First Contact

FIRST CONTACT
BY CHARLES ARN

Helping visitors move from being observers to participants takes a well-defined plan of action. Check out how these five principles can help your church become more effective in visitor follow-up.

Recently a pastor from a well-established church said he was surprised at how their approach to following up on visitors has changed over the last few years. They realized they had to be more intentional in their approach to newcomers. Here are five simple but very important principles that will help you increase the number of visitors who eventually become members of your church family. The more of these principles you practice, the more visitors will return.

Time Principle

Contact visitors within 48 hours of their visit. The first two days provide your best window for a follow-up contact with visitors. It need not be an unannounced visit to the home; in most communities a stranger knocking at the front door creates anxiety. The risk of offending your recent guest with an unannounced visit is far greater than any benefit of a face-to-face contact. The telephone is the medium of choice.

The caller should introduce who they are and explain that they called to thank the person for attending and answer any questions about the church. The caller can briefly share the theme of next week’s service and invite the guest to return. A best-case scenario involves the person making the call to plan on meeting the visitor at a prearranged place the following Sunday and sit with them during the service. The caller should also comment on some particularly outstanding part of the church’s ministry that relates to the visitors
interest.

The goal of follow-up contact is to see newcomers return. In average churches, 10 percent to 20 percent of first-time visitors become active within a year In growing churches about 20 percent of first-time visitors become active. Also, the more often people visit, the more likely they’ll remain.

Visitor Retention Principle

Retention rate is the percentage of people who visit a church and are still regularly attending the same church one-year following that visit. (See “Retention Rate” on page 26.)

This information shouts loud and clear that the chance of a visitor becoming a regular attendee essentially doubles every time they return. A person who attends your service two times in several months is twice as likely to end up attending regularly as a person who visits only once. And a person who attends three times in a short span is even more likely to be active.

Unfortunately many churches make the mistake of trying to make “evangelistic calls” instead of “follow-up cars.” They mistakenly assume that once someone visits their service they now have permission to intrude into their lives with an uninvited call giving unsolicited answers to unasked questions. Such an approach has been shown to be counter-productive to effective disciple-making. The goal of your follow-up contact should be nothing more and nothing less than to see guests return the following week

Personnel Principle

Visitors’ return rate to your service will double when a lay person makes the follow-up contact. An equally statement, though somewhat more humbling for many clergy, says that when the pastor makes the call, the return rate drops by half

Why would more guests return when invited by a layperson than by a staff member? A pastor once answered this question in one of my seminars by musing, “Preachers are paid to be good; laypeople are good for nothing!” In a sense, he was right. When newcomers are contacted for follow-up by the pastor, they know the pastor’s being paid, and part of his or her job includes calling on visitors. In contrast, when
a guest receives a visit by a layperson, the experience is processed by the newcomer as considerably more “believable.”

How can you find such a large number of laypeople willing to serve as either hosts or follow-up callers? The secret lies in asking for help infrequently Most churches request that members serve lengthy terms as greeters or phone callers. A better approach is to ask every member to serve as a host or caller for a short time during the year Members can select the dates they would like to host or call, even trading with other members if a conflict arises. The process involves many members, and is a minimal duty to expect from anyone who’s part of the church.

Entry Path Principle

Two similar but different terms that have come out of the church-growth movement are entry event and entry path. Entry events are high-visibility activities sponsored by the church for the purpose of inviting and attracting newcomers. A good church outreach strategy includes a variety of entry events (community festivals, parenting seminars, Christmas cantatas, vacation Bible schools, divorce recovery seminars, and health fairs.)

But entry events do not, by themselves, grow churches. Entry events introduce the church to new people, but if that’s all the church offers for newcomers, they generally remain observers. You also need a way for people to be involved in ongoing activities where they can begin feeling comfortable in church sponsored activities and start building relationships others in the church. These are called entry paths. An entry path is a small group, a special class, or an ongoing activity in which people feel like participants, not just observers. Entry paths assimilate people into active church fellowship most easily. Entry events are the “doors” into your church; entry paths are the “rooms” where people meet.

“Most people who end up as active Christians and responsible church members have heard the gospel more than once from more than one source prior to making their decision for Christ,” says Win Arn. The more exposures your newcomers have to God’s message and God’s people, the more likely they’ll become comfortable and eventually assimilated. An entry path in your church will be based on the needs and interests of those who attend by providing appropriate opportunities for people to get involved in areas that are important to them.

An important result of newcomers’ participation in entry paths is the friendships that develop with others in the church. Research indicates that 75 percent to 90 percent of people join a church because of a friend or relative already in the church. The more friends unchurched people make in your church, the more comfortable they’ll be there.

Infrastructure Principle

The more small groups you provide, the more newcomers will get involved. Small groups are the best entry path you can create for newcomers to become active, responsible members. They supplement spiritual growth and build the relationships that are key to assimilation. But most churches need more small groups than they presently have to effectively assimilate newcomers. Do you have enough?

