VISITOR FOLLOW-UP: HOW WELL DOES IT WORK?
What do they really think-those people we call on? Do they associate church visitation teams with the assorted cultist who go door knocking and pamphlet peddling? How many people are glad to see us, and how many feel we’re invading their privacy?
They’re normally civil, perhaps even polite-but pastors and lay volunteers wonder, What do they say after we’ve left? And more important, What effect, if any, did this visit have?
To find out, LEADERSHIP surveyed nearly seven hundred people who had been contacted in the past year by the calling programs of three diverse congregations: Galilee Baptist Church in Denver, Colorado; Bismarck Reformed Church in Bismarck, North Dakota; and Big Valley Grace Community Church in Modesto, California.
Each of these churches has weekly visitation based on the Evangelism Explosion method. The program, which trains lay people to give a brief, systematic presentation of the gospel, is used by many churches, including these three, to follow up on first-time visitors to their worship services.
These were not “cold contacts”-homes picked out of the phone book or off a city map. These were people who had shown some interest in the church, usually by attending a Sunday morning service and signing a visitor form.
In order to get candid reactions and the greatest number of responses, the surveys were short-five questions-and anonymous, though people were given the option of including name and phone number if they were willing to talk further. Thirty percent included their names.
In order to assess the effect over time, separate surveys were sent to those visited from September 1982 through August 1983 and those contacted since September 1983.
Because of the strong response (from one group an amazing 74 percent of the surveys were answered) and the similar results from all three churches (despite their different sizes and locations), the survey may indicate what other churches with similar programs can expect.
Generally a Positive, Helpful Contact
Nearly 80 percent felt good about the visit, and over 60 percent indicated it was either helpful or very helpful. In response to the question “After they left, what were your personal feelings about the visit?” less than 1 percent marked Strongly Negative (They shouldn’t have come.) Five percent said Negative (It was an irritation), 13 percent were neutral, 44 percent said Positive (I appreciated their stopping), and another 35 percent felt Strongly Positive (I was very glad they came). Three percent marked Other.
Several surveys said, “I was nervous and hesitant at first, but afterward I was glad they’d come.” Others were grateful for “meeting people who cared.” Those who were negative complained primarily about the timing of the visit.
“We had just moved to town and were very busy laying carpet and cutting the pads underneath in anticipation of the moving van arriving the next morning,” wrote one respondent. “When the team called, I explained our predicament and suggested we meet another time, but they said they only visited that night
each week and insisted they come in for a short visit. I felt very uncomfortable-we had no furniture, no refreshments, and were in work clothes. We explained we were Christians already, yet we had to listen to the whole speech because one member of the team ‘needed practice.’ The `short’ visit lasted an hour and
a half, and we were resentful since we had to work into the early morning hours to prepare for the movers.”
Several mentioned that the visits came just as they were leaving the house, at bedtime for kids, when someone was sick, or at mealtime. “My husband and I were both in our bathrobes and felt uncomfortable with the unexpected visitors,” said one. Another wrote, “My husband had the flu, the house was a disaster, and they came unannounced. I would have appreciated some warning.”
Several others commented on the approach of the callers:
“They treated me like a new Christian instead of the person I am-a Christian of twenty-five years.”
“Once they discovered I was a Christian, they `practiced’ the plan of salvation on me. I felt like a guinea
These, however, represent a minority. In response to the question `after they left, did you feel you had gained anything by their coming?” Only between 3 and 19 percent (depending on the church) said No, the visit wasn’t helpful. The overwhelming majority said the visit was either somewhat helpful, helpful, or very helpful.
What, if anything, did they feel they’d gained? Most checked more than one response:
Information about the church (69 percent)
Beginning a friendship with the visitor (32 percent)
A further step in my Christian walk (26 percent)
Help with a personal question or problem (13 percent)
A new understanding about the Christian faith (9 percent)
A new relationship with Jesus Christ (6 percent)
Other (12 percent).
Among those marking Other, a few were negative (“We appreciated the first visit, but after we told them we were active in our own church, they should not have come back four more times. It was an irritation”). Most, however, expressed appreciation. “I was glad to see Christians evangelizing rather than the cults,” said one man.
Or, as a Bismarck woman wrote, “I became a Christian three years before, but I backslid. After this visit I felt as though someone cared. When they left, I rededicated my life to Christ. Now I’ve joined a women’s Bible study at the church.”
