The fundamental question that must be answered before building a visitor connection process is "Who's job is it to connect visitors to your church?" Historically, the burden has fallen to the visitor to connect themselves. This sounds silly, but most churches respond to a first visit with a letter, postcard or even gifts. Then they wait for the visitor to return so that they can respond again. This puts the next move squarely on the shoulders of the visitor. I believe that pastors and staff must take responsibility for visitors as an issue of stewardship. A new visitor, or even an entire family, represents a gift with which God has entrusted to you and your church. This should not be taken lightly. When I work with pastors who are struggling to determine an effective connecting process, I ask this question:
What actions would constitute faithful stewardship of the
gift (the visitor) that God gave you?
The answer to this question should become your connection process.
It is fine to acknowledge a second or third visit if they let you know by filling out your welcome card or signing your book again. In fact, you had better respond. The problem is that this is NOT a connection process! It is just a reaction to what happened. We all know by now that any visitor who attends three times is highly likely to join a church. But what do you do that increases the chance of that actually happening? A connection process where the church has accepted the responsibility of connecting visitors to them will involve proactive contacts that encourage involvement regardless of whether or not a visitor returns right away. In addition, the quality of the contacts will be higher than a standard form letter or e-mail. Perhaps a phone call rather than a letter. It could even involve a Facebook or texting conversation. The best method must be determined by the situation at hand and what action would have the highest chance of making the visitor feel welcome and accepted. People respond to a genuine interest in their lives. They will spot an obligatory phone call a mile away!
Real responsibility involves using methods that
have a high probability of being effective.
There has been quite a bit of interest in my recent post on the top 7 ways to close the back door of the church. I have been asked quite a few times to write a top 7 list for visitor connection. The only problem is that it is turning out far too long for a single post. So, I have decided to write it in a series of posts over then next couple of weeks. In the interest of laying out the road map, I will go ahead and share the list as it stands now. I do, however, reserve the right to change it as I write!
Take Responsibility For Connection
Focus On Households
Refine Your Current Process of REACTIVE Actions
Create Process of Strategic PROACTIVE Actions
Recruit and Build an All-Star Connection Team
Measure the Performance of Your Process (and adjust)
Measure the Results (and adjust)
My hope is that the list will prove useful to church leaders who want to do a better job of connecting visitors to their church. I value comments and welcome contribution, so let me hear from you! First up, Take Responsibility for Visitor Connection.
The church website landscape is changing again. The fastest growing trend in websites these days is all about the method of access. With the use of smart phones skyrocketing, it is fast becoming a frequently used method to view your church website. According to Pew Research, over 59% of American adults access the internet wirelessly. The younger demographics are even higher, with ages 30-49 at 69% and ages 18-29 at 84%. Unfortunately, most websites do not look very good on a mobile phone and the information loads very slowly. Websites that rely heavily on Flash or scripts have a particularly hard time with many features critical to site navigation being disabled on these devices. It is great to leverage Facebook and Twitter for mobile users, but your website still needs to be the "go to" place.
So, what is a church leader to do?
First of all, this is not a problem. It really represents an opportunity. You have the chance to reach out to people in a more personal way than ever before. Websites have never been this accessible or personal.
There are two ways to leverage this opportunity. One is to create a mobile website and the second is to build a church app for i-phones or Android. Each has its place and they are companions to one another. In the end, these are just more tools in your communication strategy. (Assuming of course, that you have a communication strategy!)
The mobile website should be the easiest part, primarily because the content required is pretty straight forward. The best use for the mobile site is to give a new visitor the basic information about the church. Who are you? Where are You? When do you meet? What do you believe? Why should I visit? What should I expect when I visit? Who can I talk to? I think that if you answer each of these questions, then you will have an effective mobile site. My website platform was recently upgraded to include mobile website options. The Tech Tools SiteBuilder is a website platform that provides a mobile website as part of the basic package. It is very easy to get going and people that visit your site are automatically routed to the mobile site if they access it on a smart phone. It could also be used exclusively as a mobile site in conjunction to your existing site. There are also other ways of building a mobile website. A quick internet search yields many ways of building a site.
Building an app is another tool which would provide you an extremely high level of interaction with people. The function of the app will be determined by what you want to accomplish. It can be event driven or perhaps geared toward spiritual formation. The big question here is one of function. What do you want the app to do? There are a few tools that can be used to write an app, but most of these are going to require a bit of technical savvy. I think that most churches who desire to have an app will want to work with someone to help with the design and creation.
These are not projects for vanity. The issue is not to look more cool than the other churches, it is to reach people for Christ by putting yourself where they are currently looking. Right now, they are still waiting for your website to load on their phone!
