the shape of leadership

Moving Easter Guests Toward Greater Faith

What research shows about turning occasional attenders into fully committed followers of Christ

Warren Bird on March 4, 2020

Chris Morante, lead pastor at Evangel Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, approaches big days like Easter with extra prayer.

“I want people to have a life-changing revelation of Christ, to move from knowing about Him to knowing Him personally,” Morante says. “I approach big days by praying for specific people, thinking about their story, asking God for a burden for them, and believing that as they hear the gospel and see the power of changed lives, they too will experience the power and hope of Christ.”

When it comes to attracting the unchurched and occasional attenders, the biggest three days for most churches are Easter, Christmas and Mother’s Day.

Recognized by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest-growing congregations in 2019, Evangel Church finds those “holly and lily” days to be so spiritually fruitful that leaders often plan an additional big day during the year — bringing in a well-known Christian athlete as a guest, for instance.

How ready are you for your church’s next big day? To prepare well, you’ll need to identify the most strategic steps you can take to attract, welcome, retain and disciple new people. Start by prayerfully answering these nine questions:

1. Do you believe sizable numbers of unchurched people could indeed come to the church you serve? In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples of all nations.” This certainly includes our own unsaved relatives, friends and neighbors.

Jesus also affirmed that the spiritual harvest is ready and waiting for us. “The harvest is plentiful,” He said in Luke 10:2. The holdup, Jesus explained, is not with the harvest but with the workers: “The workers are few.”

To underscore this point, Jesus asked His disciples to pray, not for the harvest but for something else: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (emphasis added). Just in case it wasn’t clear who those workers should include, Jesus’ next word to His disciples was this: “Go!” (Luke 10:3).

If you and your leadership team don’t contagiously believe your church can and should meaningfully minister to more unchurched people, and that your church’s best days are yet ahead, stop reading now. Pause to calendar that issue as a major point of Bible study and prayer.

2. Are you building faith in your people that their friends will say “yes” to an invitation to attend church? Contrary to what churchgoers may think, many people would welcome an invitation to church, especially from someone they know.

In a 2016 LifeWay Research survey of unchurched Americans, about one-third (35%) said they would likely attend a church worship service if invited. And more than half said they would respond favorably to an invitation from a friend or neighbor (51%), or from a family member (55%). What an opportunity!

Numerous other studies affirm that 70%–95% of first-time guests in most churches were personally invited.

Do you want more first-time guests? Give your members good reasons to invite their friends, and specific guidance for following through. And don’t just limit this to Easter.

An example of low-hanging fruit is to maximize the weekend when children are singing as part of the worship service. During such times, aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas — unchurched and not — are highly receptive to an invitation. Provide invitation cards, social media announcements, or other ways for parents to invite their friends. Make sure the church website includes easy-to-find directions, service times and other relevant information for first-time guests.

Consider whether your sermon illustrations, announcements and other service elements will appeal to first-time guests — giving them a reason to come back, even when their little Maria is not singing.

3. Do you monitor your guest count and train your people in how to invite their friends? The old adage is true: What you inspect, you will see more of. What you monitor and measure usually increases.

Almost every church has a member who loves to count things and create spreadsheets. Perhaps that person can track attendance growth and figure out some ratios for your leadership team.

To grow even slightly, a church needs at least the same number of new guests each year as its average worship attendance. If you average 100 people weekly, do you average roughly two guests each weekend — more on big holidays, and perhaps fewer on other days? If you average 1,000 people weekly, do you average 20 weekly newcomers?

How many new guests does your church need? Divide your average weekly attendance by 52; the quotient is how many guests your church needs to average every week for minimal growth.

The assumption here comes from the research-rich book What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church by Gary L. McIntosh and Charles Arn. According to the authors, churches annually lose 10% of attendees through death, transfer and dropout, and keep 15% of first-time guests, thus netting 5% growth. To grow at a faster rate, you’ll need even more visitors. Instead of 2% guests each week, aim for 4%. (Count local guests only — not Aunt Minnie, who is visiting family but lives 1,000 miles away.)

4. Do you know what push to make on Easter as the best way to draw people back in the near future? Imagine it’s the moment in the Easter service when you or a lay leader welcomes your first-time guests and invites them to return.

What kind of appeal will draw the biggest positive response? An exhortation to come more often? An encouragement to return that evening for the launch of a 10-week discipleship group where they’ll “meet lots of great people”?

Actually, neither. Instead, offer them an experience that will help them see faith demonstrated. Perhaps you could mention the teaching series that’s launching the following week where they can hear stories of how God has helped people like them deal with loneliness (or anxiety, or another felt need) and what Jesus had to say about it. Many advertising appeals today highlight time well saved, but experiences are about time well spent.

“Today, people more highly value experiences that engage them personally and in memorable ways,” write B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore in The Experience Economy.

Jesus met Peter where he was and called him to step into a life-changing experience. Jesus said, in effect, “You like to fish? Let me show you how to fish for people.”

Jesus invited Peter into an experience that became a journey of faith in God. Do likewise with your congregation — guests and longtime members alike.

In Liquid Church: Six Powerful Currents to Saturate Your City for Christ, Tim Lucas and I explain that each big-attendance day should include an invitation to return for a one-time experience.

Examples include bringing the family on an upcoming Saturday to help package meals for the homeless, joining the church’s young adults who are coordinating an overnight cardboard box sleepover in the church parking lot to raise awareness about hunger, helping with a total makeover of a women’s shelter, and signing up for a 5K walk-run to support the digging of clean-water wells overseas.

Churches of all sizes do good in Jesus’ name. Why not time these outreaches so your big days can include an invitation to an easy-entry, low-commitment, one-time, relationship-building shared experience with other people in your church?

Your church has 0% chance of sending someone further information to enrich their spiritual life if you have no contact information for reaching them.

5. Do you have a safe way of capturing contact information for your guests at whatever level they’re willing to share? If you don’t regularly invite people to tell you a bit about themselves — through connection cards, a friendship pad, a cell phone app, geocoding, or another method — you’re missing huge potential for follow-up.

Just as important, if you’re not regularly reviewing this process to ask what’s working, what’s not, and how you can tweak the system, your methods may become ineffective.

In a rapidly changing culture, you should continually assess the ways people are most receptive to letting you into their world. In addition, have a team review all forms of data capture (sanctuary, nursery, financial giving, etc.) at least annually to be sure they’re syncing with one another.

But don’t stop there. If people in your community are comfortable participating in a local restaurant’s invitation to register their birthday for a free meal, there are safe ways you can invite them to tell your church more about themselves.

For example, one church that has active Facebook and Instagram pages always sets up a photo-inviting backdrop for its big days. They might bring in a live lamb for Easter or a series of props for Mother’s Day, such as an empty picture frame big enough for a family to pose inside.

A volunteer offers to use people’s smartphones to take photos and then asks them to tag the church when they post them on social media. If they do — and most do — voila, more access to keeping in touch.

Your church has 0% chance of sending someone further information to enrich their spiritual life if you have no contact information for reaching them.

6. Do you give higher priority to second-time guests than to first-timers, and to third-time guests than to second-timers? It’s great to let your first-time guests know you’re glad they came, perhaps by letter, email, social media post or phone. But what about your second-time visitors, the ones who liked the experience enough to come back? By their presence, they are telling you, “We are clearly interested in your church.”

What Every Pastor Should Know includes research on visitor retention. According to the authors, those who made two visits to the same church during a six-week period were almost twice as likely to settle there, and those who visited three times were almost three times as likely to stay.

In short, the more often people visit, the more likely they are to stay. So in addition to your first-timer letter or email, create notes to send to second-time and third-time guests.

Also develop a strategy for connecting second- and third-time guests with regular attendees over things they have in common, such as marital and family status, age or occupation. When newcomers have friends in the church, they are more likely to become active and involved.