Survey responses also revealed the church attendance patterns following the visitation.
Overall, 28 percent said they’re now regularly attending the church that called on them. Another 12 percent have been back once or twice.
Some 13 percent have visited another church and become active there, and 10 percent were already attending another church and have become more active there.
No change in church involvement was reported by 23 percent, and 14 percent marked other.
Another way of looking at it: Based on this sampling, 40 percent of those you visit will wind up back at your church at least once, and a full 50 percent will become more frequent church attenders, either at your church or another.
Often this takes time. While 30 percent of those visited recently claimed no change in church involvement, that number dropped to 18 percent among those visited several months ago. In other words, results sometimes come late; people begin showing up months after the doorbell was first rung.
Where do these unhurried people eventually plug in?
Primarily other churches. Of those called on recently, 30 percent are regularly attending that church. For
those called on a year ago, the figure dips slightly to 27 percent. But during that year, the number of those becoming more active in other churches rises from a combined 14 percent to 29 percent.
If visitation is seen as a ministry for the kingdom of God rather than simply for the specific congregation, this can be encouraging: over half the people you visit will likely become more active at one church or another.
The Fraction We Focus On
Evangelism programs often rate their success by how many people “pray the prayer,” committing themselves to Jesus. What about this 6 percent? Who were these people?
Mostly young adults. By age, the new believers fell into these categories:
20-35 years-8O percent
36-50 years-7 percent
51-65 years-l3 percent
65 years or more-none
Possibly this can be explained because the early adult years are transition years, and those in flux are
more receptive to the gospel. It also maybe the result of this group doing more church shopping and thus being the focus of more visitation.
In addition, 80 percent of those claiming a new relationship with Jesus Christ also marked the response Took a further step in my Christian walk. Perhaps this wasn’t the first time they had heard the gospel; perhaps they had been getting closer to taking this step for some time.
What part did the visit itself play in their decision?
What had been especially influential? We phoned all those who’d said they’d begun a new relationship with Christ and who’d included their name and phone number.
Slightly over half described the experience as primarily a renewal of previous religious commitment.
“We wanted to get back into following Christ,” said the wife of an air force officer. “We were puzzled about things in the Bible. They answered our questions and gave us the words to describe our faith.”
“I was already a Christian, but I’d sort of gotten away from it,” said a young woman in California. “But they were so warm but not pushy; they didn’t make me feel like an outcast. They opened my eyes about how people really are-that it is normal to slack off, but you have to keep coming back.”
In every case, however, even among those making a first-time commitment, there had been exposure to the gospel before they met with the visitation team.
“I’d been reading the Bible with a Christian girl at work, and I was beginning to understand what God wants,” said a Denver woman. “But I had never really prayed to ask Jesus into my life. The people from the church asked if I wanted to, and I said yes. It was my first time `officially,’ and I was real nervous because I didn’t know the people. If that had been my first contact with Jesus, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Another new believer, a medical student, explained, “I grew up (and still am) an Episcopalian, but I never had what I’d call a personal relationship with God. Then I experienced several deaths of people about my age, and I realized that if I was going to be a doctor, I’d better come to terms with death.
“When the group from Galilee came, they explained their faith, and it made sense. They were very supportive, but didn’t push. They didn’t say anything I hadn’t heard before, but we prayed together, and it was a big symbolic event, a outward declaration of my faith. It was the beginning of the process of change in my life.”
What We’ve Learned
After sifting survey returns and interviewing by phone, what can we conclude? What would be helpful for visitation teams to know? Three things stand out:
1. Calling on people is not offensive. The strongest finding of this survey is that while some people may be hesitant at first, 80 percent wind up enjoying the attention they receive.
Those who knock on doors without phoning ahead of time have greater risk of negative response, but as Mike Pentel, a visitation team leader at Galilee Baptist, says, “It’s a tradeoff. When you call ahead of time and ask if you can come over, it’s easier for them to say no. The people who need it most wouldn’t get touched. If we don’t find anyone at home several nights in a row, then we’ll try to call and set up an appointment. ”
And unless the time was inconvenient, even those who weren’t called appreciated the visit.
Many of those ready to make spiritual decisions, however, are eager to talk and simply waiting for the opportunity. Most of those who’d begun a new relationship with Christ also said they knew the visitors were coming-either someone phoned or someone had talked to them at church. Instead of discouraging anyone from coming over, these people said they were prepared to discuss spiritual things with the visitation team.