Small groups: 7-to-100. For every 100 active members, a church should have seven small groups.

Newcomer involvement 8 out of IQ Eighty percent of all new members should be involved in a small group within six months. They’re more willing to join a group than long-term members, and it’s important that they do to nurture new relationships in the church.

New Groups I out of 5. Twenty percent of the groups in your church should’ve been started within the last two years, because nine of every 10 groups lose their ability to incorporate new people after two years.

Being good stewards of the men, women, and children that God brings into your church’s sphere of influence demands the same caring and intentional priority that Jesus, himself, gave to those people who
came into his path. In the process, you’ll be an active participant in Christ’s command to “go and make disciples.”

Charles Arn is the president of Church Growth, Inc. in Monrovia, California, and the author of six books.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Most visitors are afraid of someone showing up on their doorstep after they’ve filled out a registration card. Be open with visitors and put them at ease about the purpose of getting their names and addresses.

Most churches average between 15 percent and 35 percent of their first-time visitors voluntarily identifying themselves and giving out their names and addresses. So while any church will benefit from a good
visitor follow-up system, it’s hard to put one into place if you can’t get in touch with them.

Here’s a suggested monologue for the pastor to give in your service as you welcome newcomers.

Good morning. My name is pastor________. On behalf of the family here at_____, I’d like to welcome you this morning If you’re visiting today, we want you to know that you’re our guest and its our privilege
to have you here. And we want you to know that you’re welcome to come back.

If you’re here for the first time, we know that you probably have more questions than answers. To help answer some of your questions, we’ve prepared a special guest packet of information just for you. If you’ll identify yourself to the closest host or hostess, he or she will give you a packet. Inside you’ll find a brochure that tells you a little about our church and a letter from me telling you what we’re about and how glad we are that you’re with us.

You’ll also find a guess registration card and a pencil. Before ask you to fill that out, I want to assure you that no one will show up on your doorstep unannounced. What we’d like to do is put you on our
mailing list so you can get more information about our church. A church member will be calling in the next day or two to answer any questions and see if we can be of further assistance to you.

The # I fear unchurched people have in filling out a registration card is that they’re going to get an unannounced visit Practice the principle of disclosure with your guests, being forthright about what will be done with the information And then do what you say You’ll find that guests are far more willing to share their life with you than you might expect.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

When visiting a church, guests’ first impressions play a large part in whether or not they’ll visit again.

Few people join a church without first visiting. Yet my experience shows that churches don’t put much thought into the first impressions they give newcomers. Here are some suggestions on extending a more
cordial welcome to the people God brings to your church.

Don’t Call Them Visitors

Refer to newcomers as guests. Introduce this term into the church vocabulary as you describe those attending for the first, second, and third time. Seeing newcomers as guests rather than visitors becomes the
first step toward extending to them the honor and importance they deserve.

Who Greets Your Guests?

Most churches station greeters near the front door of the church or by the sanctuary entrance. A nice gesture, but not very contributory to seeing guests return. Try using a new term that implies an entirely
different role and relationship–hosts.

What Do Hosts Do?

During their first visit, guests are asking, “Is this a friendly church?” And the primary way they determine that is through the number of people who initiate a conversation with them.

First impressions begin the moment your guests drive into your parking lot, so I encourage churches to deploy parking hosts. On rainy days parking hosts should have umbrellas to distribute and should escort those who need help. They should be well acquainted with Sunday school classrooms, nurseries, restrooms, and general directions. A printed map of the church campus should be given to every newcomer.

Once your guests are inside the building, another group should be ready to extend the welcome mat–entry hosts. They take coats or umbrellas and may escort a child to a classroom or a mother to the nursery.

Service Hosts

Service hosts are stationed every fifth row at the end of each row. Their task involves greeting everyone who sits in their block of seats. They welcome guests, engage them in conversation, and introduce them to others sitting nearby Immediately following the service they’re the first ones to go to the visitors, thank them for coming, and encourage them to come back.

After the Service

Interviews we’ve conducted indicate there’s a 10-minute window immediately following the service when newcomers are most or least impressed with the church’s friendliness. If people in the church seem
friendly and caring at this time, research tells us that it makes a significant impression on newcomers, particularly if they’ve come alone.

Coffee and Refreshments

The hallowed moment in the Sunday morning schedule when people congregate after the service for coffee and refreshments can be one of the most effective moments in extending a welcome to newcomers. Consequently, I suggest you have another set of hosts following your service–coffee hosts. They stay in the coffee area, and are constantly looking for newcomers standing alone. They engage these people in conversation and introduce the guests to others.

An intentional plan for welcoming guests doesn’t mean your welcome appears artificial. It means you care enough about extending a welcome to newcomers that you have a plan to see it happen.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY VITAL MINISTRY, JANUARY/FEBRUARY, 1999, PAGES 25-27. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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