Once you have attracted visitors to your church, the next step is to have them connect. If visitors never end up joining your church, your outreach efforts have been in vain. Oddly enough, most churches never really think through this process and, as a result, never get many people to stay.
The first thing to do is walk through the entire visitor experience. This begins with the church’s exterior signage and parking lot. Is your exterior signage new, attractive, accurate, informative, and up to date? Make it so. You have an excellent opportunity to give a strong reinforcement to your church image and give your visitors the information they need. Poor signage that fails to give proper service times, or God forbid, incorrect service times will give your visitors a bad first impression even before they set foot in the building.
The next step of the visitor experience is the parking lot. Is there adequate parking? Is the parking lot and church grounds well-kept? Is there visitor parking, or are the best parking spots reserved for members and staff? Whatever you do at this point will send a strong message. Make sure it’s the message you want to send.
When visitors walk into your church make sure there is a friendly greeter there to meet them. The greeters should come equipped with a professional bulletin and visitor information pack, and be able to direct visitors to the restrooms, sanctuary, information center, and children’s registration table. Spend a lot of time making all of these things work well. Your bulletin should not look like it’s from 1982. These days you can lease a full-color copier for the same price of a black and white one just a couple years ago, and full color photographic quality copies should cost you mere pennies per copy. There’s no reason why all your printed material shouldn’t look absolutely amazing.
Beyond your greeters, make sure your interior signage is obvious and well done. So often we fail to notice these things because we know where everything is. However, the first feeling a visitor will experience is the feeling of being lost. Many of them find it humiliating to have to stop a stranger to find out where the restroom is – don’t let their first experience of your church be filled with these kinds of negative emotions.
Somewhere along this line the ball must be passed to your people. If your congregation is hostile to visitors nothing you do will matter. In fact, you will do more damage than if your visitors had never come at all. It is imperative that your people understand that it’s not good enough to be friendly, you have to be friends. In the end, it will be people, not programs, that connect visitors to your church. That being said, you can create an environment where this can occur. Having a time of greeting and introductions can give people a legitimate reason to talk. The introduction of food can also allow good social interactions to occur.
Things will even go better if you equip your small group leaders and members to be inviters. Statistically speaking, only about 10% of first-time visitors will end up as members. However, one thing, getting an invitation to join a small group, increases this number dramatically. A visitor who is invited to join a small group is five hundred percent more likely to join your church than one who is not. There is an old saying: people come to church for many reasons, but they only stay for one – that they’ve made friends. Some have estimated that it takes the establishment of at least six meaningful friendships before someone will stay long-term. Small groups are easily the best tool you have to accomplish this.
There can be a potential problem if either your outreach strategy is particularly successful or your small groups are unable or unwilling to take new comers. A high volume of visitors can potentially overwhelm you congregation’s ability to build meaningful relationships with them. In situations like these I have found it very useful to connect newcomers with other newcomers with only one established couple to care for them. Newcomers, as it turns out, have a lot in common with each other. They all have the same experience of being someplace new. Spiritually, they may all be new to the Faith (or at least seeking to be acquainted with the Faith). And relationally, they are all seeking to build friendships (while your members may not feel this need at all since many of them will already have enough friends).
It should seem pretty clear that if you manage to attract a decent number of visitors, and make them stick, you’ve gone a long way toward achieving lasting growth. However, without the next step, your growth will not be self-sustaining and will be much closer to a one-time surge. To achieve self-perpetuating growth you’ll have to read on.