Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve seen the revolving door. Someone new comes in, we smile, the excitement is there, but after a week or so, that new family, or that new person just never comes back. How can we not only avoid people from never coming back? But most importantly, how can we engage first-time guests to a degree that will create a desire in them to grow with your congregation?
First of all, this is not about gimmicks, watering things down to attract more people, or doing more events to cast a wider net. If you can’t keep 1 or 2 first time guests, what makes you think you’ll be able to keep 20 or 30? So, continue to teach sound doctrine, because if a person’s made it through your doors chances are that he or she is not connected at another church, and is considering your church as a viable option.
During the pandemic, countless churches have been facing the possibility of closure. However, the church I serve in, as associate pastor, has been growing exponentially. We’ve added service times, and we still haven’t restarted our in-person kids ministry, which has kept several families from attending. Yet, these 3 easy things that your church can do, will increase your first-time guest retention, regardless of your church size or staff. Spoiler Alert: you may be doing these to some degree, but not the right way!
1. Radical Hospitality
I can’t overemphasize this enough. In reality, the most difficult thing about attending a new church is realizing that nobody knows who you are. If you’ve noticed in your church that the same people usually gravitate toward each other every Sunday. You’ve got church lice! Sorry, cliques. But still, are they any different?
So how do you combat cliques? After all, birds of a feather, fly together, right? Well, start with your leadership team, whether it’s deacons, servant leaders, volunteers, the worship team; start with them. Challenge them to make a new connection with someone they don’t know, or someone they think is new. Make it a point to have a testimony each week of a new connection made. If a person walks through the door and is sitting by his or herself, don’t blame it on he or she being an introvert. Make it an expectation of your team to have an honest conversation.
If your church has a greeter team, or usher, fantastic! But that’s not enough. That small, yet important, connection will not be sufficient, especially if after serving the greeters huddle up to talk amongst themselves.
If your leadership team is radically hospitable, it will cascade down. Because they will instill the same values onto their teams.
2. It’s all about Follow-up
Mingling won’t cut it, you need to follow up. Most often, churches have first-time guests fill out connection cards, and do nothing with that information. A good friend of mine, Pastor Ray Perez (who’s drill once borrowed and have yet to return), would often say, “Connection cards are gold! We can’t miss the 48 window to call and make a meaningful connection with the first time guest.”
If you’re waiting until Friday to call your first-time guest, good luck having them remember the name of the church they attended. You can’t let more than 48 hours pass by without contacting them, and I mean contact, not a voicemail, or text. Make the connection.
Something that’s been very helpful at the church I serve in, is having One Church Software—a software that not only has the information of our church, but a system that helps create automations, workflows, and keep a cadence of accountability. Anyone who enters our doors must fill out a card, which then gets immediately input into the system. Afterwards, the person will be entered into a workflow in which one of our deacons, or leaders will contact that person. The software is all about accountability, follow-up calls must be completed, with notes. If 48 hours pass, the person is coached, and reminded not to drop the ball. I’ve worked with ACS, Church Community Builder, Fellowship One, and Planning Center, but One Church Software has definitely been amazing for us. No this is not an affiliate, nor paid advertisement. I’m just a very satisfied customer.
After serving in small churches, mega-churches and multi-sites, I’ve noticed that all believe this next follow-up strategy is ideal, but unsurmountable. However, I’ve seen it work first-hand, and it’s unlike anything else.
While serving at CF Miami, one campus took on the challenge of doing Front Porch ministry. A dedicate team would visit first-time guests at their homes Monday evenings. I was part of that campus. The pastor asked the ministry leaders: kids, youth, associate pastors, guest services, anyone that served in a leadership capacity to meet Monday nights, we’d have a short devotional, often leadership themed, and then we would split into teams of 2 and visit first time guests. In one year, I saw our campus go from 700 people to 1,600. I can’t count the times I visited someone, often with Ray, and I would introduce myself as one of the pastors, we’d pray, maybe sit in for 15 minutes, talk about life, and look for a way to make a meaningful connection. I kid you not, every house I visited, EVERY TIME, the family would visit next, week, and the next and it was rare that those families would skip a weekend.
Regardless of how big or small your church is, or how much your staff is tasked with doing, if you are not dedicating significant time to follow-up, nothing you do will stick. Who cares if your kids ministry or youth ministry are doing a buzz-worthy event, if you won’t follow up? The current church I serve at has yet to adopt this model…but hey, when I came in, we had an excel sheet with everyone’s information, and zero follow-up if any.
Don’t let the connection cards collect dust, do something about it, and fast. Otherwise, not only will you not see those first time guests, the attendance will dwindle slowly, as other members of your church realize that you’re all talk.
I served at a different church and tried implementing this model of follow-up, that is phone-call, accountability, and front porch, but it was often received with “open to the idea” but never executing. When I came into the church, their weekly attendance was in the 1,400s; when I left, their attendance had dropped to the 950s. I’m not saying that not doing proper follow-up led to the attendance drop, there were other factors that played into the drop. However, the first-time guest retention was very poor. I seldom saw newcomers come a second week in our adult demographic.
3. Make it Personal
Lastly, and this is probably the key ingredient to first-time guest retention. You must make it personal. Superficial connections are as noticeable as B.O. @shama4realz clearly depicted not just how youth pastors look making small-talk, but just how inauthentic it feels to be on the receiving end of impersonal conversations.
Superficial talk is disconnected talk. If you want to make a meaningful connection, stay engaged with the person. Stop, don’t be quick, simply stop. Take a moment and ask meaningful questions: “How did you hear about our church?” Is a good start, but find out what they do for a living, see if you can find a point of mutual interests, and discuss them. Then, introduce them to other members of your church who share similar interests, and stay with them in the conversation. It’s more than small talk, it’s helping the first-time guest know that they have a place to be known and to belong.
Something I’ve done (but don’t have the luxury of doing always because I protect my family time, too): If if find a point of mutual interests I’ll even invite them to my house in the middle of the week for some BBQ. It’s not a tactic, or a gimmick. It’s me genuinely wanting to know them even better. If you instill this in your staff, deacons, and leaders, you’ll notice a transformation in your church’s culture.
If you’re a church leader at any capacity, you need to be the point of start. Share this with your pastor, if you’re not the lead pastor, share this with your directional team, or executive pastor. You’re probably doing one of these, but not all. This is not some magic formula either, there may be other reasons why first-time guests are not staying. But, these are the most typical reasons why they never come back.
What have you tried that has worked for your church? Leave it in the comments below.