Lovett H. Weems, Jr. says the traditional approach to visitor follow-up aimed at moving people quickly toward membership may not fit well in an era when people are hesitant to join anything. An alternative approach is to engage newcomers around the goal of enhancing their spiritual development.
Most churches have follow-up systems in place for first-time guests. If the visitor returns, the churches normally have a way of responding to their increased interest. For many years, the ideal sequence was for someone to visit, return, become more involved, and join the church. Therefore, it was easy to see joining as the goal of all those efforts that began when the guests first visited.
However, many churches are finding this model doesn’t work as well as it once did. There are surely many reasons, but one of the most obvious is that today many people are reluctant to “join” anything. Churches are reporting that they have many active participants who have not become members. These constituents are often more active in giving time and money than a large group of the church’s formal members. Churches face a dilemma if the goal of their engagement with new people is membership. They may not succeed in what they think should be their goal. On the other hand, they may find they have a significant group of participants who are being faithful and fruitful.
People must know that their spiritual lives are first on your church’s priority list.
Viewing membership as the primary goal of new guest efforts faces other obstacles as well. In a time when churches are often regarded with some skepticism, your church’s immediate interest in membership could convey the idea that you are asking them to do something for the church, that is, join it. When we put the focus on joining, it could be seen by people as something more for the benefit of the church than for them, thus putting the church at the center of the conversation rather than the people who first came as guests.
An alternative model might be to view everything, from the first encounter with a visitor forward, as having one goal — to help people begin or continue their discipleship journey. What the church offers, including membership, will then be seen and communicated through that discipleship lens. One drawback in membership-centered thinking is that the intense efforts around new people tend to stop when membership occurs. Attention then shifts to the other prospects who have not yet joined. In this alternative framework, membership becomes one of the means of discipleship growth to be pursued when joining is a logical step in spiritual growth and discipleship. At that point, many opportunities to learn more about the church, its tradition, and the meaning of membership can be offered to those who feel such a step can help strengthen their discipleship.
Most of the traditional activities in the early weeks and months following a guest’s visit can still be helpful; but they will not be intended so much to “sell” the church but rather to offer opportunities. People must know that their spiritual lives are first on your church’s priority list. While denominational affiliation means much less to newcomers today than in the past, churches are finding that, once people find a place in the congregation, they are eager to learn more about the church’s tradition.
Take a close look at your new guest follow-up activities and language to make sure that those who visit your church are foremost in plans and conversations. Instead of giving people the impression that you would like them to do something for your church, make sure they understand that you want for them the abundant life God wants for them.