In the first part of this article series we dealt with the most common problem churches have – getting visitors to return. In fact, churches are so troubled by this issue that the national average appears to be that significantly less than 15 percent of first-time visitors return for a second helping.
However, when a visitor does return another difficulty emerges: integrating the guest into the life of the congregation well enough that, not only do they become a member, but they become a committed member that “sticks” even during the tough times. As I mentioned in Part 1, I’ve worked with one church through this process that is currently seeing 85 percent of their first-time visitors return, with 75 percent moving into membership at various levels.
Turning Guests into Committed Members
Churches of all sizes experience difficulty in the integration process (we’ve stopped using the term assimilation – we’re just not into the Borg imagery). Smaller churches generally know if they’re having an integration problem, but mid-sized and larger churches may not immediately notice the issue. They often discover they’re having an integration problem when they review their annual stats and realize that (1) they’ve “received” sixty-seven new members during the previous three years, (2) their average worship attendance is about what it was back then, and (3) they’ve only done five funerals. And though this malady is common throughout the church, ineffective integration is probably the most common problem plaguing the megachurch today.
Hearkening back to the previous article, although a returning guest will have made an initial connection with the church and a few acquaintances, to remain on the connecting track will necessitate additional connections – and significant ones at that. Although a church’s excellence in hospitality can inspire a visitor to become a returning guest, the next connections take more than being welcoming.
Connection with Friend(s)
I’m not sure who actually said it first, but I distinctly remember hearing Win Arn say it in an evangelism class back in the 80s that if a guest didn’t make a friend within the first six months or so, they would drift away from the church. When someone does drift away, church leaders too often succumb to the delusion that “another one simply fell through the cracks” as if they had no responsibility for those losses. Many, if not most, churches suffering from integration issues are guilty of abdicating their responsibility of “friending” their guests.
Of course, behind this issue is the oft’ used excuse, “I just don’t have time for another friend.” It’s true that we live in a too-busy culture that’s been compounded recently by the lagging economy. However, in our experience, one reason so many churched people have no time for friends is because they are over-involved in church activities (this is more true in small to mid-sized churches than larger ones). In many churches, it’s not uncommon for active participants to serve on multiple committees, to sing in the choir, teach a Sunday school class, and/or to lead some other ministry. In addition to all that, these are the ones who show up every time the church doors are open, attend multiple committee and board meetings, and support/attend almost every church sponsored event as well. With all that on their plate it’s no wonder many church-folk have no time for a new friend.
On the flip side, in larger churches the busy-ness of members is compounded by the lack of intentional and available means to connect. For some reason, a number of large and mega churches seem to carry a “We dare you” attitude when it comes to providing easily accessed processes to integration. Indeed, I spoke with the staff discipleship leader at one mega church who admitted, “We intentionally make it difficult for new people to get connected here.” The rationale behind this was unfathomable to me, but it may explain the decade-long plateau that church has experienced!
The solution to the busy-ness issue is simple: Get less busy. Many churches would be helped by the “One Person, One Passion, One Position” rule. Simply put, this rule limits church members to serving only within their God-given passion. It means that no one can hold more than one leadership position in the church. When implemented, it’s amazing how much more free time church members have – time that they can use to “take on” a new friendship .
Larger churches not only have to help their leaders (and members) make the choice to become less busy for the sake of the Kingdom; they also have to develop easy and plentiful opportunities for returning guests to make connections with existing members. Small groups, affinity events, providing openly accessible and inviting gathering and mingling space, and other such activities will help facilitate introductions that lead to friendships.
Getting un-busy isn’t easy and it isn’t painless, but it’s absolutely necessary if the church is going to help returning guests take the next step in the connection process. As a guest builds friendships within the church, they become increasingly active in the life of the church. They become more regular in their worship attendance. They may try out a small group or Sunday school class with a friend. And ultimately, in churches that are intentional in their integration processes, they’ll find themselves “clicking” with a ministry or the mission of the church and becoming increasingly involved. During this period the guest moves from just being a guest into the role of a participant.
Connecting with God
Although a number of folks will come through your doors with some sort of God-connection, as our culture continues its trek away from the church and from Christianity, an increasing number will find their way into participation without having a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. That being said, it will become increasingly incumbent upon churches to develop some sort of a process for walking unbelieving first-time visitors from the front door to faith to membership. There are any number of processes that have been created and are available for adopting and adapting (Saddleback’s four-base 101 system immediately comes to mind), but the key is to choose and use something. Most churches leave this process to chance, “hoping” that somehow a pre-Christian will somehow just “connect” with God because the church’s worship is so good, or their Sunday school is so inviting. However, hope is not a strategy and this stuff is simply too important to leave to chance.
It’s not enough to develop a process to walk someone from cynic to saint, skeptic to believer, seeker to faith-filled. The process has to be so obvious that even the spiritually blind can see it. I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve visited that offer no apparent pathway from visitor to believer to member… and then they complain that they’re not able to get guests to commit. Further, it should come as no surprise to any of us that a growing number of church guests have limited church experience. Without that history, they have no idea how to traverse the faith journey, they have no idea even where to start.
Some churches offer a series of “Introduction to…” classes. Others design a path that begins with a one-on-one with the pastor, moves to involvement in a Sunday school class, and culminates in a confirmation or catechism course. So long as a guest can easily find the on-ramp to that journey, when they’re ready they’ll make their way to it (but don’t hesitate to personally invite them to the first step at an opportune time).
One word of warning: the core of this connection step is less about getting a “new member” for the church than it is about accompanying a new citizen into the Kingdom. Whatever process that gets designed, design it with facilitating a relationship with Jesus Christ as the chief outcome. However, since most churches equate baptism or faith commitment with church membership, this connection nearly always includes the reception of a new participating member.
When someone “walks the aisle” or becomes a member by some other mechanism in your congregation, most churches seem to decide their job is done, at least in terms of integrating the new member into the core of the church. After all, they must have made a connection with the church, since they’ve joined.
Far too often, new members join in a flurry of excitement and anticipation. Indeed, they may even get involved in this ministry or that, but then something happens. An unfortunate word is spoken by a long-time member. A particular ministry comes to an end. Or horror of horrors, the pastor resigns or is transferred. And in the end, the new member slips out the back door.
The final destination in the integration process is moving from a participating member who may come or go on what may seem like a whim to a fully committed member who will be there come what may. And though this process takes time, church leaders who don’t understand the process or who ignore it do so at the church’s peril.
You may remember from Part 1 of this article series that the very first connection a first-time visitor makes is with the church, that is, they connect with their initial church experience. For a participating member to become a committed member they must make a connection with the church, but in this case, it’s not a connection so much with their experience of church as it is a connection with the church itself.
Although it appears that the majority of churches have not done the work of effectively discerning, stating, and organizing around their mission, a committed member has almost always connected with the church’s purpose. In other words, they’ve come to a place where they believe in what their church stands for, or at least what it accomplishes – even if its primary ministry is to the members themselves. However, it also appears that the more the church is conspicuously committed to and practicing a mission that includes life transformation (and seeing results), the more quickly commitment is developed.
Second, although participating members have made a friend or two in the congregation, committed members have taken those friendships to a much deeper level. Indeed, one of the most common refrains we hear from committed members is that they could never leave their friends. However, it should be noted here that as important and “sticky” as deeply rooted friendships are, friendships alone aren’t enough to take a participating member to the committed level. Many, if not most, participating members leave when the going gets rough or uncomfortable enough unless they have made the missional connection mentioned in the previous paragraph. However, the reverse is also true. As committed as a participating member might be to the church’s mission, if they haven’t built deep and committed relationships with a number of friends, when the winds of discord blow it will carry them out the doors.
Although the above factors are common to almost all committed members, there are other key factors that foster deeper commitment among participating members. For instance, when the church helps a participant discover their God-given passion and then provides a meaningful ministry opportunity for fulfilling that passion, commitment is generally the result. However, if for some reason the church withdraws that ministry, the member’s commitment may be compromised, especially if missional and friendship networks haven’t been fully established.
One last factor worth mentioning is the commitment that is developed when a participating member finds themselves facing some sort of personal or familial tragedy and the church steps in with significant and sustained support. Indeed, there is almost nothing that builds loyalty and commitment faster and more completely than being raised from the dead in some way by a caring, compassionate congregation.
Certainly, there are additional factors that may compel a participating member into commitment, but these are the most common… and indeed, missional commitment and deep friendships are foundational for most. By understanding the integration process and the connections that make integration a reality, church leaders can develop programs and ministries that will guide first-timers into congregational integration and ultimately into becoming fully committed members.
There are two rails of the connecting track. The first rail carries our passengers and we call it the Integration Process. The process is best understood through the terms we use to define integration into the heart of a congregation. These terms certainly aren’t proprietary, but when we use them, we do so with specificity and intentionality.
Question: What has been most helpful for your church in increasing the number of returning guests who stick around long-term? Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below.