I’ve often imagine worship guests as gifts from God. How we respond to them while they are with us and how we follow up after their visit is our gift back to God. How are you stewarding the guests that God leads your way? While many congregations work at being friendly while they are with them, I’m often surprised at how many congregations have no organized follow-up system in place. That’s like receiving a gift without saying, “Thank you!” And it doesn’t have to be terribly elaborate. Let me share with you my top ten ideas.
Ten, if they give you their contact information, assume they want you to contact them. In today’s world where we receive solicitations by mail, phone, door and email regularly for just about everything under the sun, most people have learned how to say, “No,” quite well. So, we can assume that when people give you their email or phone or address that they have been checking you out and are ready to take things to the next level. If you don’t respond, they will assume that you don’t care. And they will probably be right.
Nine, take a hint from what they give you. If they give you a phone number, call them. If they give you an email address, email them. If they give you a street address, mail them something and go by and see them. Again, assume that whatever they give you is an invitation . . . and take them up on it. If they give you more than one way to contact them, use them all.
Eight, however you contact them, (A) thank them for coming, (B) keep it brief, (C) share information relevant to their needs, and (D) invite them back. Don’t drown them in information; leave them wanting to know more, not thinking someone just dumped a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica on them. Keep the focus on them; this is not an opportunity to finally fill that seventh grade Sunday School Class Teaching position.
Seven, your key goal in any personal contact with a guest is finding out about their needs and what they are looking for in a church. Rather than trying to sell them on what you have, ask them what they are looking for – without interrogating them, of course. And as you discover information about them, it should be written down and saved in a data base. If your congregation has over 30 people coming, you already have more information than you can keep in mind. Who needs to know what you just found out?
Sixth, if you don’t contact them within 72 hours, they will wonder if you really care. If you don’t contact them by Thursday, it is hardly worth your time to bother – they have pretty much written your congregation off.
Five, a call or a visit from a lay person is always better than from the pastor. I’m not saying the pastor shouldn’t respond; she or he should. But people expect that from the pastor— they figure it’s in their job description. But when another lay person takes their time to contact them, now that’s impressive.
Four, when you do visit, make standing door-step visits -- don’t move in for the afternoon – and most people would appreciate a call first. It may be a generational thing, but in my experience anyone my age or younger doesn’t want someone dropping by unannounced. And even when expected keep it short and sweet. Better to have them think, “That was certainly nice!” than “Boy, am I glad he’s gone!” Give them a little gift (fresh bread or a plant or a mug are often used). Ask them what brought them to visit your church (and listen carefully). Ask them if there is any way you can pray for them. Have a prayer if it seems right. Tell them you hope to see them again soon and then say, “Adios!” The whole visit should not exceed 7-8 minutes. Really!
Three, track when they come back next time and respond again more personally. Many of us come to church every Sunday, but for those unaccustomed to worshipping regularly, coming once every six weeks is a big life change. When people visit again, look for ways to connect them with other people in the church. Is there a neighbor of theirs that can stop by? Does someone at the church work where they do? Does someone at church share a common interest with them? Yes, hospitality is work.
Two, never seem desperate. Very few people are driving around looking for a sinking church ship to bail out. Share with them briefly a time or two where you have seen God at work in people’s lives in the church recently. Keep it positive and trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. . . and them.
And number one: keep in mind that often people come to church the first time because something isn’t working well in their life. Most people are searching for something. They may be struggling with health concerns or their marriage is rocky or they have an addition they are trying to shake or they need help making a key decision or they are lonely or they want to connect with something more substantial than the day-to-day fluff of life. Few people are looking to join and be a church member. They are looking for more meaningful connections with people or with God or both. Help make those connections.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence