Turn Guests Into Disciples
Developing an engagement pathway
When Candace invites people to church, she views it as an invitation to meet her family. As she explains it, church is where Candace finally understood what it means to belong.
A successful professional in her 30s, Candace sees her community as a mission field. She even leads a small group of young women, taking them on the same discipleship journey she has been traveling.
For Candace, church is not just a weekly event she attends, but a life she lives by serving, giving, and inviting every day.
When she first visited our church, Candace was far from Christ and struggling with anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Today, Candace testifies that Jesus saved her, set her free, and gave her hope, purpose, and community.
We all want to replicate stories like Candace’s. The question is, how can we turn guests into regular attendees who are passionately following Jesus?
I believe the most effective way is by establishing a clear engagement pathway that moves people into meaningful relationships with God and others.
An engagement pathway is a series of sequential, relationally driven discipleship steps that take newcomers from where they are to where God wants them to be. Following are eight things I learned through the process of developing an engagement pathway as part of our church’s pastoral team.
1. Begin with the end in view. If someone who doesn’t know Jesus starts attending your church, how would you like his or her life to be different five years from now?
An engagement pathway is about discipleship, not just attendance. Five years from now, we want to see today’s newcomers serving, giving, participating in missions, viewing their work as worship, and actively sharing their faith.
This perspective has helped clarify the journey on which we are taking people, from the moment they arrive at our church for the first time.
2. Know your community. As we built our engagement pathway, we sought a deeper understanding of our community. We researched demographics and talked with local leaders.
We also became more attentive to our neighbors, engaging them in conversations, hearing their stories, and listening to their challenges and concerns.
You can do the same. Go to your local coffee shop and get to know people. Find out what motivates them, and consider how your church can minister to their needs.
3. Focus on relationships instead of events. Events might attract crowds, but if you want people to stick around, you must build personal connections. To turn guests into disciples, you need to provide opportunities for them to form relationships.
Our church hosts a number of events just for guests, from newcomers’ parties to one-on-one meetings over lunch or coffee. But the purpose of these is always relational.
At the beginning of our pathway, we also offer classes with low commitment requirements, as well as small groups that revolve around life stages or felt needs, such as parenting groups for mothers of toddlers and support groups.
4. Emphasize movement, not numbers. Each step of the pathway should intuitively flow into the next, with new connections forming along the way.
For example, at Step 1, a first-time guest fills out a connect card. At Step 2, the guest receives a personal invitation to a party for newcomers. At Step 3, he or she responds to an opportunity to register for a one-time class on ways to connect.
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As we move people from newcomers to disciples, the objective is progress. That can mean redefining wins. Instead of looking at how many people attended an event, consider what percentage of those who came moved from the event to a weekend service or small group.
Instead of counting bodies, budgets, and buildings, look for movement. When you redefine wins in this way, an engagement pathway becomes necessary — and beautiful.
5. Encourage baby steps. A step that might seem small to longtime members can feel like a huge commitment to a de-churched family or a seeker who has never attended church. Ease in your guests, inviting them to participate at whatever level feels comfortable for them.
Many people show up at church for the first time during a moment of personal crisis, when they already feel overwhelmed and overextended. Create baby steps to help them move forward one step at a time.
Celebrating each step with newcomers before presenting them with another small step makes spiritual growth tangible and exciting.
Most guests will visit your church digitally before they ever step foot in your building. Be sure your website is welcoming, easy to navigate, and answers the questions newcomers are asking.
Include content that goes beyond promotion, inviting newcomers into relationship by taking a baby step, such as submitting a prayer request.
6. Improve the experiences of visitors. When newcomers arrive in person, be ready.
As a corporate hospitality consultant for many years, I learned to put myself in the shoes of guests arriving for the first time. I would ask myself, Does this hotel lobby feel inviting? What does the atmosphere communicate? This exercise helped me notice details people who worked there missed.
I asked my clients what they wanted people to know about them and their values the moment they walked in. This is a good question for churches as well.
You ultimately want to point newcomers to Jesus so they can experience life transformation. But keep in mind the visitor’s experience includes more than just the sermon.
How easy is your church’s parking lot to navigate? How does the foyer look and smell? Are volunteers friendly, informed, and joyful? Is there a sense of hospitality at every touch point?
7. Build on your strengths. In addition to shoring up areas that needed improvement, we capitalized on what was already working.
For instance, some of our small groups had great facilitators who were prepared to receive newcomers. So, we started promoting those groups.
Recognizing we have great people in our church, we also encouraged our pastors, staff members, and volunteers to share their stories, talk with newcomers, and practice biblical hospitality (1 Peter 4.9).
What about your congregation is outstanding? Where are you operating at your best? Play to those strengths, and find ways to make them even stronger.
8. Always have a next step. At some point during every service, offer a next step. Your engagement pathway should eventually include water baptism, participating in serving opportunities, and joining a small group or class.
However, be careful to walk with newcomers at their own pace. Find ways to help them belong even before they believe. Whether the next step is visiting the guest area or meeting the pastor during a brief reception, keep it simple.
If you hand out gifts, make sure it is something newcomers actually want. Chances are, they are not interested in your book, sermons, or any self-promoting gimmick. Provide something of value to them, not you. Consider a gift card to a local coffee shop or a nice coffee mug, for example.
As people move through the engagement pathway and make more relational connections, their commitment levels will increase. And as the Holy Spirit works in their lives, their faith will grow.
Because each local church is unique, no two engagement pathways are identical. Yet every congregation has a calling to make disciples. An engagement pathway can help your guests take the first steps toward a lifetime of following Jesus.
This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Influence magazine.
Influence Magazine & The Healthy Church Network
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