The challenge all churches face is not just to attract worshippers, but to keep worshippers. How do we keep, and not just attract, visitors?
Clearly people need to be welcomed – and to feel welcome. As Rick Warren has said: “Long before the pastor preaches, the visitor is deciding whether to come back. They are asking themselves, ‘Do I feel welcome here?’”. But is a welcoming spirit sufficient to encourage people to return?
One large UK survey found that churches which were growing were more likely to give newcomers something. It didn’t seem to matter what that ‘something’ was, presumably because the act of identifying the recipient in itself is significant. As a result at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, every newcomer who fills in a welcome card receives a pen inscribed with the name and web-site of the church. At Greenlane Christian Centre in Auckland, New Zealand, they go one better and offer newcomers two gifts: on their first visit they are given a coffee mug with the name of the church; on their return visit they are given a CD featuring a sermon of the senior pastor. Perhaps significantly this church has a very high rate of retention.
According to one American study the three most important factors in ensuring a return visit were the pastor, the nursery, and the signs! I find that a fascinating insight. It’s not just the pastor – it’s about facilities for children, and also about finding the facilities! It’s not enough to welcome people at the door – the whole church environment needs to be welcoming.
But as important as is the environment, even more important is the attitude of the congregation toward their faith. Graham Tomlin in his book The Provocative Church suggested it is not primarily the quality of the preaching, liturgy, or music which brings people back to church – it is the authenticity of the church members.
Unless there is something that intrigues, provokes, or entices, then all the evangelism in the world will fall on deaf ears. If churches cannot convey a sense of ‘reality’ then all our ‘truth’ will come to nothing… Churches need to be provocative, arresting places which make the searcher, the casual visitor, want to come back for more.
An issue with which I have struggled is at what point does the church follow up newcomers? Sometimes I have waited as long as three weeks before making a visit. But Bill Easum, a North American Methodist church consultant, thinks otherwise:
Traditional churches must respond within 24 hours to those who decide to give you their names, addresses, and phone numbers. This contact needs to be personal and made by the pastor in a church with fewer than four hundred in worship and by laypeople in the larger church. The layperson can call the visitor on the phone or make what some call a ‘doorstep visit’, taking a gift of some kind and not going inside the door. The key to assimilating new people is introducing them to five to seven new people whom they will consider to be good friends within the first three months of their visiting. (The Complete Ministry Audit)
He went on to say:
Studies show that friendly, brief visits to first-time visitors within 36 hours after they attend will cause 85% of them to return the following week. If this home visit is made within 72 hours, 60% will return. If it is made more than 7 days later, 15% will return. If the pastor makes this call, each result is cut in half. A phone call by a layperson or the pastor instead of a personal visit cuts results by 80%. This immediate response by a layperson is the most important factor in reaching first-time visitors. The average person today visits several churches before deciding on a church. This means he or she may not come back for six weeks. By then, the average person decides which church to return to based on the friendliness and helpfulness of the members. If you wait until they return the second time, you lost 85% of your visitors.
These statistics relate to a particularly cultural situation. What may be true in the States may not be true elsewhere. Nonetheless, I find the statistics challenging – and not least the emphasis upon the prompt follow-up by somebody other than the minister.