So you’ve made good use of your Church Management Software (CMS), and you have some new prospective members who are beginning to interact with your congregation, perhaps even showing up in worship for a few Sundays. What’s next? How do we begin, particularly in larger congregations, to move people from attending to belonging?
As I noted in our last post in this series, nothing we’re going to talk about here is going to make the Gospel or the Holy Spirit more effective. We’re looking at practical wisdom for using the tools available to us to help people make connections to others who might have the same interests (or complementary skills and needs). This is not about manipulating people into faith—nor should we ever be about that—but instead, it’s about connecting people to a wider community. Faith is meant to be lived out in the community of the wider Church, and a key part of helping the new believer stay active in this community is connecting him or her with others to develop meaningful relationships.
Have Some Metrics
Before we get into possible ideas for your CMS, let’s define what success looks like. On some level, it will depend on your congregation and its location, the mobility of the local population, and a number of other factors. But let’s look at an easy metric: How many people are still active in your congregation a year after joining? two years? five years? Look for patterns here. Is there an initial drop off as folks join and leave fairly quickly? Maybe some energy needs to be shifted from outreach to “inreach.” Are people leaving in the midrange? Maybe some focus on intentional community-building could happen within the congregation. Define what the percentages are and what you want them to be—though realistically. (Yes, we’d all like 100 percent of the people who join our congregation to remain active, but some will move away or join the Church Triumphant, so we’re not likely to hit that.)
Using the Tools You Have
In smaller congregations, relationships are likely to happen organically and may not need much of a push other than creating the social spaces and events that allow people to meet one another. Here, technology probably isn’t the right answer. Host a potluck or three, or some similar events instead. As much as I love technology, sometimes there’s no substitute for a good casserole and a few hours of storytelling.
But in a larger congregation, such events can become logistically difficult, and it’s possible for people who share common interests to simply never meet. Perhaps they attend different services, or different days, or even just sit in different areas of the sanctuary. In any case, the challenge is to find ways to connect them, and it would be almost impossible for the pastor—or any other staff member—to track everyone’s interests and skills, because of the sheer number of people. This is where technology becomes helpful.
Consider implementing a tagging system for different interests. For example, when you learn in a new-members’ class that someone has an interest in comic books and tabletop gaming, you would add those tags to their CMS record and begin to paint a picture of the different interests and communities you have within the congregation. This makes it easier to introduce those folks to one another, but it could also suggest some opportunities for social events in the congregation. You might never have set foot in a bowling alley again after the embarrassing incident back in 2012 (you know the one), but if you see that a number of your incoming and existing members have an interest in bowling, perhaps it’s time to consider an evening activity or even a regular team. Again, even the best data can’t guarantee that friendships and connections will blossom from these events, but they can set the stage for the opportunities.
Additionally, consider tagging the specialized skills of your members. Someone who is a woodworker or an electrician is a wonderful asset when you need the advice of someone who knows the trade. (As an aside, the worker is worth his wage. We all prefer to do business with someone we know and trust, given the option, but don’t expect discounts because they’re members.)
Standardize the Language
Tags or skill categories only really work if you define a standard set of terms you’re going to use, especially if various staff members might describe things differently. For example, would a Chicago Bears fan be tagged as a “sports” person? a “football” person? a “Da Bears” person? If you don’t agree in advance how to use tags, you’ll end up with a proliferation of synonyms causing more and less specific versions of the same content. Agree from the start on the broad categories you’re going to use, and then specialize as patterns emerge. If your system allows, appoint one particularly organized staff member to be the guru of all tag categories and run new tags through them before adding them to the system.
While tags are helpful, nothing really beats intentionally mentoring and discipling new members as they get comfortable in the congregation. Consider asking some longer-term members to commit to regular contact with new members in light touches over the first year or two. That might look like monthly coffee or an occasional lunch after worship. Regardless of the form that fits, you want to make sure that the interactions are happening and that key pieces of information are relayed to the pastor and other church staff. Here, your CMS should allow for some form of activity log where these meetings can be entered by the mentors along with appropriate notes for the staff. By keeping the information in a single place, everyone who’s preparing to visit, call, or host a new member can have some idea of what to expect and whether they need to brush up on Randy Moss’s all-time receiving stats.
Technology Is Only One Piece
You might have noticed that there’s no magic formula for integrating new members and ensuring that people who join your church are still there after five years. Technology can only do so much. We can use the tools available to us to help create the circumstances for people to meet and—hopefully—form meaningful relationships, but we can’t force those relationships to flourish, or even guarantee that those relationships will keep someone grounded in the congregation. It’s a good start, but there’s definitely no substitute for a culture of caring and intentional community that lays the foundation for committed, connected relationships.
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