In a previous blog post "Attendance and the Back Door", I made a statement about closing the back door of the church which prompted requests for some practical ways to accomplish that task. I am very concerned about this issue because we have far too many churches who are just churning people. It is incredibly easy for a growing church to appear healthy, while leaving bruised and battered people in their wake. This is because if you subtract a 20% back-door rate from a 40% visitor connection rate, you are left with a 20% growth rate which appears healthy! I think it's tragic. Just so I won't be picking on the growing churches, I have seen just as many churches who have had the same attendance for years, but the faces are constantly changing. Where did they all go? I would like to think that just found another church that "met their needs". Unfortunately, I am scared to ponder how many have not just left a church, but have left Christianity altogether.
As a point of clarification, when I refer to the back door, I am talking about people who made an initial connection, assimilated into one of main areas of emphasis of the church and made church a part of their normal routine. I am not talking about people who have never connected into the life of the church. If a person never successfully connects, then they just turn around and go out the same way they came in, through the front door. Initial visitor connection requires its own proactive process and has a different set of dynamics. I'll deal with visitor connection and initial assimilation in a separate post.
People stop coming to a church for many reasons, but the biggest factors are the lack of close relationships and the lack of meaningful service. This situation opens the door to a perception among unconnected people that the leaders are apathetic towards their situation. Identifying the factors is the easy part. Doing something about it is a bit harder. In this post, I would like to share what I believe to be the top 7 ways to close the back door of the church. I want this list to be practical, so in order to set the stage, I want to talk a little bit about attendance. Every church I have worked with of substantial size has lamented the inability to capture worship attendance. They are right. It is virtually impossible to get accurate individual attendance of worship services. We're not talking head counts, but attendance that shows who was or was not present. That does not stop churches from trying! I just don't see inaccurate attendance as good stewardship. If you can't trust your attendance numbers so that you can confidently follow up with absentees, then it is a waste of time.
Measure what is Measurable - While worship attendance is hard to capture, adult small groups classes are relatively simple. Children's activities are the simplest of all since security issues require us to keep accurate records anyway. So, measure what you can measure. Yes, you will get push-back from some of your established groups, but if you give them some context, you will get their support. By context, I mean that they have to understand that the issue is bigger than their group. If you show them that you are trying to be good stewards of these people who are your responsibility, they will usually get on board. Ask them to help you be faithful with your responsibility.
Catch people on their way out of the back door. - One of the fundamental mistakes that I see churches make is to focus on what has happened in the past. It is not that looking back is not of value, it just won't help you get anyone back! Gone is gone! Think of it this way. If someone gets upset and you recognize that they are about to leave, you can intervene and smooth the situation. But if that person leaves, gets home and settles into their favorite chair in front of the TV, what are the odds of getting them to come back? Not very good are they? It takes a person about 4 weeks to move from "I don't think the church cares about me" to "I know the church does not care about me". Catch them on the way out and this can be prevented.
Know who you expect to attend. - In order to know who was not in attendance, you have to know who was supposed to be in attendance. This sounds simple but it is often counter to the way that churches have kept their records for years. This means that you are going to have to do some work to keep class rosters clean enough to know the difference. For example, a list of 100 kids who missed the past three classes is too large for you to effectively contact. In reality, there might only be 5 kids in that list of 100 who have been attending in the past few months. These 5 kids represent the 5 families that are on their way out the back door! This is the information that you desperately need to know, and it is so often buried in the attendance reports of the church.
Use the right people to reach out to them. - In a group setting, sometimes the problem is a disconnect between the group itself and the person who is leaving. In this situation, the group leader is not in a position to help the situation. This where the church staff can be very effective by helping people find a place where they fit better or acting as an intermediary to rectify a dispute. Make sure to offer a graceful way back in. I think that people don't want to hurt anyone's feelings and think that the easiest way to solve a problem is to just leave. If they are assured that it is OK to try a new group or a new volunteer position, that might make all the difference.
Focus onFamilies - For the most part, children do not attend church on their own. So, if little Johnny has not been to his 4 year old sunday school class in 3 weeks, it is a very safe assumption that Mom and Dad have not been there either. Since it is much easier to track children and students, use that information to prompt your efforts toward the families of those kids. This is particularly true of a family where the parents are not active in any other area than worship. Let the ministry area try to reconnect the individual, but treat a 3rd or 4th time absentee as an opportunity to connect a family.
