Helping Outsiders Become Insiders
A STUDY OF FAST GROWING CHURCHES
Several years ago I studied five growing churches in the Pacific Northwest. These churches averaged less than 1,200, but had grown by over 200 people during the previous year. Three of these churches did not own their own buildings, but met in schools. Even though they represented four denominations and had no connection with each other, they had similarities in their approach to assimilation. All had:
- portable signs at the nearest corners pointing in the direction of the church.
- a large banner or sign clearly identifying the church.
- greeters in the parking lot, meeting people as they got out of their cars. These greeters gave a positive, friendly greeting.
- hosts at the front doors who made guests feel welcome, provided directions, and created anticipation for the service that day with phrases such as, "You are going to love Timberlake Chapel today!"
- a visible Hospitality or Welcome Center with well-designed brochures that included basic information about the church. The printed information emphasized how the church nurtured relationships with people. It also included a map of the facilities.
- people at the Hospitality Center to escort guests to any area they were interested in-the nursery, children's Sunday school classes, or adult Bible classes.
- clearly marked nurseries and children's ministries-usually with large banners and creative names. Most had special brochures for these ministries.
- maps of their facilities posted throughout the building.
- bulletins with a simple but clear order of worship that was designed for guests. All announcements were written in a way that an outsider could understand.
- a registration system for those in attendance. Most used a friendship register, but a few used friendship registration cards. All attendees, not just guests, filled out a card. Guests were not required to publicly identify themselves.
- a reception after the service for guests to meet with the church leadership. Four churches gave each guest a gift.
- a lay person telephone guests within 48 hours of their visit to let them know how much they appreciated their visit and to answer any questions they might have about the church.
- welcome letters sent to each guest early in the week. Several of the letters were handwritten notes.
- a strategy for getting visitors involved in relationships with people in the church through guest receptions, get-acquainted desserts, adult Bible fellowships, or small groups.
WHY DO CHURCHES NEED TO BE CONCERNED WITH ASSIMILATION?
Studies indicate that 17 out of 20 churches are not growing, yet Jesus' command to the Church was to "go and make disciples." There are three reasons why every church needs to be concerned with assimilation.
- There are many who have never heard the good news that Jesus loves them and that His church is for them.
In Luke 14:23 the Master said, "Go out into the country lanes and out behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full" (TLB). Jesus revealed His mission in Luke 19:10: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (NIV). Jesus is concerned with our making outsiders into insiders.
We must target lost people with bridge events and encourage them to visit our churches. Then we must have an assimilation strategy to retain those who visit. Studies indicate that when a church does not have an intentional strategy for assimilation, 91 percent of visitors will not return and become part of the church. Many of these will also be lost to Christ's kingdom.
When Christian Life Center in Aloha, Oregon, implemented an assimilation strategy, guest retention went from 12 percent to 49 percent and the church grew from 330 to over 650 in 2 years.
- There are many who, after hearing and accepting the good news of Christ, are leaving the church through the back doors.
A study by Servant magazine indicated that every week over 53,000 people leave the church and never return. These people are not only lost to the church, but possibly for eternity.
Proverbs 27:23 says, "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds" (NIV). The diligent shepherd in Luke 15 illustrates how concerned we need to be for those who are lost to the kingdom of God.
- There are many former church attendees and Christians in our communities.
When people move, they often do not join a church in their new community.
How can we help visitors who attend our church move from being outsiders to insiders? One helpful tool is the "Circles of Commitment" diagram used in We Build People. There are five circles with each circle representing a specific group we must assimilate or move into the adjoining smaller circle.
In this article, we will focus on the outer two circles. We must develop an effective guest assimilation ministry to reach and retain those in the uncommitted (unchurched and occasional attendees) circle and move them to the committed to attendance (regular attendee) circle.
Doug Murren illustrates the importance of a guest assimilation ministry. He reports that over 90 percent of those who visit churches never return.1 John Maxwell says, "A visitor is the most important person that attends church on Sunday. His attendance has been motivated by a friend or a deep need. He brings his hurts, questions, and apprehensions. He looks for warmth, acceptance, and smiles."2
What causes people to assimilate into a church? It is relationships. Our assimilation ministry must help guests establish relationships with people in the church, to move from being outsiders to being insiders. Robert W. Jeambey reports that 43 percent of all people who leave congregations do so because of "nonacceptance and unrelatedness."3
HELP GUESTS FEEL WELCOME.
Pre-visit action steps
Tom Clegg, a consultant with Church Growth Institute, states, "When visitors walk through the door, they will decide in 3 to 8 minutes whether they will take you seriously and whether they will return."4 It is vital for a church to be prepared to receive guests. Here are four areas of preparation:
Prepare your people to welcome guests.
The entire membership needs to meet guests and help them get acquainted and involved in relationship-building ministries in the church. This is not the ministry of a few select people. This philosophy needs to be reinforced often.
Train 20 percent of members to be part of the guest assimilation ministry team.
This can be done on a special weekend. The keys are: having an intentional plan for assimilation, having effective leadership, and having a group of people who will show Christ's love to guests. There are several ministries that can help you do this. (See sidebar, Assimilation Resources.)
Prepare your facilities to receive guests.
Remember, what is acceptable to members may not be acceptable to guests. If we want to reach our guests with the good news, we must be willing to change and adjust.
- Have a contemporary sign identifying the church.
- Mow the lawn and make sure the landscaping is attractive.
- Develop clearly identified special guest parking near your main entrance(s).
