Leading New People to Active Involvement
How do we lead new attendees along a path from first-time guest to regular attendee to active participant embracing and engaging in the vision and mission of the church? It’s a huge challenge for any and every church. In “church speak,” it’s connection, retention and assimilation. The process is anything but simple. Even the terminology is a hurdle.
“If you’re leading people to Jesus, do so with respect,” says Mark Waltz, pastor of connections at Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind. “No one wants to feel as though they’re being ‘assimilated’ into anything.”
Establishing a sincere connection between a church and a guest is a tall order, especially in our highly transient, overly busy culture. So, we asked five pastors from churches in different contexts across the country to talk about what they do—what works, what doesn’t, lessons they’ve learned and what the future holds.
Their experiences vary greatly, but these pastors emphasize finding ways to help people more easily build relationships with one another. Here's what they had to say.
How do you define success in connection, retention and assimilation, and how do you measure it? How do you know if you’re succeeding in this area?
Artie Davis: How we define success is when everybody is in a significant relationship. Unless real relationships are occurring, we’re just being religious. We’re multiethnic—half our congregation is white, half is black. So there are cultural differences right under the surface. So we’ve created entry points centered around commonalities— hobbies, barbecues, bowling, Facebook, needlepoint. It’s not very spiritual, but we thought it was the best way to allow relationships to build organically.
Artie Davis is lead pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Orangeburg, S.C. Cornerstone Community Church launched eight years ago in Orangeburg, S.C., a racially diverse city of about 90,000 near central South Carolina, about 40 miles outside the capital of Columbia. The multicultural church with a passion to help people find God and follow Him has grown from about 60 people meeting in a rented gymnastics facility to about 2,000 attending the church’s three campuses today.
Dave Enns: We believe when we Velcro people to one another and God’s Word, they will grow. So we do all we can to get the majority of our people in our home fellowship groups. Our goal is to get 80 percent of our adults to be involved in these groups. We’ve been able to do that by cutting competition. We don’t have midweek programs for adults and young kids, so the biggest option for people is to join small groups. We want people in significant relationships with God and one another—that’s the key.
Dave Enns is Growth Group pastor North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. North Coast Church started in 1980 with 128 people meeting in a rented school in a community about 45 miles north of downtown San Diego. It is known for the success of its Growth Groups ministry. North Coast is a 2011 Outreach 100 church (No. 58 Largest, No. 68 Fastest-Growing) with more than 8,000 people regularly attending its three campuses each weekend.
Matt Larson: We’re trying to help people find their way back to God. Whatever step they’re at in that process, we want to help them take that next step. We’re not interested in attendees making a commitment to Anthem—if they go to another church, that’s fine. We still view that as a success. We just want to help them move forward. Retention is less of a priority. We’re only about 10 months in.
Matt Larson is lead pastor of Anthem Church in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Less than a year old, Anthem Church started with a launch team of 80 in an amphitheater at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. More than 320 people attended the first Sunday service. The church now meets at a Boys & Girls Club building, and about 250 people attend regularly each week.
Jeff Maness: We gauge success by the number of people volunteering and the number of people giving. We’ve learned that buy-in happens when you serve. So our big indicators are time and money.
Jeff Maness is lead pastor of Element Church in Cheyenne, Wyo. A group of six people who met in Jeff Maness’s basement launched Element Church in 2007 in Wyoming’s capital city at a local movie theater with 207 people in attendance. The church’s vision is to impact the community so much that the church would be missed if it didn’t exist. Today, about 850 people attend each weekend as the church meets in a former “big box” store.
Mark Waltz: For the last several years, we’ve been paying a lot more attention to soft measurements than hard measurements. So we’ll watch trends of movement more than specific attendance on a volunteer team. We also want to hear individuals’ stories and create more communication channels so we can hear those stories. We know we’re succeeding because we look at trends. Every quarter, every six months, every year, we look at how many new folks have made decisions, how many new folks are getting involved. We won’t look at one person’s progress over a period of time, but rather at the whole group to see if our environments are bringing new people on board.
Mark Waltz is connections pastor at Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind. Granger Community Church began as a church for people who thought of church as boring, intimidating or irrelevant and remains committed to helping people move toward Christ together. It has grown from 10 people meeting in Senior Pastor Mark Beeson’s home in 1986 to about 5,000 people attending three campuses each week today. Waltz is the author of First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church (Group, 2004) and Lasting Impressions: From Visiting to Belonging (Group, 2008), and he blogs at BecausePeopleMatter.com.
What are the biggest challenges your church has faced in getting people connected?
