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Increasing Guest Attendance

Increasing Guest Attendance

In this day of struggling churches it makes sense to return to the basics regarding why people choose to attend a church. Along with this discussion it’s also important to consider why people stick after that first visit. Ultimately it does no good to attract 10 new guests each Sunday if 100% of those guests fail to return. Makes perfect sense doesn’t it?

A basic rule of church growth is “Increase the number of guests who show up on Sunday mornings”. Most churches have the capacity to increase their number of guests if they work at it. Obviously there are other entry points other than Sunday worship. Small groups, mission teams, special events are all examples. For the purposes of this article I want to concentrate on Sunday worship since the majority of people check out a church at prime time, namely Sunday morning.

It’s helpful to know what influences a person to attend church on a given Sunday. Gary McIntosh conducted a study using a survey administered to 1,100 church goers to gain helpful insights in this regard. In the study he distinguished guests by two categories: Christ-followers and Seekers. Christ-followers have crossed the line of faith and show up at church usually because they are looking for a new congregation. Seekers are people who have not yet given their allegiance to Jesus. They are at some point in a journey towards Him, from initial interest to seriously seeking Christ.

Surprisingly McIntosh discovered that by far the most influential people for encouraging Seekers to check out your church are “Merchants” (41%). Merchants are people who interact with the public: hairstylists, fast food workers, bank tellers, realtors, car salespeople, etc. These are people who know about your congregation and its good reputation in the community.  That is, if your church has some positive name recognition these merchants will drop its name when the subject comes up. These merchants may include your own church members. They have great connectional influence. They will take the initiative to point people to your church, especially if they are deeply involved and love your congregation and its ministries.

The second most influential person for encouraging a Seeker to attend is a “Family Member” (17%), the third most influential is “No One” (17%), in fourth place a “Friend” (11%), in fifth place a “Neighbor” (4%) and finally a “Coworker” (3%). Based on my experience these stats ring true. In my last church a hairstylist was a champion at inviting Seekers to our church. She interacted with all kinds of people all day long and held nothing back when encouraging people to visit our church.

Based on this insight I would recommend that you pull together from among the congregation your most extroverted, winsome and respected merchants for a quick pow-pow. Encourage them to be intentional about their inviting habits. Support them in prayer. Provide them with calling cards to give to clients that includes basic church info: church name, address, worship schedule, mission statement and web address. Ask them for helpful feedback about the experiences their guests share with them after they visit. Use this information to improve your welcoming and assimilation system.

Additionally, it is important that your church raise its profile in your immediate community. One of the best ways to do this is to engage in several externally focused ministries.* These will improve your church’s name recognition, although this is never the primary motivation for doing such ministries. Consider leading your church in a steady emphasis on good neighboring so that more people will be aware of your church and its Christ-like love for everyday people.** Additionally, every pastor would be wise to make it a regular to meet local merchants.

The stats change dramatically when we examine who influences Believers to attend a church. “Merchants” have little influence (1%). Rather,  “Family Members” have the most influence at 30%. These are followed by “No One” (25%), “Friend” (22%), “Coworker” (3%) and “Neighbor” (2%). The most influential Family Members are Parents and Spouses.

The surprise in this study is the large percentage of Believers who show up at church with no previous connection to the church—the “No One” in the study at 25%. Most likely this is due to the rise of Social Media and the Web. An increasingly large number of people hear about a church, check it out online and then attend based on positive impressions from their Internet experience. In today’s world the first visit that most people will make to your church is through your web site. This is especially true for people under 40. Without a strong web presence your church will be virtually unknown. Therefore, it’s important to do a first rate job presenting your church through your web page and your Facebook page.

One of the more surprising insights based on this survey is the importance of theology. Even for Seekers, theology was important to 50% of those checking out a church. For Believers the percentage rose to over 90%. Guests want to know that your church has rock-solid beliefs. One Mission Northwest pastor asked an unbeliever with a critical eye to critique their church’s web site. Her response was intriguing. She said that there wasn’t enough emphasis on God! Her point was that people expect churches to have strong convictions about their beliefs. For these to be missing on a church’s web page is off-putting. McIntosh’s research affirms this to be true.

It’s no surprise that “Friendliness” also ranked high with Seekers at 72% and for Believers at 80%. Warmth and genuine interest in newcomers is highly important. But, the most important question in the mind of a guest is, “Can I make genuine friends here?” If there is a sense that all groups are closed, and there is no obvious onramp for making friends, then guests will move on to another church.

