5 Simple Ways to Make Your Church Stickier
by Geoff Surratt
For the first time in our lives, Sherry and I have the freedom to choose what church we attend. When we lived at home, our parents chose for us, and after we got married, we always attended the church I (and sometimes she) worked at. But now we are free to visit any church we want, so over the past couple of months, we have visited nine different churches. In most cases, we have gone as anonymous visitors, and it has been an eye-opening experience. We have been surprised how difficult it is to fit in and connect at a new church. (If you know we attended your church recently, I’m obviously talking about one of the other eight.) So this week, I thought I’d share some tips on how to attract, connect, and retain new attendees: Five Simple Ways to Make Your Church Stickier. None of these ideas are new or revolutionary, but I bet you think your church is a LOT better at each one than you really are. Trust me on this; they’re not.
Let’s dive in with Simple Way One:
1. Make your church friendlier
I’m sure you assume your church gets a pass on this one; your church is one of the friendliest churches on the planet. When you walk in, everyone says hi, you have a built in greeting time in your service when all the new people feel welcomed, and after church, people hang around forever laughing and connecting. You’ve got the friendly thing down.
Let me give you an outsider’s perspective on the friendliness of your church. When I arrive, one or two assigned people with big nametags smile and say hi. (At some churches, the assigned greeters are either engaged in conversation with someone else, grunt hello, or just frown and hand me a bulletin.) Once I navigate past people in the lobby talking to people they already know, I am placed in an isolation bubble called the auditorium.
I sit with people who don’t acknowledge my presence in any way until the forced greeting time. “Turn and greet your neighbor before you sit down.” At most, someone might crack a half smile, give their name, and shake my hand. Normally, I get a grimaced look, a quick handshake, and a short, “Hi.” I don’t realize it at the time, but that is the last time anyone will make any contact with me at your church. After service, I again have to navigate the lobby where people who already know each other have exclusive parties with other people who already know each other. Sometimes, I stand in the lobby looking bewildered and feeling as out of place as a bikini in a Denver snowstorm, but no one sees me.
Finally, I find my way back to the car feeling more alone than I did when I arrived. And in case you think it’s because I’m an introvert, my extroverted wife feels the same. Feeling alone and disconnected is the one experience we’ve had at almost every church we’ve attended.
Teach on hospitality
Take a weekend (or a month) and teach your congregation how to be hospitable at church, in the workplace, and at home. Hospitality has always been a hallmark of Christianity, so we need to teach on it.
Create a “gorilla greeter” team
Get as many people as possible to be gorilla greeters. Their job is to make sure they talk only to people they don’t know for the first ten minutes after they arrive and for the first ten minutes after the service is over. They don’t need lanyards or nametags (in fact, that would defeat the purpose). Their job is to find people who seem disconnected and figure out how to connect them.
Adopt a “neighborhood”
Divide your auditorium into sections and get leaders to adopt a section as their neighborhood. They commit to attend the same service each week, sit in their neighborhood, and watch for new people who sit in the section. They become the small group leader of that section.
Give the greeting time a purpose or kill it
Find a way to make the greeting time in your service purposeful. Why are you doing this? How can you make it more effective? Is it accomplishing the purpose you designed it for?
How has your church worked on friendliness? What has worked and not worked?
2. Navigating the Maze
Make your church easier to navigate
One way to solve the personal debt crisis in America is to make stores as difficult to navigate as many churches. Just figuring how to park is often an irritating early morning brainteaser. At a church we recently attended, the main entrance to the parking lot was blocked by orange cones. There was no sign, no parking attendant, just orange cones screaming, “No room in the inn.” Because we were determined to attend, we found a secondary entrance and parked in the lot with the blocked entrance. We often see signs at large churches that say “Lot full” with no indication of where we might be allowed to park. At one church, we kept following signs and lot full signs until we were eventually dumped back out on the main street. Again, we eventually found ample parking on site, but we had to be determined. I have seen Do Not Enter signs on auditorium doors with no explanation or alternative. Can you imagine a sign on the entrance to Target “Store full, do not enter”?
Once we park, it is often difficult to figure out where we should go. Which building is the auditorium? Where are the children’s rooms? Should I bring a pee cup, or does this church have onsite restrooms? These are the questions that many churches do not provide obvious answers to. On more than one occasion, I have stood in the lobby and waited to see where the majority of the people seemed to moving toward to find the auditorium. Imagine standing with the fam at the front gate of Disney World with no indication how to enter the Magic Kingdom. That’s how new attendees feel when they arrive at your church.
Once inside church, the challenges continue. Can I bring my soda (or coffee if you are one of THOSE people) into the auditorium? Do I find my own seat (like a movie), or will someone find a seat for me (like a play)? When do I stand, sit, hand over my wallet? Will I be forced to sing a solo? Approximately how long will this service last? Am I supposed to wash down the stale bread with a big swig from the cup of wine? These are the kinds of questions that normally I have to figure out on my own. Printed program guides are helpful, but I’m not sure if I should really sit and read while everyone else is standing and singing.
The challenge is what the Heath brothers in Made to Stick call The Curse of Knowledge. All of the regular attendees know how to navigate the church experience, and they’ve forgotten what its like not to know. So how do you make your church easier to navigate? Here are a couple of ideas:
Get fresh eyes
As often as possible, ask new attendees what obstacles they faced when they first attended. Get someone who doesn’t attend to try to navigate a weekend and give you feedback. Hire one of those “Secret shopper” services and see what they say. You can’t know what it’s like because you have the curse of knowledge; you need an outside opinion.
Retrain your host team
Make sure your host team is thinking constantly about the new attendee. What message does this sign send? If we have to close an entrance, how can we best explain the alternatives? Are we always scanning for that bewildered look, and are we proactive about helping? What can we do each weekend to make the experience for the first time attendee easier to navigate?
A very simple but powerful idea I’ve seen is a Start Here sign for new attendees. Most churches have welcome centers, connect tables, get acquainted tables, but a very prominent place that clearly instructs new attendees to Start Here would be awesome. (Even more awesome would be a cookie crumb trail from the parking lot to the Start Here center.) The center needs to always be manned with friendly volunteers who can help navigate the experience. A simple one-page guide would be great. Not every small group and upcoming event, but a Disney type map and explanation of everything you need to know to expertly navigate the weekend experience. And a clearly defined Next Step. But we’ll get more into that tomorrow.
The bottom line is we should do everything we can to make our church at least as easy to navigate as the local Target. How has your church tackled this challenge?
Here is something that I’ve realized in my recent church shopping experience: most of us who are visiting your church aren’t coming because your pastor is a stunning communicator, we’re not coming because your worship leader looks like Keith Urban and leads like Matt Redman, we’re not even here because Disney takes cues from your children’s ministry. Most of us are here because we want relationships. We want to know and be known. We are walking through a lonely, difficult time in life, and we “want to go where everyone knows your name.” And churches (not yours of course) can make that really hard.
After visiting several churches and not really cracking the code on how to connect (other than attending the pancake breakfast), my wife decided she was going to solve the riddle. After service on a recent weekend, she waited in line at the table designated “Connect” to ask how we could get into a small group. When she reached the front of the line, the volunteer explained that we were at the wrong table and walked her over to the correct line. When her turn finally came, she asked again how we might join a small group. The very sweet volunteer was very well versed in the process:
“Our small groups don’t start until the middle of next month, so if you come back in two or three weeks, you can fill out an interest form. The form will go to the Small Groups Coordinator, who will give it to several group leaders based on your interests. Those group leaders will then contact you, and you will then be invited to attend their small group.”
This was a well thought out system, which was explained by well-trained volunteers who were warm, friendly, and helpful. The challenge is that we left knowing that we were at least a month from actually connecting with someone. In the meantime, if something comes up in our lives where we really need a friend to lean into, we can always drop by the pancake breakfast.
Churches should be more like car lots. I could never walk away from a car lot wondering how to buy a car or be told to come back in a few days or have to give my phone number so someone can call later and talk about car ownership. I’m not suggesting churches should be pushy or over-bearing, but we should adopt the motto of car salesmen, “How can I put you in this car today?” If the main reason people are showing up at church is to find relationships, there has to be a way to help them connect today. Not next month, not at the pancake breakfast on Saturday, but today.
How can you create an obvious and easy opportunity for people who want to meet people every weekend at your church? If it’s a reception with the pastor, then make sure you have friendly connectors there as well. If it’s a box lunch in the basement, make sure it isn’t awkward for people who don’t know where the basement is, when it starts, or what they are supposed to do when they first get there. And for the love of all that is good, don’t let the members clump up in little circles laughing and talking to one another at your connection opportunity. Newcomers don’t need yet another chance to feel left out.
This isn’t about consumer Christianity or church growth; this is about people going through life alone desperate for a friend. This is the central theme of discipleship, that we love one another. People want to connect, you want people to connect; let’s put significant time and energy into making this happen.
4. Better Preaching
Make your preaching more applicable and practical
Every church I have visited recently (especially yours) has had a very capable preacher who has given a fairly clear, coherent presentation of the Gospel. At the same time, I have felt a little lost on occasion (except at your church) as to where the pastor was going with their sermon. As a new (or old) attendee at your church, there are three questions I need answered in every sermon:
What do you need me to know?
Sermons are packed with all kinds of information. Background information on the Bible passage, personal stories, famous quotes, obscure statistics, amusing anecdotes, paradoxical historical references, multiple Bible verses from multiple books of the Bible. Out of all this information that you are sharing in 30-60 minutes, which part do I need to know? As every college student has asked at some point, what will I need for the test? While I’m sure everything you say in your sermon is essential and life changing, I can’t possibly absorb or remember it all. Not even close. So please, please, please tell me what part do I NEED to know? And make that part memorable.
How has this essential knowledge impacted your life?
The inside information you gave on the life of a 1st century rabbi was fascinating. The quote from Bonhoffer was absolutely riveting. The story about the five year old teaching her grandfather the true meaning of faith was totally adorable. But what I really want to know is how does this play out in your life? Do you have doubts? Are you generous? How do you find God’s will? Who are you sharing your faith with? What is your small group like? If you don’t have personal stories of how the main point of your sermon works (or doesn’t work) in your life, then lets just skip the sermon and get home in time for the pre-game show.
What exactly do you want me to do as a result of hearing this message?
I need a specific action step. I need something I can do now, today, before I go to bed tonight. I can’t remember five steps, and by tomorrow morning, all I’ll remember about your sermon is the joke you told about the priest, the rabbi, and the elephant. And I need the action step in a specific, binary format; if I will do X, then Y will begin to happen in my life. I’m not asking for a part the Red Sea miracle, but I need to know that if I take action on the essential information, I will see progress similar to what you have shared from your own life. And be realistic about how big of a step I can take today and how much progress I will actually see. I have to believe you if I am really going to take a step.
If I knew that most Sundays at your church, a pastor would share essential information grounded in his own experience that applied directly to action steps I can take to improve my life, I think I would be inclined to attend as often as possible. (Obviously, true life change only comes from biblically based messages focused on the cross. My point is that these sermons need to be delivered in a format that the average attendee can connect to.)
5. The Volunteer Maze
My wife has been involved in working with children since she started leading the children’s choir at her church at the age of 15. She taught public school for many years, worked as an administrator at several public and private schools, served on multiple school boards, led children’s ministry at a local level, and was the Children’s Ministry Pastor at Seacoast, where she was responsible for over 1000 children on multiple campuses. So she thought it would be fairly simple to volunteer to work in the nursery at our new church. Not so much. She had to be fingerprinted, have a background check, attend an orientation, meet one-on-one with a supervisor, shadow a leader, and attend a training meeting. It took her several weeks to finally be placed in a nursery with two bored teenagers and a half dozen babies. While safety and training are very important in children’s ministry, giving birth to her own baby was less complicated than this process.
While this is an extreme (though not exaggerated) example, it points to a challenge I see in many churches. How difficult is it to volunteer at your church? Most leaders would say it is very easy. There is always an opportunity to sign up to hand out bulletins, watch babies, or park cars. But what if there are higher capacity people in your church who might be able and willing to contribute at a senior level? It is very likely that there are men and women in your auditorium on Sunday who would be willing to share their extensive experience for free if there were an easy way to connect. While they may not be ideally suited to serve coffee or change diapers, they bring years of invaluable expertise. The church that made my wife jump through every standard hoop to baby-sit missed the opportunity to tap into 30 years of experience. What free expertise and experience are you missing by channeling everyone through the lowest common denominator opportunities?
How can you simplify your onboarding process for new volunteers? How could your church create an obvious and easy on-ramp for high capacity leaders who would like to volunteer in your church? Is there a tool that would help you quickly identify and connect with these leaders? If you can figure this one out, the payoff in Kingdom effectiveness will be exponential.