Getting people in your church’s door for the first time isn’t easy these days, but getting them to return a second and third time is even more difficult. However, you can do a few things that greatly raise the return rate.

The following is a seven step response to first time guests.

Step One:

Immediately following a first time guest’s visit to the church and registration, a team of servants needs to take a gift to all the visitors. The gift can be anything that has stay power. Cakes and cookies are gone in a day or two, so don’t use them. The gift needs to be something that will linger such as a coffee mug, a potted plant, a CD, etc.

  • We gave each new guest a small potted ivy with a note that said, “We hope you will nourish your spiritual life just like you need to water this plant daily.” We also included the name of a contact person at the church. Other churches give a mug with the name and mission statement of the church printed on it. Still others give them a bag of things including the mug, a CD introducing them to the church, and a flyer about new member orientation.
  • The best church response to first time visitors I’ve seen was this: any family that signed in with children in Sunday School or Youth Church received a Fed-Ex package the following Monday or Tuesday afternoon that included a Veggie Tales CD for children, or an appropriate CD for a youth, a CD introducing the adult ministries and leaders of the church, a 25% discount to the church bookstore, an invitation to the next Pastor’s Gathering, and an assortment of other items. You can be sure a package like that will be opened.
  • No matter what type of response you choose, make sure you do as much as you can. A gift basket with a variety of helpful items is better than just one item. The younger the family, the more likely they will respond to a well-made CD or DVD that introduces them to the church, its leaders, and its ministries. Don’t scrimp on the gift bag.
  • In order for people to be able to deliver the gift bag on their way home from church, it will help if you provide color-coded registration cards, one for members and one for visitors. Take up the cards during worship, sort them during worship, and have the gift bag and a map to the home of the guest ready to be picked up by volunteers after worship. They can deliver it on their way home. They are requested not to go inside. Most cities have vendors that provide “key” maps, which are 8-½” by 11″ maps that break the city into small segments. These are the maps that are given to people delivering the gifts.
  • If you have enough paid staff, have them separate the registration cards for first timers and put their name by the gift on a table with a map to their home. If you don’t have enough staff, then recruit a couple of dedicated volunteers to do the job. If you have only one worship service, someone will have to miss worship for one Sunday; otherwise, people will either have to wait around for the bags to be set out or come back later that day. If there is any way you can pull this off without having them come back, do so.

Step Two:

Depending on the size of the church, within 24 to 48 hours either the pastor or some other staff person needs to call every one of the new guests who signed in, no exceptions. If your church is under 500 in worship, the lead pastor should do the calling. Studies show that if the church is under 500 in worship the pastor calling results in a much higher response rate than if a lay person or other staff person calls. If your church is over 500 in worship, that responsibility needs to be handed off to another staff person. Failure to take this first step in a timely manner results in a serious reduction in retention. For example, people are 75% more likely to return if they are called within 48 hours. After that the response rate drops off dramatically.

  • The goal of this call will vary based on the response on the other end. Some people may be open to an in-home visit; if so, try to get a day and time during the call. This is the most productive way to ensure their return. But some people may not be open to such a visit. Some may be more open to an email. Others may not be open to any future contact with the church. However, we do know this: when the person doing the calling is able to set up a home or office appointment (in the first timer’s office), the odds of that person returning to the church increase by 95%.
  • The original caller should note the receptivity level of the guest with 1 being no future contact other than mailing, 3-5 being email contact, 6-8 being personal and/or email, and 9-10 being the more personal contact the better. This response report should be passed along to whoever is responsible for follow-up beyond the original contact.

Step Three:

The visiting person or family should then be placed into a database, along with any particulars about the family. These include receptivity, family members, hobbies, interests, etc. Then this family or individual should be tracked over the next 90 days to see if they are returning and if so, if they are actually getting involved in some ministry of the church. Someone on staff should be responsible for the follow-up from this point on. If the family has children, the staff person in charge of children should be given their names and required to contact them either by email, mail, or phone call, or all three, depending on the report of the receptivity of the family by the original caller. If the church has paid staff, the staff should focus on the first-time guests at each staff meeting to see what progress is being made.

Step Four:

An email and/or mailing designed specifically for first-time guests needs to be sent later in the week. This piece should introduce the guest to the key ministries of the church and the staff. The piece needs to include more graphics than words and be kept to no more than one page front and back. Color is preferred.

Step Five:

The name of the family or individual should be given to either a small group leader with similar interests, family structure, or geographic location or to a Sunday School class that best fits them. The expectation is that someone from either group will contact the family or individual and invite them to their group. This invitation can be done by phone, email, or postcard depending on the receptivity level suggested by the original caller. Someone should follow up to ensure that the small group leader did invite the guest to a small group.

Step Six:

During the next three months, the family or individual should be monitored closely by someone on the staff. Never give this responsibility to a volunteer. During this time, depending on their level of involvement, this person may want to contact them either at church or at home to see what questions they have, how they are finding their way into the church, if they are ready to take on some ministry responsibility, and if they need more information about Christ or joining the church.

  • People should not be made to feel as if they have to join the church in order to participate in or lead a ministry. The further we go into the 21st century, the less importance will be given to membership and more importance to participation.
  • During these three months it is imperative that first-time guests meet and become friends with at least five or six people. Without making these connections, odds are the family or individual will drop out within 18 months. That is why participation beyond worship is crucial.

Step Seven:

If the first-time guest hasn’t returned in three months, take them off your regular database and put them in an inactive database (they may return later and you will want to keep the information you already have on them).

Question: How does your church respond to first-time guests? Share your experiences in the Comments section below.

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