2. Make sure the communication is two-way. No one surveyed objected to what the callers said. People who’ve visited a church are interested in what the church stands for. The resistance comes when the message is dispensed as a monologue or a sales pitch with only token responses asked of the listener.
“All the visitor did was tell me the basics of Christianity without ever asking about where I was in my spiritual life,” wrote one man. “He rambled on and sought no interaction from me.”
Another said, “I didn’t get any information about the church-only their personal experiences.”
One woman reported, “It was uncomfortable because I was a Christian, but my husband is not. He stood up
through the whole visit hoping they’d leave, though he’s too polite to ask them. But one man talked for twenty minutes without stopping. They needed to ask us some questions. It was unnatural.”
Interestingly, now a year later, that woman is involved herself in the church’s visitation program, and she’s learned from her pastor how to talk about the gospel naturally. “It’s much more relaxed that way,” she says.
3. Don’t be discouraged if the night doesn’t produce a dramatic conversion. Lay people sometimes get the impression that the evening is less than successful if no one prays to accept Christ. Actually, a profession of faith is the exception, not the rule-one in approximately twenty visits. But that doesn’t mean failure. Significant spiritual things are happening.
One woman, for instance, who indicate; personal question or problem, said, `about a month before the people from the church came, my ex-husband kidnapped my son. He came over for a visit, put our son
in the car, and left. I haven’t seen either of them since.
“I was feeling so guilty-I should have known . . . I should have done something to stop it.
“You never get over those feelings, but the people who visited me from the church really helped. They didn’t second-guess me, and they helped me see I didn’t need to keep blaming myself. They cared about me.
“I told them I was thinking of taking in an older person to room with me, and within the next week, each of them phoned me with names of people to contact. They kept me going through a rough time.”
No, this woman didn’t make a profession of faith that night. Nor has she been added to the church rolls-she’s only been back once or twice. But that anonymous visitation team showed that ministry, even when it’s not visible, can be effective.
SOURCES AND RESOURCES
Arn, Win, editor. The Pastor’s Church Growth Handbook, Volumes I and II. Church Growth Press, 1979 and 1982. See especially Volume I, “The Apathetic and Bored Church Member” by John S. Savage; Volume
II, “The Unchurched American” by George Gallup, Jr. and “Views of Evangelism” by Flavi Yeakley.
Callahan, Kennon L. Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. Harper & Row, 1983. See Chapter 2, “Pastoral and Lay Visitation.’
Dale, Robert D., and Delos Miles. Evangelizing the Hard-to-Reach. Broadman Press, 1986. See Chapter 4, “The Drop-Outs: Forsaking the Assembly.”
Greenway, Roger S., editor. The Pastor-Evangelist. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishers, 1987. See Chapter 7, “Learning How to Witness” by D. James Kennedy, and Chapter 9, “Follow-up to Fellowship” by James C. Bland III.
Hunter, George III. The Contagious Congregation. Abingdon, 1979. See Chapter 2, “A New Model for Christian Witnessing.”
Johnson, Ben. An Evangelism Primer. John Knox Press, 1983. See especially Chapter 5, “Strategies for Congregational Outreach.”
Kennedy, D. James. Evangelism Explosion. Tyndale, third edition, 1983.
Little, Paul E. How to Give Away Your Faith. Intervarsity Press, 1966. See Chapter 2, “How to Witness.”
Metzger, Will. Tell the Truth. InterVarsity Press, 1981. See Chapter 9, “How to Communicate Personally.”
Miles, Delos. Introduction to Evangelism. Broadman Press, 1983. See Chapters 13 and 14, “The Spiritual Autobiography” and “The Personal Testimony.”
Miller, C. John. Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. Zondervan, 1986. See Chapter 10, “Equipping for the Harvest Field.”
Miller, Herb. Tools for Active Christians. The Bethany Press, 1979. See Chapter 5, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: The Inactive Church Member,” and Chapter 6, “Overcoming Evangelphobia: The Evangelism Call.”
Schaller, Lyle E. It’s a Different World! Abingdon Press, 1987. Lyle Schaller writes a book a year, each of them packed with information that helps the church meet the challenge of today’s world. See especially Chapter 8, “From Doorbell to Mailbox.”
The Pastor and the People (revised). Abingdon Press, 1986. See especially Chapter 12, “Where Are the Visitors?”
