service (this is back-of-the-napkin math at its finest). And yes, this completely oversimplifies the actual progression from visitor to member. This hypothetical situation is only intended to highlight a philosophical difference in the strategies churches may use to grow.
While it’s easy to envision your church within the global body of Christ and perhaps even imagine the day when Christianity has reached everyone in the world, your church exists within one particular corner of the world—and there’s a limited pool of people in your corner of the world.
If someone has a terrible time at your church, it doesn’t guarantee that they won’t eventually come back. Your follow-up plan could be great. Your congregation could be highly involved in the community and change someone’s mind. And God is constantly working on people’s hearts. But if you take the short-term approach to church growth, you’re fighting an uphill battle with more and more of your potential new members every week.
Think of someone’s first visit to your church like a first date. It’s not a commitment to anything more yet. You’re just seeing how things go. And then the date goes perfectly.
So you propose.
Maybe, just maybe, someone will say yes to a first date proposal. But to everyone else, that’s crazy. You don’t even know each other yet. People aren’t used to a relationship progressing so quickly. Marriage is a big commitment, and you asked them to make that commitment way too soon.
That’s not too far from how some people feel when their first time at your church ends with an inappropriate next step—like an unsolicited in-house visit from church members or staff who they don’t know.
But it’s not only about that next step. How you treat new people during the service matters. How you continue to pursue the relationship after the service matters. How your church affects your community matters.
So as your church navigates the nuances of church-visitor follow-up, start with your philosophy: are you looking at church growth in the long run, or the short run? What’s the ratio of people who come back next week to people who never want to come back again? How many are in between?
Are you asking someone out on a second date, or proposing on the first?
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If you need help creating a church culture that cares about growth, maybe it’s time to build a volunteer team? Can Someone Please Volunteer? is a free ebook I wrote to help you recruit, train, and retain more volunteers. And Proclaim is giving it away for free.