How do you get church visitors to stick around? Part 1

by vernsanders on February 23, 2010

Sticky is a term that, in web 2.0, is a good thing. It is being applied to the intentional techniques used to try to keep people at a website. For a church, to become visitor “sticky” has become a desirable trait. But, in my experience, most churches don’t know how to be sticky for visitors, and it seems like many don’t care.

In light of the recent Pew Survey that indicates fewer people are going to church in America than in the past, let’s do a step back, shall we? Remember Worship Evangelism? Sally Morgenthaler has since been very clear that designing a worship service to get visitors to come doesn’t necessarily lead to their sticking around. But in my experience, in order to insert tab A there needs to be a slot B.

It turns out that worship design is important, but there is hard work involved in developing a relationship with a visitor…and if your worship becomes “popular” you suddenly need to develop a relationship with a lot of visitors at the same time. If not…you are the proud possessor of the revolving door syndrome.

I’ve served at a lot of churches during my ministry, and I’ve seen many different approaches to getting visitors:

  • We serve people of our denomination in the neighborhood where our building is…if they are members of that denomination they will come (1950s Lutheran in a town of 100,000; 150 seat sanctuary generally 75% full or more)
  • We’ve been on this important intersection for over 50 years, we throw open the door every Sunday morning and whoever wants to, will come (1960s downtown urban megalopolis Methodist; 2400 seat sanctuary generally 3% full [that is not a typo])
  • We are the diocesan seat, God is here, and that is the most important thing (1970s downtown Anglican cathedral in a town of 200,000; 175 seat sanctuary generally 60% full)
  • We are landlocked, and there is a megachurch just 10 miles away, we’ll try every church growth idea that comes down the pike (1980s suburban Presbyterian in a megalopolis; 450 seat revolving door sanctuary varied between 50% to 80% full depending upon the pastor and the idea du jour)
  • We serve a community and neighborhood that is disenfranchised, it is more important to have a community garden than an outreach strategy (late 1990s Methodist in a town of 225,000; 125 seat sanctuary (shared by a Jewish congregation) generally 40% full
  • Worship is the only thing to save this dysfunctional church, if we do it better they will come (early 2000s Presbyterian in a blue collar retirement community in a regional area of 50,000; 200 seat sanctuary generally 50% full, except for an initial bounce, and when the pastor and worship director left it settled at 25% full)
  • Worship is important, but relationships are more important…we’ll serve our community in any way we can (2010 Presbyterian in a tourist destination area town of 10,000; 200 seat sanctuary has gone from generally 80% full to 110%% full [including the overflow room] over the last 18 months)

Only three of these seven churches had a visitor outreach strategy in place. Of the three, one (the 1980s church) failed because of a lack of a plan for success of their strategy. One failed because the (early 200s) church was so dysfunctional, the congregation didn’t want new people to stay, and actively shunned visitors, no matter how important the staff thought it was (and told the congregation it was) to get more people.

Only the current church I serve has had “success,” and I suspect that my experience (less than 15% success rate) is probably no better than the norm among US churches. I’ll talk about “what works” next time. In the meantime, please leave a comment and let me know what your experience is. Is my 15% rate too generous, or too stingy?

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How do you get visitors to stick around? Part 2
February 26, 2010 at 9:26 am

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