In an earlier post, a reader asked if I had thoughts about tracking everyone who attends worship, specifically how to do that. I’ll address the how in a moment, but before I do I want to address the why.

Attendance tracking is, admittedly, a pain. This is true in small churches where the charter members who have been there since sand refuse to fill out those “silly cards” because “everyone” knows if they’re there or not. And it’s a pain in very large churches where a couple thousand cards get filled in each week – and that’s a LOT of paperwork to have to deal with.

The typical “solution” for both ends of the scale has been to try to get the visitors and guests to sign the registration pads, or cards, or whatever. If the church leadership are sharp, they’ll recognize that the power of suggestion when everyone else is filling out a “prayer and communication” card helps get guests to surrender their contact information. Convincing “everyone” to fill out those cards can be daunting, but the increase in getting first-time guest’s to give up their contact info is generally worth it.

I’ve said enough about follow-up in previous posts, in Net Results, in the On Track E-zine that I should hardly have to say anything. But for those who may have missed it, the research still says that a guest has more than an 85 percent chance of returning if the pastor visits within twenty-four hours of their initial visit – and the percent drops like a rock with each passing day. So, obviously, the first reason for gathering attendance tracking records is to connect with first time and returning guests.

I want to add an additional word about follow-up for those of you who lead larger churches. The reality appears to be that the larger the church, the less likely there is an effective follow-up practice. Clearly, the larger the church the more work follow-up becomes. In fact, it can seem overwhelming and I suppose that’s why so few large churches do much more than dash off the mail-merge “We’re so glad you joined us this week, your presence made all the difference” (as if!). I wonder if church leaders think their guest are as naïve as they treat them? Do they not think the guest is singularly unimpressed by the impersonal and less-than-welcoming welcome letter? And of course, from that point on the guest will receive unsolicited advertising for the church’s upcoming events.

I’m curious, though. How did these churches get that large? In most cases it was because the lead pastor was serious about follow-up and helping newcomers connect. They did the work of reaching out. But when the church gets “large” that becomes a thing of the past because the pastor is, truly, too busy “running a church” to do follow-up on his/her own. And so, it appears that in most cases, the onus of connecting is shifted from the church’s list of responsibility to that of the guest. If a guest wants to be a part of the church, they’ll have to do the connecting on their own. I suppose the presumed trade off is that the large church now offers really great programming and that’s so attractive that guests will jump at the chance to get involved. Hmm. I wonder if that’s one of the many reasons large churches discover they’re “leaking” participants. They come in the front door, fail to really connect, and then make their way back out via the revolving door.

Guest tracking is a pain. Did I mention that? It’s work. An active, healthy church “should” see between a 3–5 percent visitor count (three to five first time visitors for every hundred in attendance). In a church of 1000 AWA, that means thirty to fifty new folks on any given week. That’s simply too much for any individual, but a follow-up team of ten could handle that in about an hour on Sunday afternoon. Yes, the larger the church, the larger the follow-up team you’ll need. Plus you’ll probably want to want to work a database for tracking returning guests for further follow-up (your follow-up process should walk a guest from first visit to a discipleship or ministry group).

But what about tracking all your members? Is there value in that? The fact is, there shouldn’t be, but sadly for many churches, there probably is. In an effective, healthy church, 100 percent of the church’s leadership (from board members to committee chairs to Sunday school teachers) would be expected to be in a small group. Because of their example, the membership at large, would be involved in small groups as well. These small groups would be more than just a Bible study, but would be close-knit communities of faith who took care of each other. If someone “missed” a weekly get together, the group would know why or they’d find out.

However, the fact is, most churches are neither effective nor healthy. The church that has over 50 percent of their participants in small groups is a rarity, and those who have over 70 percent in small groups are writing books about how they’re doing it. And so, tracking membership can have significant advantages. For one, if your congregation has a pastoral visitation team, knowing when someone has missed a week or two could trigger a pastoral call (not by the lead pastor, however). There are dozens of shepherding programs that have been designed for congregations just like that. Most of them are borne of great ideas that should work, but in unhealthy or ineffective churches it can be difficult to recruit the requisite number of servant volunteers to get the job done. That’s not to say don’t take it on, but if you want to launch a membership visitation program, know that there are likely underlying issues that (1) makes the program attractive and (2) makes it difficult to implement.

Nonetheless, the solution to the dilemma of membership follow-up is to launch and sustain an effective small group ministry, a feat that you’ll not launch overnight. And until my book on small groups is out, you’ll want to lean on Larry Osborne’s Sticky Church and for information on how to create effective and multiply a network of small groups (unless you’re up for inviting me to your place to do some training).

On the other hand, if you’re committed to launching an all-membership tracking program, using the prayer and communication cards each week and literally training your congregation to fill them out is one of the only really effective ways of getting the information (if you have an alternative working model, please let me know).