In the 1950s, a new church start pastor challenged every member to invite two newcomers each month. Members enthusiastically committed to such a plan and the pastor’s wife, feeling a special call to grow the children’s ministry, regularly prayed for new babies to be part of the church’s growth. No one was more surprised than she was when half of the young couples in the congregation became pregnant that year! Although this was not an intentional church growth strategy, growing families primarily fueled church growth in the 50s.
Times have changed, and declining birthrates along with cultural shifts are part of shrinking church attendance numbers. These shifts involve the secularization of Sunday, longer work weeks, and two-earner households that reduce opportunities for family time. Additionally, a growing proportion of the population distrusts institutions or do not see the church as particularly relevant to their daily lives. Despite the trends toward secularization, eight out of ten adults in the U.S. believe in God. Therefore, given a changing context, what methods play a role today in how people connect to God and grow in faith through a congregation? An examination of how to invite newcomers, how to inform them, and how to include them requires new reflection.
How to Invite
Not all potential new members or participants come out of the same mold. Transplants that recently moved to the area and participated in a congregation in their former location tend to use a narrow search platform because they know what type of church they would like to attend. The more challenging newcomers to reach are those friends and relatives who live near the congregation but do not currently attend anywhere. And the most difficult population to reach are seekers and those with no church background or history. Still, research clearly demonstrates that at least half to two-thirds of adults find a church through personal invitations. Hearing about a congregation from someone you know means the information is more likely to be trusted.
Several methods help encourage members to invite relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. First, the congregation should develop a card, postcard, brochure, or flyer that members can hand or mail to people as they invite them. The printed material should at least include the church location, worship times, and website address. Yvon Prehn, a church communication specialist, warns against getting bogged down in design details because “people are not wowed into the kingdom.” Rather all material should offer useful content and be easy to read and understand.
Special events and holidays offer another opportunity for members to invite people they know. Some congregations designate a particular Sunday as Invite-a-Friend Sunday, Open House Sunday, or Special Recognition Sunday (such as honoring teachers, first responders, or others in the community). Congregations can create cards or flyers for these special worship events for members to distribute or mail.
Mass communications—the church website and social media channels, direct mail, yard signs, door hangers, church banners and signs, radio and print ads, and community ads (such as bulletin boards, ads in movie theaters, or sponsoring events)—are additional broad strategies for reaching people. The goal of these efforts is to show the congregation as a place that welcomes newcomers. While no one media strategy produces the desired results in today’s context, some experts argue that there is a growing preference for printed materials. In fact, even though many congregations have invested in digital marketing strategies, a recent study found that direct mail outperforms all digital communications combined by 600%. Still, an up-to-date and easy to navigate church website (optimized for mobile phones) serves as a primary source of information to which print pieces can direct.
How to Inform
Successful efforts to invite newcomers do not yield new members. Sadly, at most, only three out of ten visitors return for a second visit. Too many visitors catch only a glimpse of what the congregation offers. Prehn claims that two printed pieces are important for informing newcomers: the church bulletin and connection or visitor cards.
The church bulletin. When people attend a worship service, the bulletin is the first picture they see of the congregation. This description of church life should be jargon free, friendly, and clearly written. The order of service should be easy to follow and related to congregational theology and commitments. The bulletin should provide information for linking to the church website, phone numbers, and other contact information (such as church office hours). Visitors are highly likely to take the bulletin home, so consider what information might be most useful to them.
Connection or visitor cards. Visitors typically fill these out during worship services to drop in the offering plates or return to ushers at the end of the service. Too often visitors aren’t given the time during services to complete the card. Worship leaders should give some thought as to when to bring the cards to the attention of visitors (early in the service) and how visitors are welcomed because many visitors do not want to be publicly recognized. In addition to the cards, brochures or visitor packets help visitors learn more about the congregation.
How to Include
Think about a movie theater website. The website makes it easy to see what is showing, at what times, ticket prices, the theatre location, and maps. Participating in a church small group or event should be as easy as going to a movie. A web-supported calendar is essential for including new people as well as current members. Do not make people go through nonessential steps to figure out what is going on and how to participate (such as “call the church office for more information”).
Additionally, most newcomers want to try things out before making a big commitment. Classes or groups that require a multi-week commitment scare away new people because they are not certain they want to make such an extended commitment. A brochure that describes ideal groups and activities that new members can try could be included in the visitor packet. Church consultant Jeff Woods believes encouraging people to engage in common activities builds trust, and helping participants to reflect on those activities builds commitment to a common purpose.
Three Pillars of Evangelism
Three complementary efforts serve the congregation’s ministry goals: inviting, informing, and including new people. Just like a three-pillared tower, without one support, the overall purpose becomes unstable. To invite is to increase the church’s visibility and relevance, to inform is to offer opportunities for connection, and to include means spiritual experiences that promote Christian maturity and growth. Which effort needs more intention and planning in your congregation?
The Parish Paper is published monthly by Herb Miller and Cynthia Woolever. It offers "ideas and insights for active congregations" and has been a popular feature of the MACUCC "The Mailing" for many years. The MACUCC has a paid subscription to The ...