Build retention mechanisms and processes. - Mechanisms are just ways to find out who is leaving. This can be in the form of reports from your attendance records. It can also be from feedback from people in the church. You have to establish some policies on what kind of attendance pattern will trigger your retention processes. In some churches, this might be 3 absences in a row, while others might use 4 or 5. Just make sure to stick to what is happening rather than what happened! Your processes are the methods you put in place to make sure that those who are identified are contacted and assisted. This might include phone calls, e-mails, letters, texts, Facebook notes or any other method of communication that would be effective. These contacts have to be personal. No matter the form of communication used, sincerity and authenticity will be of the utmost importance. If people in the church trust that you have good processes to follow up with people, I have found that they are much more willing to share information with church leaders. They will not share information with you if they don't think it will make any difference.
Build processes for the major emphasis areas of the church. - The difference between good intentions and success is often determined by the presence of a logical process. Constructed correctly, no one should ever slip through the cracks once they are identified. This is the same thing that must be done in an assimilation process for a newcomer to the church. The only difference is that it has to be handled a bit differently. The processes you build will be logical steps that will lead to participation in that particular area of your church. This might be connection groups, serving opportunities, leadership roles, spiritual formation steps or any other activity that you consider to be part of your "church core".
I have spent thousands of hours helping churches build connection, assimilation and retention processes. As every church is unique, the processes are always slightly different. The most important element is an acknowledgment that it is critically important to guard the back door of the church. Church management systems (ChMS) today offer many ways to facilitate these processes, but they still require careful configuration and a very intentional approach to be effective. I have a good deal of experience in these systems, and it is important to choose one that fits your needs and is flexible enough to work the way that you need it to work.
I encourage you to step back and critically look at the situation at your church. If possible, bring in an objective third party to help you see what you can't see because of your proximity. As I have worked with churches across the country, I have found that I can see both problems and possibilities in a situation just because I am a little removed from the day to day ministry of that particular church. I have been told many times by Pastors that their stress level was lowered considerably when they established good processes of connection, care and retention. This is not one of those problems for which there is no answer. I believe that any church can guard their back door if they are serious about it.
I hope that this is helpful information. Drop me a note if you want to discuss this further or use the comment section.
Just a few years ago, the biggest issue that faced churches when building a website was determining the primary audience and message. Now, this is only the beginning, as the website has become only one of many online tools used in a communication strategy. Churches routinely use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and websites along with the face-to-face messages to reach people. While it is great to have so many tools, it does present a problem. The problem with using the various modalities of communication is that it becomes hard for an outsider to get the whole picture of an organization. For example, Twitter can be a great tool, but it is limited to only short bursts of text of 140 characters each. There have been some creative ways that this has been used, but it is virtually impossible to convey a church's identity and message with tweets alone. Sermons and teaching sessions are obviously longer, but it is not practical to go through all of the opportunities for involvement in every occasion. This is where the website comes into the picture. The website can and should be an easy next step for people who find the tweets or hear the sermon.
The website needs to be an "information and communication hub" where people can find all the various ways that they can learn about the church as well as connect with other people who are involved. It can be a starting point, but it can also be more of a point of convergence from all of the tools being used. Blog posts, tweets, status updates and "likes" can all be linked together via the website where the whole message can be shared. For example, a person might read a Facebook update which references a blog post which links back to the church website.
The website also serves as a hub to re-enforce the messages that are delivered in face-to-face situations. Through some strategic planning, the experiences of an event can be enhanced and extended with direct communication, discussion and other online resources. The diagram below shows the interconnected relationship of the various communication mechanisms.
Technology can be a useful tool in churches if it is properly implemented. I encourage church leaders to reassess their communication methodology and determine the best way to impact people at this point in time.
Week in and week out, Christian churches across the world dutifully take attendance. This takes great effort from both paid staff and volunteers alike. It could be said, sadly, that we are more consistent in taking attendance than we are at living as Christ followers.
One might think that I am about to take issue with the unnecessary expenditure of effort of taking attendance, but I'm not. My biggest issue is not that we are wasting our time with attendance, it is that we are wasting the effort by leaving the collected data on the roll sheets or in the church management system. Bottom line is that it is impossible to close the back door of a church unless you create ways to catch people on their way out. Gone is gone. I am convinced that part of good stewardship in a church is to be faithful with the lives entrusted to those in leadership. Please indulge me in the following train of thought.
Attendance records are just attendance records until they are turned in to useful data.
Data is just data until it is turned into a useful report.
Reports are just reports until they are analyzed and turned into a plan.
A plan is just a plan until it is put into action.
Actions are just actions until they are managed to change a situation.
Changed situations are just... wait a minute... this is what we are after!
If we intend to fix the "back door problem" in our churches (and I hear this all the time in churches), we must make sure that we are measuring what is measurable, applying proper context and formulating good plans in order to act strategically.