Davis: Race is a hurdle, but it’s not the biggest one. For us it’s the many extracurricular activities kids are involved in. A family with two kids might have basketball, football and soccer all on different nights. So we have to find a way to have a “soccer mom’s group”—then at least they’re doing children’s sporting events together. These entry-point groups exist where the members are. So if it’s a group that eats something together before a game, then that’s their “small group.” If they don’t use entry-point groups like this, significant connection isn’t going to happen.
Maness: Besides time and money, getting child care is a challenge. We have a lot of young families and many can’t afford to pay for child care.
Waltz: One of the biggest is that we tend in “church world” to believe that the menu we offer people is the only one they have to choose from. But in reality they have a very wide menu already, whether it’s their kids’ athletic practices and their own social lives and work schedules and community involvement. So the challenge is being aware of that and not adding 15 more menu items to their already busy lives.
What did you do to overcome those challenges?
Davis: We used to set the bar kind of high for small-group leaders—where in training, they’d have to sign over their firstborn. But now we start everybody off as entry-point leaders, and to become one, all they have to do is come to a one-hour training class and sign an agreement to be committed to church, our vision and accountability—then you’re in. Then we want these entry-point groups to grow organically in relationships over a year and become small groups that study Scripture. Instead of taking a big leap, we allowed them to take a baby step. Nobody has to feel spiritual; we’re just hanging out and learning to trust. Then when they become small-group leaders, they get additional training and more accountability.
Maness: We’re budgeting money to provide child care for all of our small groups.
Waltz: Keeping the menu narrow while also constantly challenging them to not be casual about their faith—and that can translate into more spiritual activity. We’re also teaching in all of our venues to evaluate our priorities and explore how we can raise up significant numbers of leaders who see it as “normal” to be coached and coach someone else in a faith community.
What do you do to make sure attendees connect with one another and not just with the pastor or worship leader they see on stage every week?
Davis: They honestly don’t have a chance to connect with me. They just don’t see me as the focal point. Instead, the first thing they see after they walk out the door of the worship center every Sunday is information on entry-point small groups and how to get connected with them.
Larson: We create a culture where, while I’m on staff and a pastor, this isn’t “my” church. Instead we tell our community group leaders that their groups are theirs to promote in their respective mission fields. It’s casting a vision to the broader team, so they’re the ones having those conversations each week and building relationships. So everybody takes ownership.
Maness: I’ve stopped going into the lobby after services. But once a month we do a “tour” for new attendees. It consists of a luncheon with child care where new people can meet me and the rest of the staff—and they’re also getting to know each other around the table. During the tour, we go through our mission and values and what we do as a church.
What has been the most effective way you have found to retain people and keep them coming back?
Davis: They’ve got to be in relationship with believers. That’s the whole thing. I don’t know of any other way to retain people. So while there are some people who go to church because “Grandma said to go,” most—if they really want to get involved—are staying connected.
Waltz: A vision that compels people to not just watch, but invites them into active participation. Right now, we’re putting together our vision for the next five years, and we’ve involved volunteer leaders and brought them into the conversation because we want them to give input. So we have little concern about getting people excited. We also want to give them constant, clear on-ramps to exercise that involvement.
What are some things you have tried in the areas of connection, retention and assimilation that haven’t worked?
Davis: Our No. 1 misconception was that seekers could make the leap from a Sunday morning environment to a small-group environment—big mistake! It was too far of a leap for them, and we didn’t understand this for the longest time.
Larson: The culture of our church attracts go-getters, but we’ve not done well pursuing the harder-to-grab-hold-of people. We just decided that there’s a certain amount of time each week and only so many conversations you can have, so we won’t go after people who aren’t going to say “yes” anyway. So we want to identify people who might not have the same interest and reach into their lives.
What did you learn from those experiences of efforts not working?
Davis: We learned that there has to be a smaller step—and that’s where our entry points come in.
Larson: My awareness of those people increased. When I see them bolting for the door, I ask myself, Do I have the capacity to pursue them? How will I get them connected? Our mission is to help them.
Waltz: We do have groups that have met for years and years, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Expecting them to go on forever puts pressure on them and fights against organic relationships.
How do you implement common connection and assimilation methods like small groups and community service in a way that’s unique to your context and your community?
Enns: We ask all our small groups to do community service projects. What we’ve found is that people love to serve, but often they don’t because they don’t have the know-how, resources or time to plan service themselves. Creating options of turnkey “plug and play” type service projects that involve everyone on the nights they already meet has made all the difference. Weekend projects are always competing with various schedules, kids sports and the list goes on. We work with a variety of community organizations, such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters, so we’re not re-creating the wheel. It’s profoundly simple. The result has been amazing. We now have about one and a half service projects happening per day over the course of a year.