Sweazey, George E. The Church as Evangelist. Harper & Row, 1978. See Chapters 6, 10, and 11: “Making Contacts,” “Using Lay Callers,” and “Instructions for Evangelism Callers.”
Wagner, C. Peter. Strategies for Church Growth. Regal Books, 1987. This is one of several helpful books by Peter Wagner on how to help churches grow. Refer especially to Chapter 1, “Why Plan Strategy,” and Chapter 3, “The Harvest Principle.”
Watson, David. Called and Committed. Harold Shaw Publishers, 1982. See Chapter 9, “Evangelism.”
The Alban Institute helps congregations to equip the people of God for ministry in the church and in the world. Through onsite training, educational events, consulting, research, and publishing, the institute works with many denominations. For a publications catalog write The Alban Institute, 412 Nebraska
Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20016.
The Billy Graham Center sponsors a variety of conferences and workshops to evangelize the lost, including the well-known Billy Graham Evangelistic Association School of Evangelism. For a list of events and dates, write The Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois 60187.
The Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the ministry potential of the church. Using seminars, consultants, and training resources, the institute is geared toward equipping church leaders for more effective ministry. For a catalog, write
Fuller Institute, P.O.. Box 91990, Pasadena, California 91109.
Church Development Resources is the program and publishing arm of Christian Reformed Home Missions. Its materials and programs are used by more than 50 denominations in North America and include programs such as Men’s Life, Coffee Break, and Story Hour, which seek to evangelize, disciple, and assimilate men, women, and children. Through its Discover Your Gifts congregational workshop, Church Development Resources has been a leader in the discovery and use of spiritual gifts to mobilize members for ministry. For a catalog or further information, write Church Development Resources, 2850 Kalamazoo Avenue, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49560 or 3@75 Mainway, Burlington, Ontario L7M 1A9.
The Church Growth Center is a nonprofit ministry dedicated to the transformational change of the church, toward the effective implementation of the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. For information and a listing of services and resources, write Church Growth Center, Corunna, Indiana @6730.
Church Growth, Inc. (formerly Institute for American Church Growth) is a leading support organization helping churches in their task of making disciples. Using seminars, study kits, books, films, and videos, the organization supports and enhances the leadership of the pastor and the growth of the local church.
For a catalog write Church Growth, 709 E. Colorado Boulevard, Suite 150, Pasadena, California 91101.
Dynacom Ministries includes in its evangelism resources a visitation program developed by Paul A. Cedar called “Night of Caring,” which uses video presentation for thirteen sessions of training and calling. For further information write Dynacom Ministries, 127 N. Madison Avenue, Suite 22, Pasadena, California 91101.
Evangelism Explosion III International provides training and resources for visitation evangelism based on D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion. Basic and advanced workshops are scheduled at various places in the United States, Canada, and 80 other nations. For information and a schedule of workshops, write Evangelism Explosion III, P.O.. Box 23820, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33307. In Canada, P.O.. Box 266, Station D, Scarborough, Ontario MIR 5B7.
The Life Enrichment Center of Pine Rest Christian Hospital provides presentations, short courses, workshops, and special events of many different kinds. Included are workshops on caring for inactive church members, friendship skills, effective communication, and leadership styles. For more information,
write the center at 6850 South Division Avenue, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49508.
The Navigators is an international, evangelical Christian organization dedicated to help fulfill the Great Commission by multiplying laborers for Christ in every nation. The publishing arm, NavPress, publishes many helpful discipleship resources. Write The Navigators at P.O.. Box 6000, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80934.
Stephen Ministries is a non-profit religious educational organization best known for the Stephen Series, an intensive training process that helps church members discover people’s needs and minister to them with loving care. For a Stephen Series inquiry packet, write Stephen Ministries, 1325 Boland, St. Louis, Missouri 63117.
Serendipity has for many years Provided innovative Bible studies and seminars on small group dynamics that help churches attract and assimilate new members. For information on materials and workshops, write Serendipity, Box 1012, Littleton, Colorado 80160.
Serve International is a church-serving ministry committed to helping pastors and church leaders in equipping God’s people for renewal, follow-up, and personal evangelism. The basic textbook is the LifeCycle training manual by Archie Parrish. Contact Serve International at 120 Interstate North Parkway East, Suite 404, Atlanta, Georgia 30339.