Now, let me be clear. God causes the change in the situation. We are merely being good stewards of those people with whom we have been entrusted. That being said, do you want to close the back door? Then guard it!
Ministry Silos: Good or Bad?
I am amazed at how many churches spend a lot of time defining their Mission, Vision and Goals without ever ensuring that the practical plans of the various ministries lead to success. The cumulative effect of all of the ministry processes should logically result in the accomplishment of the mission and vision of the church. I feel it necessary to point out that I do realize that if God does not show up, all of the plans are meaningless. But I also think that it is poor stewardship to allow the plans to be an obstacle to ministry! Unfortunately, certain ministry processes are sometimes in conflict with processes of other ministries, and even those not in direct conflict are seldom designed to work in concert together. The result is a series of ministry silos which operate independently of one another.
Much has been written about ministry silos and how they should be avoided, but this is easier said than done. The fact is, there needs to be some division of labor and focus in order for the ministries to be effective. Compounding the situation, ministries are led in many cases by lay people who are volunteering their time and talents. The combination of the need for specialization and the need for lay leadership naturally moves toward a “church within a church” situation. I believe that the proper function and operation of the silos makes all the difference.
Since silos are a natural occurrence, care must be taken to prevent them from resulting in isolated and underachieving ministries. It is critically important to create tactical plans designed to foster continuity and to keep information flowing between ministries. There are several key areas of understanding required in order to create effective plans.
Each ministry needs to understand their impact on other ministries as well as the ones on which they are dependent.
Each ministry needs to have a good grasp on how families connect and move through the church, and how their particular ministry facilitates the movement.
Each ministry needs to understand their role in the church’s master plan as defined in their mission/vision statement. Ministry leaders, both staff and volunteer, need such perspective, but they seldom have it.
Proper understanding and appreciation of ministry silos is necessary to avoid the pitfalls. Properly managed, they can help produce dynamic and thriving ministries. Managed poorly, they will result in a collection of disparate ministries with little cohesion and uncertain direction.
Having helped hundreds of churches implement various technology solutions, I have come to appreciate the difference between potential and real improvement in church processes. Simply put, purchase decisions are made on the potential of becoming more effective, while the reality is that most will never achieve success. The reason for this phenomenon is different in every church but I have seen several factors that are common.
Technology implementation is viewed as an issue of minor importance. This is a misguided perception, but all too common. If proper use and application of tools were not important, I would be able to build a house with the tools in my garage! After all, they are the right tools. The truth is that I could build something using my tools, but it would not be a house you would want to live in! The correlation is that the implementation process will be the determining factor between success and failure. Since technology is just a tool for a church to use, it is incumbent on the leaders to make sure that the tools are used properly and for the right purpose.
Technology implementation is viewed as a lower priority than all other ministry activities. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable statement. After all, it is the ministry that matters, right? Well, yes, but if the implementation is never temporarily elevated to a high place of priority it will never be used effectively. Leaders must properly position the project as a temporary high priority so that there can be an actual improvement in ministry performance. Afterward, technology can go back to it's appropriate supporting role.
Technology implementation is not put in proper perspective. Let's face it, change = pain! People don't like change and they resist the hard work unless they see the value in the outcome. The staff needs to know that the change is being made for the improvement of ministry efforts and not just to have the latest technology. The senior leadership of the staff will either sanction the project by properly framing the intent of the changes or they will allow it to languish in obscurity. Typically, all I want from a senior pastor on a technology project is for him to share his perspective of why the changes are needed with the staff. The project requires his unwavering support of the implementation process and the intent to see it to the finish. I like to think of it as similar to early settlers burning the ships on the shore so that everyone knew that going back was not an option.
Technology implementation is led by someone with too little authority. A good implementation plan will include tasks that need to be performed and accountability for those who have been given those tasks. Many times, an administrative person of the staff has been given the unenviable task of managing the project. How can they possibly hold a pastor accountable for their tasks? The most successful implementations of technology always have a senior staff leader who owns the project to completion.
It all comes down to this. If the benefit of the technology is never achieved, then all of the planning and effort was a complete and utter waste of time and money. The worst part is that the staff had to go through the pain of change even though the benefit was not attained. Most times, we just blame the technology and look for a new solution rather than admit that the implementation was a failure. It is always humorous to hear people get excited about a cool feature in a new software program that existed in their old system!
There are many reasons to implement new technology. I encourage churches to use as much care in the implementation as they did in the tool selection. Technology can provide great benefits if it is used the right way, at the right time, by the right people, with the right training, for the right purpose.