One additional factor is the critical part that the pastor’s preaching played in a guest coming to church. Believers ranked preaching at 90% in importance. Seekers ranked preaching at 75%. This is huge! Responders placed great value on preaching that applied to their lives, the authenticity of the pastor, and the pastor’s convictions. Preaching was more important to guests than worship style, the church’s location, and a variety of other factors such as programs. Least important was a church’s name. This is a clarion call to all pastors to continuously hone one’s preaching skills.

With this information in hand, every church can increase the number of guests who show up each Sunday. In my next article, I will share ideas for retaining guests.


*resources: The Externally Focused Church by Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson; The Externally Focused Quest by Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson

**resources: The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon; The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw & Brian Mavis

Resisting Homeostasis

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

When I consider how many churches are plateaued or declining, not only am I disturbed, but I wonder, “When did these churches stop growing?”  After all, the church did not spring into existence at a given size (say 50, 100, or 300 in attendance).

In most cases each ABCNW church came into existence because a home missionary or church planter gathered a group of people together and worked hard to reach the surrounding community for Christ. As a result a church was born and started growing. Somewhere along its historical time-line the declining church lost its growth momentum, leveled off and started a slow descent towards death.

Usually this occurs when a church establishes routine procedures that institutionalize the organization. Energy shifts from missional enterprises towards institutional concerns such as stabilizing membership gains, designing and implementing operational systems, managing programs, and maintaining the physical plant. (Granted these all need to be handled as a church matures, but never at the expense of the missional enterprise). As a result, increasingly less attention is given to mission, vision and outreach. Relational energy continues between church attenders, but wanes towards newcomers.  Imperceptibly the church drifts from the creative, peak efficiency of its glory days into an institutionally focused stale shadow of its former self.

Radical systemic change is required for a plateaued and/or declining church to recapture the missional drive that once energized its growth. Nothing less than fervent prayer, renewed vision, restored passion for reaching the lost, and new forms of ministry will do. Such change will meet strong resistance, even when the importance of the change is recognized. “There are a good number of people who will see the light, but will not do anything until they feel the heat”, warns Dan Southerland author of Transitioning.

From a systems viewpoint this is no surprise. All systems seek equilibrium, or stasis. Homeostasis is the sweet spot in every relational system, or so it fools itself into believing. In truth homeostasis is deadly. Homeostasis in relational systems finds its complement in the physical body’s natural tendency to choose the recliner over the treadmill. The ancient sins of acedia and indolence are the spiritual parallels to homeostasis.

Rather than embracing radical change the system will bargain for incremental changes, usually in the form of a program fix. In everyday church life this means trying harder at what has worked in the past, or adopting a packaged program, and expecting things to improve.

Some examples include

  • hiring a part time youth director to attract teenagers into the church (although the surrounding community may be inundated with children)
  • purchasing new robes for the choir (in an era when young adults perceive choirs as an old-fashioned oddity)
  • spending thousands of dollars to renovate the organ while refusing to spend a few thousand on an improved sound system, computer and projector to facilitate contemporary worship forms
  • preaching more forceful sermons on commitment because there are not enough volunteers to fill all the committee vacancies

These quick fixes may generate a brief spurt in energy and church involvement, but will fail to sustain a turnaround. Nothing less than system-wide change is needed. Changing the system is a daunting challenge because established systems resist change.

The skilled pastor who desires to lead the church off the plateau into outward mission and growth will need to improve his, or her, skills as an agent of change. In a plateaued church a “Masters in Organizational Change” is more valuable than a “Masters of Divinity.”

The pastor who commits to leading congregational change will be wise to choose a community of peers for support. Surrounding oneself with a learning community will provide supportive prayer, encouragement, problem-solving, and healing for the wounds received through the change-process. Going it alone is a recipe for disaster. Most importantly, the turnaround pastor must be fully committed to the journey. There will be many temptations to turn back.

Jesus said to those who gave excuses when He asked them to follow Him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” I’ve only plowed a few times in my life, and then, it was only a hand operated garden plow that my dad “allowed” me to use when he needed help in his vegetable garden. The work was hard. You couldn’t look back. Rocks and roots discouraged progress. Finishing the job meant diving in and working steadfastly until it was done. Turnaround pastors will get knocked around, but they keep on task, because Jesus calls them to do it.

