Visitor Assimilation (It’s Not Rocket Science.)
What are the keys to attracting visitors and keeping them coming back?
by Charles Arn
I sat affixed in front of my TV. THE BORG had just captured my hero and brought him onboard.
“You will be assimilated,” a hideous-looking Borg intoned, raising his tentacles to the temples of “Star Trek” ’s Captain Picard.
“Resistance is futile!”
“No,” I shouted. “Don’t! It will be all over!”
I couldn’t look… (even though I knew what was going to happen, since I had seen the show before). Captain Picard was about to lose his ability to think for himself. He was going to be (gasp!)… assimilated.
A more intellectual approach to the term takes us to the dictionary, where assimilate is defined: “To include into the larger whole; to involve; to make one.”
Moreover, Scripture offers numerous insights into the importance of our “assimilation” into the Body of Christ: “The kingdom of faith is now your home country. You are no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here … ” (Eph. 2:19, The Message).
While ultimately, assimilation into a local church is a spiritual process, it can be facilitated by a loving church that’s committed to making those connections. Here’s a look at the critical checkpoints in the process of seeing outsiders becoming insiders. How is your church doing in each area?
Attracting First-time Visitors
You can’t assimilate visitors if you don’t have any. Thus, an obvious prerequisite to effective assimilation is having enough visitors. How many are enough? According to The Church Growth Ratio Book (Church Growth Inc.), 5% of a growing church’s total weekend attendance should be first-, second- or third-time visitors. Most churches average 1 to 2% visitors—which is one reason why most U.S. churches aren’t growing.
Making the Right Impression
What kind of first impressions does your church make on visitors? Most churches don’t know because their regular attendees can no longer see the church through a newcomer’s eyes. But first impressions have everything to do with whether or not visitors will return.
The first 10 minutes of the visitor’s experience present prime opportunities to say, “Welcome.” If you were to visit Calvary Christian Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, you’d be met in the parking lot by welcoming hosts. First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, Calif., stations hosts wearing red blazers and a “Questions???” button.
The first 10 minutes before a service are an important time for making good first impressions, but apparently not the most important time.
The Most Important Factor
At Church Growth Institute, we have interviewed people after their first visit to a church. We asked: “What most impressed (or depressed) you about the church you had just visited?” One answer far outdistanced all others: “the friendliness of the church.”
“So, how did you determine whether or not the church was friendly?” we then asked. “Simple,” they told us. “It was whether or not anyone talked to us.”
Well, my friends, it’s apparently not rocket science, after all. There is a simple, yet profound relationship between the number of people who talk to a first-time visitor, and a visitor’s impression of the “friendliness” of that church: Many conversations = friendly church; few conversations = unfriendly church. The perceived “friendliness” of your church is the most significant factor in whether or not a first-time visitor will return.
We asked one more question in our study: “When did you conclude that the church was or wasn’t a friendly church?” The most frequent response surprised us. There is a 10-minute window in the 75 to 90 minutes most people spend in their first church visit, and that window is critical for the first impression of friendliness. When? It is the first 10 minutes following the service.
The rules are now off. The people are who they really are. And that’s when it really shows, our subjects said.
A few years ago, my family and I visited Cornerstone Bible Church in Glendora, Calif., while looking for a new church following our move. At the end of the service, the pastor said to the congregation: “Now, before we go, remember our three-minute rule here: No one can talk with a person they know for the first three minutes after the service. You can sit and meditate. You can leave silently. Or, you can talk with someone you don’t know.” Most chose the latter. I found it a “freeing” experience, which allowed me to turn to a stranger and start a conversation. Our “three-minute” conversation lasted 15 minutes. And guess who we looked for at that church when we returned for a second visit?
Returning: Seeing Visitors Come Back
Upon closer study of the visitor assimilation process, a remarkable pattern appears. Remarkable, but logical: The more often visitors return, the more likely it is that they will stay.
Several years ago, we conducted a study on visitor return rates. We asked churches to identify a continuous six-week period and observe the number of people who visited once, twice or three times in that timeframe. Then, one year later, we asked the churches to determine how many of those people had joined or become active.
We found that 9% of those who visited non-growing churches one time during that six weeks became involved in that church the following year. However, of those who visited twice in the six-week period, 17% subsequently became active. And, even in non-growing churches, more than one-third of the newcomers who visited three times were now participating in that church.
The question should leap off the page: “Do we have an effective visitor follow-up system for more than just our first-time visitors?” Tracking, contacting and following up on your visitors, new attendees and even regular attendees can be difficult and time-intensive. Yet, nothing is worse than someone falling through the cracks. Many churches have begun to use computer-based databases and visitor assimilation software. While these programs range in capabilities, sophistication and price, most churches have found that having some type of computer-based solution for tracking attendees is now a necessity.
Nurturing: Building Relationships with Newcomers
Try asking your new members the same question we’ve asked more than 40,000 laypeople in the past 11 years: “Why did you join this church?” If your people are typical, 75% to 90% of them will mention “a friend or relative” as a key part of the process.
Relationships have been the most important factor in the expansion of Christianity since the first century. An effective assimilation strategy, therefore, will create a “greenhouse” in which new relationships between newcomers and church members are nurtured.
In my own case, an important part of our eventual church selection grew from an invitation I received two days after our first visit. It was an invitation to become part of the church softball team. My wife was later invited to be part of a women’s Bible study.
Joining: Affiliation and Membership
A missing assimilation link in many churches is the Inquirer’s Class, where anyone can learn more about the church no strings attached. Our experience is that 85% of all graduates from such a class decide to join.
Have high expectations for your new members. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, Mich., tells its class that every member is expected to: 1) be regular in worship, 2) be involved in a small group, 3) give financially and 4) have a ministry in the church consistent with their spiritual gift. No wonder St. Paul’s has a high member-to-attendance ratio and a low dropout rate.
Make the Connection
Assimilation. It’s not rocket science. But, neither is it all intuitive. There’s much to learn. But it’s well worth our effort to learn it. For there’s no doubt that the heart of God is filled with joy when the sheep He places in our care are all present and accounted for—in your church.