HOW TO DEVELOP A PROSPECT FILE…AND USE IT EFFECTIVELY
BY: ROBERT C. ORR
What really makes a church grow? Ask that question of most church members and you get a wide variety of answers. Some would say that a loving Christian atmosphere is the reason. Others will volunteer that good preaching is the key. Some might say an attractive building brings people to church. Or perhaps a good Sunday School is the reason churches grow. Some go so far as to say the key to church growth is busses: get kids to come and their parents will follow.
But from research and study of growing churches across North America, church growth experts have found that the one common characteristic of all growing churches is people. People are directly related to every growing church. Well, of course people make churches grow. That’s obvious. But stop and think. There are significant implications in that statement. It really isn’t things-like buildings or busses, and it isn’t even good preaching or good Sunday Schools-although they can be an important part. It’s dedicated lay people, believing in their church, proud of their church, inviting friends to their church-that enable churches to be effective in growth efforts. And it’s new people, coming into a new, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, that causes
churches to grow. So one key question is, where do we find the people outside of the church who are these prospective new Christians and new members?
DEVELOPING A PROSPECT FILE
One of the most helpful suggestions is for the church to develop a prospect file.
A prospect file is a specific list of non-Christians, or people outside the fellowship of the church, to whom a bridge exists through one or more lay persons in the church. It is the list which receives the primary attention in the church’s evangelistic thrust and outreach.
There are some good reasons why a prospect list is an important first step in reaching people through your church. A prospect list is important because, first of all, it allows you to direct church outreach events to meet the needs of the specific people you are trying to reach.
Such a list also helps to identify various contacts or bridges between people in the church and these prospects. A good prospect list is made up of responsive people, and usually that includes many friends and relatives of people already in the church.
A third reason a prospect list is important is that it helps to focus prayer and concern on individual people and families. And the personal and spiritual rewards are immense when you take someone’s name off the prospect list and add it to the membership roll.
HOW AND WHERE TO FIND PROSPECTS
So, the big question: where do you find people for your prospect list? Here are five specific areas that a church can pursue.
The first and most natural place to look for evangelistic prospects is each member’s “circle of influence. ” In a recent study of over 20 churches I found that each church member has between six and twelve non-Christians in his/her circle of influence. That is, each person could identify on the average eight unchurched friends or relatives whom he/she could call on a first name basis, would consider a close friend or relative, and who shared mutual fellowship and respect. It seems clear that if each believer has this circle of influence the evangelistic potential of a church would be significant. A church with 100 members, for example, would have a potential prospect list of approximately 800!
Here’s a second excellent place to get names for a prospect list: the programs or special ministries of the church. Some examples would be:
1. The non-Christian family members of Sunday School students and church club members.
2. Any special interest groups that meet in the church.
3. People influenced by specialized ministries, such as programs to the aged, disabled, handicapped, etc.
4. People contacted through a short-term ministry, such as vacation Bible school or special programs.
5. People whose lives are touched by a cell group ministry.
6. Church-sponsored sports activities.
7. If a church has a television, radio, or literature ministry, contacts may be found there.
8. Visitors to church worship service.
9. Those who attend a church-sponsored high visibility event, or specialty seminar of community interest. (For example, one church ran a workshop on a Saturday morning on how to tune a car and save $50.00. This attracted many men who would not normally come near a church. From these non-Christian men a number became prospects for Christ and the church.)
The third way of finding prospects comes from referrals. Many pastors, church organists, soloists, etc., get calls from funeral homes when someone has died, or from hospitals when someone is going through a crisis situation. These should be followed up.
Another type of referral is from church members who are in business. There is a fine Christian optometrist, uses the consultations with folks to share his faith. He asks whether they would mind if the pastor or one of the people from church came by to tell them about the church. These referrals have proved to be extremely valuable.
A fourth major source of prospects comes from the visitation ministries of the church. These may be survey calls or simply friendly visits to introduce the church to neighbors. Those who have just moved into the community are often especially open. Some of these people are responsive, and become excellent prospects. This, by the way, is a subtle but significant shift from the traditional visitation goal of many churches. Previously the goal has been to present the Gospel in every home and endeavor to get a decision for Christ. A new approach, however, would see a community visitation program as a way of finding prospects, and then developing a strategy to reach each person or family on the basis of their particular needs.
A fifth important source of contacts for a church prospect file is the new convert. New Christians have many more contacts with unchurched people than do longtime believers. Yet, at the same time, the new Christian has very little knowledge of the things of God. A growth-oriented church will structure ways for older Christians to train and support these new converts as they understand and share their faith with their non-Christian friends. A church in western Oklahoma asks every new Christian who joins the church to list seven close friends or relatives who he believes can be reached for Christ and the church.
USING YOUR PROSPECT FILE FOR GROWTH
Simply having a prospect file is no guarantee that effective evangelism will take place or growth will occur. A prospect list is simply a tool that, if used properly, will increase the harvest. Here are some suggestions for using a prospect file effectively.
First, gather as much information as you possibly can on each prospect. For example, the source of the contact, approximate age, sex, marital status, previous religious experience, occupation, special needs, hobbies, etc. In reality you will probably not get all of this information immediately. Each call that is made should be recorded. As a church seeks to meet the needs of the people in its ministry area, it is a great advantage to know as much as possible about the prospects.
Second, accurate records of the first and all subsequent contacts and results should be kept. For example, if a lay person phoned a worship visitor on Monday to express appreciation for his visit, that would be the first contact. If, on Wednesday, the visitor received a letter thanking him for his visit, that would be the second contact. If, on Friday, he received a phone call from a neighbor in the church with an invitation to come again on Sunday, and possibly come over for dinner, that would be noted. These initial contacts are not “hard sell evangelism,” but are rather friendly calls that build bridges. While our final goal is to see people become responsible disciples and church members. it is a process that takes time.
Third, don’t allow prospects to become cold. Don’t make the assumption: “Once a prospect always a prospect.” Someone who visits a church service this Sunday may be a prospect this week. He may not necessarily be a prospect in three months.
Fourth, train sufficient Class II workers (whose time and effort turn outward to non-Christians). To find prospects is usually not a problem. “The harvest is great but the laborers are few.” Sufficient Class II workers with various responsibilities are necessary if these prospects are to be reached.
Finally, have specific, regular prayer for all the prospects on your list. One of the ways to do this is to have “prayer partners.” These are people who would support the efforts of each Class II worker by praying for him/her and the people that person is trying to reach. There is great support that develops and joy that is shared in seeing God answer requests for those non-Christians who need His touch.
The prospect file is a tool that God can use for the growth of your church. Developing a prospect file will open the “church growth eyes” of your people to the tremendous possibilities for growth at their very doorstep, and encourage them to develop systems and strategies for reaching and incorporating these people into responsible church membership.
(The above material was published by the Institute for American Church Growth which is directed by Rev. Robert C. Orr.)
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