Yvonne Gentile and Debi Nixon of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection say a church’s first goal with first-time worship visitors is to get them to come back. So, it is important to follow up with them in ways that are prompt, personal, and pleasant.
Faith Perceptions, which does research related to the first-time guest experience in churches, published a blog post in 2016 related to guest follow-up. Between October 2015 and September 2016, they surveyed 1,321 people who visited churches for the first time, in all sizes and denominations of churches. Of those first-time guests, 504 provided their contact info when they were asked to do so. But 30 days later, only 119 (24%) had received any kind of follow-up from the church they visited. Of the 504 people who completed the information card, 359 were unchurched or de-churched. The fact that no one followed up with these guests sends a clear message that they were not important to the church.
Knowing how to do excellent guest follow-up can be a mystery. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our efforts don’t quite have the intended effect. We’ve all experienced follow-up that was more of a turnoff than an encouragement to return, and we know we don’t want that.
Getting first-time guests to return is the first goal.
Your first goal should be simply to get first-time guests to come back. The primary goal in following up with a first-time guest isn’t to get them immediately connected into a group or get them into serving or to become a member after their first visit, although that sometimes happens. The odds of guests making a connection substantially increase, though, after a second or third visit. In order to facilitate those progressive connections, we have to be intentional about how we do it.
Effective follow-up leads to returning guests who (hopefully) eventually become fully engaged in the life of the church. Consider that a typical growing church sees 20% of first-time guests become part of the church. At the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, we’re experiencing between 20 and 25% of first-time guests ultimately joining the church. For most growing churches, close to 60% of people will become part of the church after their third visit.
We’ve found that there are three key components of effective follow-up, and the principles are true whether you’re following up after worship or programming participation. Effective follow-up is prompt, personal, and pleasant.
In 2007, Bill Easum published an article titled “How to Grow a Small Church.” In that article he stated that the promptness of guest follow-up had a significant impact on the return rate to church. The best thing you can do is follow up within 24 hours. Bill’s research showed that if you follow up within 24 hours, your guests are 85% likely to return. That’s powerful stuff. Reach out 24 to 72 hours after this visit, and the return rate falls to 60%. Wait more than 72 hours and the return rate drops to 15%.
Prompt follow-up is an indicator to our guests that they matter to us. In today’s environment of fast information and instant gratification, slow follow-up implies that their visit was not incredibly exciting or important to us. Remember this: if you wait until Wednesday to follow up with the guests in worship, you are losing 85% of them. If you’re leading ministry programming that happens on Wednesday night, you need to follow up before Saturday and ideally before Thursday night. Following up within 24 hours must be a high priority for us.
Make a personal connection. Guest aren’t seeking connection with your building; they hope to find community. A person-to-person interaction is most effective in engaging guests. In our children’s ministry, when a new child is checked into our KIDSCOR programming, the person who checked the family in sends them a handwritten note the same day. After worship, one of our volunteers delivers a coffee mug and offers a warm welcome to guests after their first visit. Make written follow-up personal by using you guests’ names instead of a generic greeting.
Make sure your follow-up is a pleasant experience for your guests. This should be a no-brainer but it’s often not. Design your follow-up to make your guests feel welcome and comfortable; ensure it’s not intrusive or unpleasant to your guests. Sometimes in our efforts to identify and acknowledge new guests, we can unintentionally make them feel very uncomfortable. Remember, 63% of guests prefer to wait until they’ve visited a few times before they let anyone know they’re visiting. Let them fly under the radar during their visit if they like, just make sure their guest experience and your follow-up lets them know that they were not invisible.
We need to recognize the courage it takes for someone to come to church for the first time and be sensitive, navigating that fine line between excellent follow-up and something that feels more like church stalking. Pay attention to the feedback that you get from people, both verbally and nonverbally.
Commit to making your follow-up processes as light and noninvasive as possible, while still being committed to intentional follow-up. Use plain language with a friendly, conversational tone. The tone and tenor of our follow-up can create a positive emotional response in our guests when it’s done well. And that’s important because guests return not because of what we do, but because of how we make them feel.
This material is excerpted from The Art of Hospitality (Abingdon Press, 2020) by Yvonne Gentile and Debi Nixon. Used by permission. The book is available at Amazon.