Larson: The first question we asked was “How can we help?” Here in Thousand Oaks, we saw that the schools were suffering, falling apart. So we’ve developed unique relationships with the elementary schools. We just asked them what their needs were. So first we did painting, then we hosted a year-end carnival and ran all the games and did the food. Now we’re teaching English to parents this fall and doing child care.
How do you make attendees aware of the vision and identity of the church?
Davis: We’re multisite, so on the fifth Sunday of the month—which happens about four times a year—our campuses are talking about the same message, and I recast the vision from the front. Also we have training and life classes where the vision of the church is clearly communicated—our values, our DNA.
Enns: It’s just part of our culture and language. In almost every one of our weekend messages from the teaching pastor, you’ll hear subtle references to our vision, purpose and home groups. It’s very intentional.
How do you lead attendees to embrace that vision and identity and want to participate in the church’s vision/mission as a result?
Davis: Every Sunday we have hurting single moms and recently divorced single dads; they have kids who’re doing drugs—and they don’t give a rip about our vision. The only thing they care about is, “Is there hope for me?” So as long as they’re connecting with leaders and influencers and know where I’m going, I don’t expect them to follow the vision.
Enns: We feel as though everybody wants to be involved in relationships—so we’re not creating something. … We’re just funneling them into what they already want.
What role, if any, does technology today play in connection, retention and assimilation in your church?
Enns: It helps for training leaders and monitoring groups and accessing resources in our growth groups. If you miss a weekend or lose your notes, you can watch the weekend service online and access all leadership materials, and you can sign up for a group online. We also take attendance in groups to monitor how they’re doing, which is followed by a weekly report to see how the groups are doing. We still need face-to-face contact, but online resources have really helped us be more effective and efficient.
Larson: About 90 to 95 percent of our congregation is on Facebook, so it becomes part of everybody’s digital cycle and morning routine. It’s free publicity, too, and everybody has unlimited access to my personal profile. People can get Twitter updates, too—a steady stream of information if they want it. Technology is a big-time benefit. I feel as though I don’t need an administrative assistant because I have an iPhone. Our website is ridiculously easy. We have volunteers who take the information cards and store them online. My wife built the website, and we’ve done only minimal redesigns, so there’s no pressure to update it.
How are the challenges you’ve experienced in this area of ministry different today than when you started out?
Enns: Communication is so different now than it was even just two years ago. It used to be that I could call most people on their home phones and or cell phones and leave voice mails. But now the cell may not even be the best way to reach them—maybe texting is better. There are 12 people in my Growth Group and many different ways to correspond with them that gets them to respond—home phone, cell, text, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. So they’re my friends, and we have something in common after meeting together for two years, but our communication methods are diverse. So in church, we’re addressing that issue of having people set their preferences for communication.
Waltz: First, there’s the impact of technology. People in our church can access our weekend services, as we stream it online. (That can be a good thing.) While face-to-face time with others was tough 10 years ago, it’s even more challenging now. So we want to be smarter about using technology in such a way that it’s still relational. Second, 10 years ago there was one thing that was a hot topic for a lot of people—whether it was a TV show, a movie, a song—but now it’s much more splintered. So you can’t speak as easily about pop culture on a large scale and have everybody relate.
As you retain people, how are you taking steps to disciple them so that they’re both staying and growing?
Enns: Again, we believe connecting people to one another and God’s Word results in spiritual growth. People often come to a church because of the program but usually stick because of the relationships formed. So some of the key results questions we ask to see if people are growing include: Are people involving themselves in significant relationships (our small groups)? Are we seeing people making new commitments to follow Jesus? And are people involving themselves in ministry within the church and out in the community? We measure all of this regularly. We don’t have a curriculum or class that says, “You’ve now arrived.”
Waltz: Our small-group Bible studies offer short-term, four- to 10-week experiences where we hope to engage people in conversation. We also offer midweek classes with different pathways to learn and grow. Also we’re trying to raise the level of care within all our serving teams to the point where it’s a normal expectation—even though they aren’t technically small groups, some get their main connections through those groups. So we want to foster deeper relationships in those groups too. We’re also in the process of figuring out how to help people find mentors.
What do you see as the main challenges in this area of ministry that the church will face in the future?
Larson: It’s figuring out where God wants us to go with certain issues—asking, “Is this me or the Holy Spirit?” I’ve had to fight myself a lot. There’s always temptation to want to be that big pastor or leader, but that’s not where God has called me. So instead of typical church markers of success (like financial sustainability and bigger numbers), we ask, “Are we being humble? Are we being obedient?” Our job is to do whatever God wants us to do.
Waltz: Consistency in communication, especially through multiple venues. We’re getting diverse, and fast—but we can’t have multiple messages. It’s not a matter of saying no to liberty in vocabulary, but we want to stay as narrowly focused across the board as possible.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Outreach magazine. Read more about this issue »
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