By Matthew Carpenter
What if I told you that the average church’s retention rate of unchurched first-time visitors is less than 3 percent? Would that shock you?
I can’t speak for every church across the world, but in my 14 years of pastoral ministry (plus the 19 where I grew up in a pastor’s home) this has been my experience.
In fact, I started keeping my own records about 10 years back, and guess what I discovered? It’s less than 3 percent.
This troubled me for years until I started spending some of my time with groups of unchurched people. Once the “cat with a priest’s collar” was let out of the bag (which is what most people thought was my Sunday uniform) that I pastored a local church, the strangest thing happened . . . people began to talk to me about their issues with churches.
It seems that most of the people that I befriended were highly interested in church, but over time they gave a church a try but wouldn’t return or would attend somewhere else for three to six months.
So, curious cat that I am, I frequently would ask them this one question: “What do you wish church people knew about unchurched people that might turn their first visit into the first of many?”
The following are the top five recurring responses I received. They are not in any specific order.
1. I want to be acknowledged, not ignored.
This one was huge to me. Did you know that official greeters (like ushers, anyone with a name tag or who will be on “stage” at some point during the service) don’t count as a genuine human contact to a visitor? The assumption is “That person has to talk to me; it’s their job.”
I get it. If a doorman is nice to me, I don’t assume that he is actually interested. That dude is getting paid to smile and engage with me. Even though I know that the motivation behind an official greeter’s kindness and concern is their love for Jesus, I’m going to immediately assume the worst.
We need organic, natural engagement, which means we need organic greeters.
We need trained folks who come to church prayed up and ready to serve in this all important ministry of connecting with first-time visitors.
Put away the name tags.
2. I always suspect that they’re going to try to “sell” me something, so my guard is up.
Jersey is the land of malls. I have no fewer than five malls within a 20-mile radius of my house that I can drive to anytime of the day. Malls are pretty universal though, so I’m hoping that this next illustration will make sense to you:
You’re strolling through the mall, eating a pretzel from Wetzel and a sinner-bun from Cinnabon and as you lift your head from the gooey goodness you spot her . . . a lady with a clipboard. You try to pretend like you didn’t see her, but it’s too late; you made eye contact. So now you have two choices: (1) throw your Cinnabon at her and make a run for it, or (2) prepare to convince this woman that you’re perfectly happy with your skin care products or your political decisions or your love and outreach to children in third-world countries.
It’s an awful feeling.
Sometimes that’s what it feels like to visit a church. You get a contact card (which if you fill out, you may be entered to win a brand new car), you get a welcome packet (free sample to convince you we’re great), and every now and again you get the sales pitch from a church member.
You have been specifically targeted. Get ready for the sales pitch.
Small changes to how you “reach out” to first-time visitors are pretty simple. Simplify the welcome packet to one page of only the most relevant information (which on a first Sunday includes where the bathrooms are). Keep the information you are asking them to fill out on a contact card very general, and don’t ask for more information than you actually need (name, email address, and space to ask a question). Train your people to ask good questions, and provide them with some rules of conduct.
3. When I go to church, I am looking for something specific.
I have yet to meet the person who started to go to church for no reason whatsoever. There are two problems with this: (1) we have no idea what their reason is, and (2) they might not be so sure themselves.
Church in North America is no longer something that’s just part of the culture. People go to church with a purpose, much the way you or I might go to a specialty shop. For instance, I have never found myself wandering around Home Depot without a very specific purpose. I know, to some men, wandering around Home Depot aimlessly is a great way to spend their day, and I’m thankful for those men; I’m not one of them. When I go to Home Depot, I have a reason. I drove there with a purpose. I am looking for something.
The same is true with most every visitor who walks through the doors of your church. They are joining you that Sunday for a reason, and they probably will not directly tell you what that reason is.
So how do we address an unexpressed felt need? LISTEN!
Chances are that if a visitor is looking to learn something specific about the church, they will hint at it in their conversations. Even if you don’t have the answer or you are simply a middleman to someone that they are attempting to gain access to, you are often the key to meeting that person’s need.
Go out of your way to talk to a first-time visitor. Ask questions (that aren’t too personal) and really listen to their answer.
4. I am convinced that everyone was staring at me and talking about me.
You ever have that feeling that you’re being watched? It’s unsettling.
Welcome to the mental state of a first-time visitor in a small church. They know that you know that they’re new. They also know that there’s no way their presence escaped your attention.
With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide (que Martha Reeves & The Vandellas), the feelings of discomfort rise up quickly for the first-time visitor.
There are a few things you can do to help combat this feeling.
Give them a cup of coffee. It’s funny how an 8 oz. cup of coffee can hide a 200 lbs. man. It’s psychological warfare against feelings of conspicuousness. I don’t want to get into all the details here (as that is not the purpose of this post), but I will mention that there is a unique safety to holding something out in front of you (a defensive strategy) as a buffer. With a cup of coffee (or tea) in a visitor’s hands, they feel as if they are doing something, like they have control. There is also the added benefit of occupying the mind on something other than yourself (like not spilling the coffee). It’s a small thing, literally 8 oz., but it’s significant.
Breaking the five-minute window. It will take a few minutes for a visitor to acclimatize themselves to their new surroundings. Within a few minutes’ time though, they have looked at the bulletin, they’ve glanced at the decor, they’ve briefly checked out a few of the people . . . Now what? That’s the window. It takes no more than five minutes for someone to get settled into a new space. After that five minutes is up, they begin to notice themselves. If you can get to a visitor before this five-minute window closes, chances are you will significantly reduce the anxiety they may begin to feel about being “new.”
There are certainly other things that can be done to help visitors feel welcome and inconspicuous, but at least this is a start.
5. I just wanted to find a seat in the back in case I needed to make a quick escape.
The back pew is sacred. I grew up sitting in the back. My mom said we had to sit there in case she needed to take us “outside” (which meant “out of the sanctuary to get a whooping”).
However, as we grew older, and slightly better behaved, we remained in the back pew because that was our pew. It’s where we sat every service.
If you are a regular church attender, you have “your” seat. That’s not a bad thing. Studies show that familiar environments where patterns are repeated and comfortable aid a person emotionally and intellectually. It may be easier for you to listen to a sermon in “your” spot or to participate in worship because you’re in front of that distracting woman who bobs around (or is it janes around for ladies?) during the singing and far enough behind that annoying heavy breather so that you don’t have to listen to him wheeze.
Your worship experience is just as important as the first-time visitor’s. However, this is already your church, and you are already pretty much comfortable with what’s going to happen in the service.
The first-time visitor isn’t comfortable and really doesn’t want to feel trapped or stuck during their worship experience. Often that’s how it feels sitting any more than four rows from the back.
Be conscious of this.
If you sit near the back of your church’s sanctuary, consider relocating to another spot that will be just as conducive to your worship experience. Sacrifice your spot as an act of worship to God and as an act of love to any potential first-time visitor.
Matthew Carpenter is pastor of Franklin Lakes (N.J.) Baptist Church. This article was first posted to the church’s blog and is reposted here by permission.