- Make sure the facilities are clean (freshly painted) and look inviting. Give special attention to entrance areas, nurseries, and rest rooms.
- Discard distractions such as broken or outdated furniture, unused items, old literature, and other clutter. (Note: Things such as gifts, letters, lost Bibles can be moved to a nonpublic area.)
- Install signs on all rooms with the class name, class meeting time, age level, and leaders' names.
- Display maps of church facilities at all corners and halls.
- Clearly mark all nurseries, rest rooms, and children's classrooms.
- Make sure nurseries are clean, well staffed, appealing, and have proper check-in and check-out procedures. Have safe, washable toys and up-to-date furnishings.
- Build a Hospitality Center that is visible from all major outside doors.
Make sure your services are ready to receive guests.
Charles Arn said "The best follow-up strategies in the world will be useless if the message is irrelevant, the music inappropriate, and the experience unpleasant."5 Make sure everything in a service is understandable to the unchurched. Many people dislike church because they feel:
- the sermons are boring and not relevant to their lives.
- too much time is spent talking about money.
- the services are too long.
- We can easily correct these hindrances. A well-planned service where guests experience the genuine presence of God is a significant factor in their return. We must be sure our services are not just meetings, but times of encountering God.
Have a bulletin with a clear order of worship written in terms nonchurched people will understand.
Include the words to your music either in the bulletin or have them projected on a screen. Victor Mertz of Church Growth Institute says, "We have to remember that the unchurched don't know most of our lingo or songs or even church etiquette, such as when to stand or sit. They feel threatened because they don't know those things. We need to help them in those areas."6
The day the guest attends
- Have hosts welcome guests in the parking lot, at all doors, and at the Hospitality Center.
- Provide escorts to take guests to nurseries, children's and youth classes, adult Bible fellowship classes, and the auditorium.
- Station ushers with bulletins at the auditorium door to escort guests to a seat, and introduce them to some families seated in the area.
- About 10 to 20 minutes after the worship service begins, have guests and members complete a friendship register or a friendship card.
- After the service invite all guests to a reception where you have a gift for them.
- Have hosts at all exit doors as people leave.
Follow-up on all guests
Paul Sorensen from Community Church of Joy reports, "Thirty-four percent of first-time guests who get a call from the pastor within 2 days will return next Sunday. But if they receive a call from a layperson, 68 percent will come back."7
Here are several strategies for assimilating first-time guests:
- Members of the congregation take responsibility for each guest. These members telephone the guests Sunday afternoon and let them know how glad they are they attended and offer to answer any questions about the service or church.
- On Monday, the pastor sends a letter to all guests thanking them for attending and encouraging them to return.
- On Monday or Tuesday night, a guest assimilation team drops by the homes of those who visited on Sunday for a 15-second front door visit. The team leaves a gift and literature about the church.
- Add guests to the church's mailing list.
- On Friday or Saturday, the guest assimilation team members who are responsible for guests, telephone guests and invite them to the Sunday services and encourage them to attend a Welcome Class or an adult Bible fellowship group.
Guest follow-up of second-time visitor
- Guests receive a telephone call on Sunday afternoon from the same person who called the first time.
- A letter encouraging them to join an adult Bible fellowship or other small group is sent from the pastor with a list of options.
- On Friday or Saturday, an adult Bible fellowship or small group leader telephones and invites them to attend his or her group as the leader's special guest.
Guest follow-up for third-time visitors
- Guests receive a telephone call Sunday afternoon from the same person who did the previous Sunday calls.
- The pastor sends a letter encouraging them to attend a reception to become acquainted with others who are new to the church.
GUEST ASSIMILATION MINISTRY STRATEGY PART 2: BE INTENTIONAL AT BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
The use of adult Bible fellowships and other small groups is vital to retaining guests. The sooner guests are active in a group in the church, the sooner they will move from being outsiders to insiders. It is imperative that from the first visit your assimilation strategy seeks to move them into active participation with others from the church.
For adult Bible fellowships (adult Sunday school classes) to be effective, they must promote relationships and should include:
- get-acquainted activities every week. Finding out about others in the group promotes relationships and is the first step in developing friendships.
- time for sharing needs, joys, and prayer. In many ways the pastoral care function of the church is handled through these groups.
- Bible discussion where people are active in learning and sharing. The group will not develop relationships if the leader does all the talking.
- regular social events such as class parties, potlucks, and picnics.
- Doug Murren, "Assimilation from Visitor to Minister." Audio seminar advertisement brochure.
- John Maxwell, Ushers and Greeters. Audio seminar students workbook, p. 23, Injoy Ministries, 1530 Jamacha Rd, Suite D, El Cajon, CA 92019-3757.
- Robert W. Jeambey, Why Do People Leave Congregations? [Net Results online]; available from Leadership Network, http://www.leadnet.org.
- Jeanette Gardner Littleton, How To Become a Visitor-Friendly Church: Touch Points of Turning Guests into Members [YOUR CHURCH, January/February 1998, online] available from http://www.christianity.net/yc/8Y1/8Y1068.html.
- Charles Arn, "Seeing Visitors Return," Growing Churches, Winter 1998, p. 26.
- Jeanette Gardner Littleton, How To Become a Visitor-Friendly Church: Touch Points of Turning Guests into Members [Your Church, January/February 1998, on line ]; available from http://www.christianity.net/yc/8Y1/8Y1068.html.
- Paul Sorensen, Assimilating Newcomers at Community Church of Joy, [Net Results, September 1996, online] available from Leadership Network, http://www.leadnet.org.