Read any number of books on church organization and evangelism, and you’ll hear some common goals. Visitors should feel at home. They should be comfortable finding their way around. They should feel like they’re welcome and that their presence is valued in the community. They should feel safe.
Those are all good things, at least objectively, but it’s hardly a list that your elders couldn’t have written themselves. More interesting are the competing ways we’re advised to achieve these same goals. Visitors should be singled out and welcomed the moment they walk in the door or they should be allowed to worship in anonymity and peace. We should follow up at their house later in the day, or send them a letter next week, or maybe just leave them alone and hope our distance conveys enough respect for their privacy that they come back. It’s a mess.
What Assimilation Is Not
Before we dig too deeply into helping people feel at home and begin the slow dance of connecting with your church family, it’s worth saying a few things up front. First, this is not about making the Gospel more effective. We can’t do that, and Scripture is clear on that point. We’re seeking to eliminate distractions and obstacles to allow people to clearly hear the Gospel proclaimed in its full sweetness (and, of course, the Law in its full bitterness!).
We are also, despite the advice of well meaning authors and consultants, ultimately not out to make people feel safe. The Gospel isn’t safe. If visitors to our worship services (or even regular members) do not find themselves confronted by the places the Word of God challenges their thoughts and actions, then we need to take a step back and reflect on our proclamation. Put differently, if your sermon serves only to make sinners feel better about their sin, then it’s no longer the Gospel and visitors probably won’t hang around. There’s too many other voices in our culture selling that particular message.
The Gospel runs counter to culture, and it challenges, sometimes hurts, and often destroys precious idols we’ve built for ourselves. That’s what it’s supposed to do. So know that when we talk about making a visitor comfortable, we’re in the realm of turning up the heat in winter, not watering down the message.
Let’s own at the outset that we have two competing objectives here.
As a church family, we want to know everything we possibly can about a visitor and his or her family in order to better care for them and make them aware of opportunities that are available in the congregation. They, on the other hand, having been conditioned by decades of retail employees asking for their phone number, address, email address, mother’s maiden name, and four valid photo IDs, consider their personal information something very private and don’t part with it lightly.
Indeed, in the post-Facebook-scandal era, privacy has become more than ever a sort of currency. Asking for too much up front, before there’s the relational capital to cover it, can result in visitors feeling uncomfortable and the church seeming nosy. (We are, but for good reasons, we promise!) We must balance those two pieces. Fortunately, there are ways that technology (which has created some of these problems) can help open those doors and make visitors feel at home.
Walking the Tightrope
Here’s a handful of tools your congregation might use to help maintain that balance.
While its influence is fading (and more rapidly than many expected in the wake of recent scandals), there’s really not a good substitute for a solid Facebook page. How you use it, though, is key.
The church Facebook page needs to have more than just advertisements for events occurring at the church and announcements about next week’s potluck. Those have their places, but a visitor checking you out on social media should get a sense for the personality and community of your congregation.
Take pictures at events (remember to be careful photographing children for social media—get permission!). During the week, especially if you have a multi-staff office, post about things going on in the office when you can. The idea is that a visitor who has already scoped you out (and they all have) will walk in with a sense that they already know a little bit about who this community is and what you’re about.
Email managers are hardly new on the scene, but they make for a lightweight way to follow up with visitors that’s not quite as creepy as the homemade-cookies-delivered-to-the-address-we-discovered-by-planting-a-GPS-tracker-on-your-car-during-Communion method. (For the record, I prefer peanut butter. My wife will be won over by chocolate chip, though.) For a modest fee, these tools give you the ability to manage email lists, send emails, and do follow-up analysis with metrics like open rates and click throughs for your calls to action. They also help your congregation remain CAN-SPAM and (if applicable) GDPR compliant.
One of the most useful ways to use an email manager is to create a very short series of welcome emails:
- Begin with an email thanking the person for visiting and hoping that they’ll come again. Offer your services and resources, but don’t include any direct calls to action.
- Several days to a week later, follow up with an email highlighting the communication channels your community uses and the resources you provide to your community. Include with this a way (or, better yet, several ways) to contact your pastor directly to give the visitor access to him should there be a need.
- Depending on your community and congregation, it might be appropriate then to follow up with one more reminder about upcoming opportunities in the congregation and to allow the visitor the opportunity to opt in to further communication from your congregation. Feel free to explicitly own this. Nobody likes spam, and there’s no harm in saying that outright and giving the visitor a chance to be equally open about his or her interest in your community. If they don’t want to hear more from you, then they can delete the last email and go on with life. If they want to continue to hear about events and activities in your congregation, they can fill out a super short email form and be added to your usual emailing lists.
A Solid CRM System
A CRM (customer relationship manager) is a huge asset for any business. Churches, while not simply businesses, have many of the same needs. A good CRM should allow you to track important events like birthdays and anniversaries, as well as to see patterns of contact and to detect changes in attendance and participation. One example of a CRM dedicated to churches is Church360°. There’s a lot this software can do to help you organize your congregation’s information, but it’s beyond the scope of what I can cover here. Consider requesting a live demo instead. Regardless of how you go about organizing that information, though, your system should include tools that help visitors walk toward membership and belonging in the congregation.
The List Goes On
With new tools literally coming out daily, I’m sure I’ve not heard of everything, not even had space here to look at all the tools I do know about. What are your favorite tools for helping make your church feel welcoming to visitors? What problems are you having that we can look for tools for?
Hear more from Bill about how your church can reach out to visitors while still respecting their privacy.
Live on Facebook Thursday, August 23 at 11:30 a.m. (CDT)