7. Have you created and recently evaluated your process for moving people along a discipleship pathway? People visit churches for many reasons, but relationships are often what bring them back. Genuine relationship building goes far beyond the “greet one another” time in the worship service, or even the friendly greeter who calls people by name — as helpful and important as these moments are.

“The biggest win for a first-time guest is to make sure they’re a second-time guest,” says Carlos Cardenas, who grew up in the Assemblies of God and now serves as the director of campuses and teaching pastor at Christ Fellowship in Miami.

Of course, you want to do far more than draw people back. You want them to come to know Christ and grow in their faith.

Has your leadership team mapped out a pathway for discipleship, one that helps newcomers build relationships — with people other than the pastor — at each point along the way?

Suppose a family comes to church on Easter, returns two weeks later, and then again two weeks after that. If someone interviewed them as they exited the building on that third visit, how well could they answer this question: What does this church recommend as the top option or two for us if we want to take the next steps forward in our spiritual journeys? People need clarity on how best to make friendships and how best to grow — and ideally how to do both at the same time.

“We not only review our connection and growth pathway regularly, we also study it continually to find its weak points and then make it better,” Cardenas says. “We ask tough questions often.”

Personally following up on the connection cards every week is a top priority of the campus pastors and key volunteers, Cardenas says.

Churches grow bigger by getting smaller. People find their identity not in the whole but in a unit within the whole.

Your target should be for 80% of the adults in your congregation to be involved in a Sunday School class, home group, service team or other small group where they can comfortably say, “Would you guys pray for my job interview this week?” or even, “My teens are driving me crazy; I need some help.”

8. Do you regularly offer people specific small steps they can take to grow in their faith? You don’t want people at your church going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They shouldn’t hear one message in the weekly sermons, another in the bulletin or announcements, and still another in emails, on signage, or on the church’s Facebook page.

Churches that report the strongest spiritual and numerical growth have the highest level of clarity in their vision.

The book Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples became popular because churches tend to add, over time, layer upon layer of programming. It may be well intentioned, but it often causes confusion and diluted focus. Too many people are unsure of where their church is going, or how it can help them grow spiritually.

The solution is for a unified leadership team to translate the church’s ministries and events into a series of small steps. Each week, offer people something specific they can do to get involved in the life of the church.

This can happen in more places than just the worship services. For example, on a monthly or quarterly basis, invite repeat visitors to an after-church pizza meal with the pastor.

During the event, have three lay leaders each describe an easy-to-join, low-commitment, entry-point ministry, such as a one-month stint helping with the coffee stand or setup team. Also use the opportunity to discuss the church’s vision and goals and additional ways to join in.

The more you demonstrate intentionality in your growth pathway, the more people will take part.

9. Have you laid the groundwork for year after year of high-attendance weekends? Looking ahead long-term, what’s the best way to prepare for your next high-attendance event?

Start by developing a healthier pastoral staff and board. At the end of the day, if the spiritual health of the church and its leadership aren’t strong and growing, it doesn’t matter how good your processes are.

Further, a recent landmark study of church boards by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability found that the most significant difference between effective and ineffective boards is the degree of clarity about roles — who does what.

Effective boards know where they’re going, and they focus on that future, setting policies and tracking goals to get there. In addition, effective boards practice soul care for the senior pastor, putting priority on making sure their senior leader has a good work-life balance.

In some sense, your attendees, new and old, can’t be any healthier than you are. Your ministry is the overflow of your walk with Jesus. If the intake isn’t exceeding the output, the upkeep will be your downfall! Partner not only with your staff, volunteer and paid, but also with your board.

Are you ready to move your church, including all newcomers, toward greater faith?

Evangelism has two sides: go and tell, and come and see. Remember how Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus (John 1:41)? Every church has Andrews, and some may have a Peter. And God has given you the privilege of impacting world changes like that every week, but especially on big days like Easter.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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