As the Executive Minister of this Region I am fully committed to pastors and churches that are dedicated to deep change for the sake of the Gospel. We will launch strategies and garner resources to help you in the process. Furthermore, we will provide Congregational Assessments (sometimes referred to as Congregational Interventions) to help accelerate the change process. You’re not alone in leading your church off the plateau.

Originally published October 26, 2004 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest

Change Agent Game Plan

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

Change is ongoing in the healthy church. Leading change is a high priority strategic skill that every pastor will need to develop in a rapidly changing world. Refusing to lead congregational change is to choose slow death over health and growth.

I know that leading change is not for the faint-hearted. A declining church doesn’t turnaround and become outward focused without a demonstration of uncommon courage from the leader. There is great risk involved, yet, it is not reckless risk, for such courage is grounded in Christ Jesus who declared that He would build His church.

Church transformation requires mapping out a personal game plan that will help one stay the course, especially when fear threatens to paralyze. I wish to suggest some strategies to use in your personal game plan to becoming an agent of transformation.

1. Change agents surround themselves with traveling companions.

Leading change is similar to heading out on a week long back packing trip. You can go alone, but it will be a lonelier trek, and far more dangerous. The same is true in leading the local church through change. Most who go it alone end up lost, discouraged and in some cases severely wounded. So who should accompany you along the journey? There is wisdom in surrounding oneself with a variety of traveling companions.

Peer-to-Peer Learning Community. No one can learn enough in today’s world through solitary study. That’s why there is high value in being involved in a learning community of peers who are each committed to study, mutual accountability and reflection of ministry best practices.  A peer-to-peer group supersedes the traditional clergy cluster model in that it is primarily formed for the purpose of leadership development, not fellowship.

Vision Team. This should be a broad representative group of people from the church that would discern the church’s vision and work out a vision path for implementation. These would represent the various stake holders of the congregation and would serve to interpret and defend new directions the church takes as new ministries are launched. Most importantly they believe in the emerging dream, and help the pastor communicate it with urgency. Detailed explanation of a vision team may be found in Direct Hit, by Paul Borden.

Prayer Group. Find the people who understand the power of prayer and will commit to praying daily for the church and its leadership as it goes through transition. This group should meet together at a strategic time in the week, perhaps early on Sunday morning. Regular communication of the existence and purpose of this group will foster prayer as a high value during the change process.

Coach and/or Mentor. There is much to be said about the increasing role of personal coaches and mentors in leadership development. Without taking the time to explain the difference between coaches and mentors, let it suffice for this article that either a mature mentor or a skilled coach are both invaluable companions along the leader’s developmental journey.

2. Change agents demonstrate change in their own lives first.

The pastor is the fundamental change agent. Not the sole change agent, mind you, but the primary one. If anything is going to change in the church it must start with the leader. In fact, the only person over whom any of us have control is ourselves. We can persuade, cajole, threaten, inspire and suggest. But we can’t force change on anyone, or any group, much less a congregation.

Leaders who wish to change the system, have to change themselves first, and foremost. If the leader changes, then the relational system of the congregation must change as well. Pushing hard from the pulpit and hoping for resultant change is insufficient as a tactic for transformation. In fact, it can lead to resistance. Most people push back when pushed. The person in the pew needs to observe the leader engaging in new behaviors that flesh out new direction as well as new commitments. Churches will find a changed pastor difficult to resist.

There are several churches in our region that have experienced a major turnaround. In each situation the pastor showed the way, usually through leading a team of people to engage in some form of hands on ministry that was external in focus. For example, Paul Burnham has led the Newport Hills Community Church from a congregation running 15 in worship to one that is now beyond 130. Paul and his wife, Leona, started a myriad of ministries that reconnected the church with the surrounding community. They didn’t wait for someone else to do it. For example, they started a mid-week children’s ministry that targets the families within the low-income housing across the street from the church. This work involves a meal, family worship time and break out Bible studies that are age appropriate. They rolled up their sleeves and launched the ministry. Of course, they have recruited others to help, but they cooked the meals, walked the halls of the apartment complex inviting the children and their parents, and designed the evening’s program.

Leading a church outward in renewed ministry requires that the pastor show the way through new behaviors. The change agent starts the change process in himself, or herself, first. This personal change has strong potential for transforming the entire congregational system.

Originally published December 13, 2004  © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest