8 Ways to Get People to Stay at Your Church
We all know new visitors at church are great – they keep everyone focused on the mission to spread the Gospel.
But what’s even better?
Second, third, and even fourth-time visitors.
And what’s best are regular attendees, fully plugged in and serving!
If you’ve mastered getting new visitors every weekend, you know that’s just the start. The next step is getting them to come back, right? After all, Jesus said, “Go make disciples…” not just get guests.
So how can we help our guests become disciples? This is one of the church’s biggest challenges today. Said another way, how can you turn casual attenders into a consistent core?
As a Connections Director for many years, I have found a simple principle that has helped me move people from just visiting once or twice to getting plugged into the church.
It’s this simple principle: help your guests make a friend.
You will cover 90% of the connections process with that guiding principle. This means churches of all sizes have the opportunity to help their visitors actually connect in their church.
In this article, I’ll cover eight ways I’ve found to cultivate connections at your church and get people to stay involved. Keep reading to discover them for yourself!
Start it Right
Before you do anything else, there are two vitally important things you need to get in place in your church in order to have a successful connections process.
If you don’t get these two foundational pillars in place, everything else will have diminished results.
1- Build a Connecting Culture
What is the feel of your church?
Some might ask it this way, what’s the vibe?
Is it serious? Is it friendly? Is it fun and exciting? Is it talkative?
One of the elements you want to always be working toward is a friendly culture. It’s a culture where making friends is easy for outsiders. It’s a culture where your people are always going out of their way to connect with those they don’t know in the church.
A connecting culture doesn’t just happen. It happens when we are modeling and leading others to act in ways consistent with a connecting culture. Here are a few things you can focus on to help build the right culture in your church.
- Share Stories of Connection. Focus on relationships by sharing stories. Share them at staff meetings, at volunteer trainings, at services, at welcome parties, at small groups, at major events, or anywhere you can! Just keep sharing. Brag about people inviting others. Talk about testimonies of how someone’s kids got connected at camp. Share how a young adult got connected in a small group. The idea is that you value relationships, you value the community around you because you believe that’s what God uses to bring people together.
- Live it yourself. This is probably the hardest for introverts, but nothing is more powerful than an example set by the most influential people in the church. This might be something you have to lean on your spouse to help you with or something other close friends do. This is also important among your staff. They need to be leading the way in building relationships. Be sure to factor in margin for this.
- Put resources behind it. This can’t be something you just talk about, it needs to be something you put money, time, and energy behind to reinforce what you preach. In that way, it goes from being hollow teaching to one that’s pulled down into the reality, fabric, and culture of your church. Everything communicates. It’s not just what you say, it’s not just what you write, but absolutely everything you do is saying something – be intentional about making it say “community, relationship, and thoughtfulness.” Look at your budget and determine if this is truly something you’re backing compared to other ministries.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you evaluate your commitment to a relationship-focused culture, a “litmus” test if you will:
- What kind of money are we spending on connections in comparison to our total budget?
- What are we doing on a week-to-week basis, what are we doing quarterly?
- Are we seeing this happen? Do we hear testimonies of people’s lives being changed as a result of others?
- Are we inviting others to church and taking them on a journey of discipleship?
- Are people making friends?
- Are we hearing the opposite? That can be an indicator that something needs to change in your culture.
Your church culture won’t change overnight, so don’t be discouraged. If you take intentional and consistent small steps, over time they will lead you in the right direction and you’ll be surprised when you look back to see how much progress you’ve actually made 3, 6, or 12 months down the road.
A great place to start is the values of your church. When you talk about the values that are important to your church, your leadership team, and your staff, make sure that the relational component is a part of it.
Let them know you feel a calling, that it’s part of your mission to welcome people, to make them feel at home; you’ll go out of your way and out of your comfort zone to welcome and help someone who looks confused or lost.
In that way, everyone who calls the church home will operate in that welcoming ministry.
2- Connections Pathway
The connections process is far from linear – people come in at all stages and move in and out randomly. It can be messy and confusing.
To do it well, start with linear thinking. You need a true North, a plan that takes people on a journey.
Think of it this way – it can sometimes be too large a leap to go from casually attending to joining a small group.
To help overcome those barriers, you need a roadmap with clear and smaller next steps that build on each other.
Understood another way, think of it like a “dating” process where one party doesn’t have to commit too much before they get to know the church or sign on the dotted line saying, “I’m all in.” They want to make sure they know and understand what they’re getting into.
So make your process align with that human nature – don’t ask too much too quickly, but also don’t under challenge by asking too little too late.
Your pathway needs to be understandable as well, and the person who needs to understand it the most is the person in charge of connections for your church – that may be YOU! If you don’t know what the next step is, it will be really hard to get people to take their logical next step. Here’s a simple connections pathway for you to follow:
- Viewer – watches your service online
- Visitor – attends in person, and gives contact information
- Regular – infrequently or regularly joins services in person
- Level 1 Partner – someone who is actively contributing to your church mission (attends consistently, attends events, giving financially)
- Level 2 Partner – a deeper level of commitment to the church, leading a group, involved in a deeper way, serving on a ministry team
- Disciple – Spiritual leader, contributing at a high level and leading others down this process as well
Connections happen through relationships – you won’t connect someone to your church if they haven’t built relationships first.
Relationships take time and effort, so don’t expect this to happen overnight.
If you walk away with only one thing from this entire article it’s this: communicate with your visitors – often, organically, and with systems you put in place to ensure no one falls through the cracks. If you have to err, err on the side of over-communicating.
And always remember, communication should be a two-way street. Don’t always be the one talking – be sure to let your guests and members talk, then listen – intently – to what they say.
A good rule of thumb is to always have in mind the person you’re communicating with before you develop a message, then write to what’s important to them, what they would find of value not what you want them to know.
Make it all about them because that’s how you’ll get them plugged into the life of your church.
There are a million different ways for people to make friends, for example – they could chat in the lobby before or after service; a friend may have invited them originally so they already know someone; you may have a Welcome Center that engages with visitors or your follow-up process may include specific connection ideas.
After defining your steps, develop transitions that move people from one spot to another.
Think of them as mile markers and look at what causes people to move from one spot to the next. This will bring clarity to you to ensure you’re moving people down the roadmap to deeper involvement and commitment to your church.
It will also help identify places where people may be getting stuck so you know where you need to make changes to improve the process.
Create Connection On-Ramps
How do people get “in” at your church?
How do they connect or make a friend?
If you don’t have systematic on-ramps for people to follow, you may be turning away folks who want to connect but just don’t know how.
According to the dictionary, an on-ramp is a lane for traffic entering a freeway.
In business, on-ramps are the process of taking a new hire through training into full productivity.
In the church world, they’re steps – small and large – that assimilate new people into the life of the church and leads them on a path to a deeper, more fruitful faith.
There are literally dozens of options for onramps in the church world, these are the ones we’ve discovered to be the most successful for “entry” into church life.
3 - Use Plan Your Visit at Your Church
Plan Your Visit is a way to allow those who visit your website to let you know they are coming to church!
It’s an amazing way to connect with your community and see more visitors on a weekend.
If you have this system, it is often the first opportunity to connect with someone.
4 - Practice Hospitality
There’s no replacement for a first impression.
Virtually everybody in your church is involved in the guest experience and can help or hinder that first impression, but your New Visitor Hosts are critical.
You need to strategically have the right people in the right places trained to do the things that need to happen for it to work.
Those hosts should not be afraid to go up and start a conversation with somebody.
They need to be super proactive and very aware of the whole room.
They need to work together, helping each other to connect with every visitor in a personal and welcoming way.
The greeter’s job is not to pass out bulletins or open doors, it’s to make guests feel welcome!
In a nutshell, you want everyone who comes to get 5 smiles before they sit down in service – parking lot, entrance doors, coffee station, auditorium doors, auditorium host. If you aren’t there with volunteers, that’s okay, just make it your goal!
A specific end goal of the hospitality team is to get guests’ contact information. They should see it as their job to get all first-time guests’ names, emails, and phone numbers.
5 - Follow-up with your Visitors
Contrary to popular belief, the goal of follow-up isn’t to get people to come back to church, the goal is to build a relationship with them!
We all know that engaged people are more likely to become and stay involved in your church, and visitors are no exception.
Make sure anyone who visits gets a text message, email, or phone call saying thank you for attending and we’d love to have you back.
Follow-up is a friendship engine and is a critical onramp. If it’s broken in your church, make it a priority to fix it.
It’s not rocket science – empower and equip at least one person to be in charge of that to ensure no one falls through the cracks. And make sure you have a minimum 6-week follow-up system – automated to ensure it actually gets done in a timely manner.
Don’t get overwhelmed with the details, some of this will happen organically or naturally – especially as you work on culture in your church. But don’t rely on that totally. If it’s not intentional, oftentimes it goes undone.
Identify what onramps you have and regularly evaluate whether they are working or not, and make changes as appropriate. Be intentional about which ones you want to hone in on, focus on a few, and perfect those systems.
A good way to evaluate if your onramp system is working is to ask everyone who signed up if they were followed up with – scary but very telling!
Look at it through their eyes – if they take a step of faith and sign up but no one follows up with them, they may be embarrassed, or worse, they may feel rejected.
Make sure you’re not letting the “system” work against you – always ask the people involved if it did what it was supposed to do. If not, make the necessary changes!
Refuse to not follow up – even if they never respond, make sure you’ve emailed, texted, and called multiple times over multiple days.
Next Level Connections
After you’ve connected with visitors who have come back multiple times, they may be ready to take a bigger step into your church community.
These connections are designed to systematically walk those people into deeper relationships and commitments to your church.
6 - Host a Welcome Party
A Welcome Party is the best tool to move people from just attending your church to assimilating them into the lifeblood of your church, to be a part of the body of the church, to get plugged in.
We know that people who build friendships will stay at a church – relationships matter just as much if not more than worship music, kids’ program, or even preaching (all those overlap, but you get my point)!
A Welcome Party is the bridge between the ministries you have that are all about building relationships and new people who may not be quite ready to serve or take the next step, who are still in the “checking you out” stage.
It’s a perfect segue between having just guests who know about the church to assimilating them to become a part of the body of the church.
To help you wrap your arms around best practices for Welcome Parties, we’ll share what one church does that’s been very successful in moving guests through their connections pathway via its monthly welcome parties.
Summit Park Church hosts a Welcome Party once a month on a Sunday night and invites key volunteer leaders who are strategically placed in locations around the room. They invite all new people to the church – whether it’s their first Sunday or they’ve been attending for a year or longer.
If they’ve never attended a Welcome Party, they get invited.
The party includes the following components:
- High-quality meal – communicates “you’re valuable to us” (doesn’t have to be expensive, just good quality)
- Free childcare – so any barriers are eliminated
- Set time frame – so they understand the commitment
Following their example, to get people to sign up, start promoting three weeks before the event.
Make it part of the “regular” churchwide email to let everyone in the church know you’re going to be holding a Welcome Party to encourage anyone who hasn’t attended in the past to attend.
Then, send out another email to all visitors from the past 5 months who haven’t attended specifically to invite them personally to attend.
Also, post it on your Social Media pages as well to encourage attendance.
Continue promoting until the event itself and be sure to follow up – with people who attended and with those who didn’t.
For more details about how to promote a Welcome Party, check out CMU’s Welcome Party Marketing Plan.
Also be sure to have a greeting team and a check-in team. It’s critical to have someone seating participants to get them connected to the small group they’d be most likely to connect with.
Ideally, you’d have small group leaders serving as table leaders (make sure you have a variety of life stages). Or at a minimum, use people who know what all the groups are to know how people can get connected.
Start with a game to break the ice, lighten the mood and get everyone feeling more comfortable and relaxed.
Start eating early and once everyone is munching away, play another icebreaker game.
Finally, have the lead pastor get up and tell the story of the church. In this way, you’re helping people get to know you.
Be vulnerable – that helps break down walls and makes people feel more connected.
Be sure to include testimonies as well – either live or video.
Finally, talk about the next steps – join a small group or get on a serve team. Have them fill out a form, including what they’re interested in.
Finally, give them an opportunity to meet the ministry leader of a ministry area they may be interested in.
Do Welcome Parties regularly – once a month ideally, but no less often than every two months. If you don’t get a lot of people to sign up, make the venue smaller to accommodate them; don’t wait longer for them to attend (i.e., don’t go to quarterly parties).
7 - Create a Quality Small Group Ministry
For church small groups, quality trumps quantity every time.
It’s better to have fewer high-quality groups than to have a bunch of small groups where people really aren’t connecting or developing deeper relationships.
Whether you have sermon-based groups only or more open market groups that are Bible studies or activity-based groups, what makes a group a group is that it’s Christian-based from a teaching or lifestyle perspective and relationships are being built.
Non-Christians are welcome of course, but the focus is on faith.
Ultimately, the purpose of small group ministry is to connect relationally.
Be intentional about when and how you encourage people to jump in. Look at how people are incentivized and how you help them plug in.
Small Group Launches – motivate your church to get into a group by preaching on the topic.
Give it lots of energy with a booth, promotion material, and testimonies from people whose lives were changed by small group involvement.
Train your leaders to be inviting, be praying, and follow up with everyone who shows any interest – don’t let anyone fall through the cracks!
You also need to identify someone who works behind the scene to make sure everyone who attempts to join actually gets connected.
Empower and equip them to take that mantle and run with it so everyone gets plugged in.
The most important thing to incorporate into your Small Group Ministry is trained leaders – they need to be qualified and trained well.
That doesn’t mean they need to be at the Apostle Paul level, but they need to have a willing spirit and understand a few values as it relates to spiritual leadership.
Because, ultimately, how the leader goes, so goes the group.
Those spiritual leader characteristics don’t need to be so high that no one qualifies, and you don’t want them too low because discipleship can’t then take place.
Don’t put someone in a place of leadership before they’re ready.
Part of that training should include a leader follow-up strategy – what can they do to cultivate relationships outside the small group meeting times?
They need to regularly check in with group participants by texting or calling, either as a group or individually.
They should schedule random dinners together or game nights, again either individually (to get to know everyone deeper) or with the group as a whole.
And they should be scheduling regular fun activities for the group as well as service opportunities.
In this way, the members of the small group truly do life together!
8 - Lead & Launch Teams Where People Love To Serve
In much the same way as small group leaders, ministry or service team leaders need to be well-trained and equipped to serve in a leadership capacity.
They should be scheduling regular get-togethers the team can do outside of the service they’re performing.
For example, the parking lot team can get together once a quarter on a Sunday afternoon and have a meal together.
Make sure your ministry teams are incorporating the relational aspect into the connections process.
Even though people are serving side-by-side, it can take much longer to build lasting relationships, it doesn’t happen as organically as it does in a small group.
You need to be more intentional about those relationship-building opportunities in teams.
Launch of Teams – do a similar system as the small groups launch. Build excitement around how fun it is to serve with others and make a difference while you do it.
Have ministry leaders available to engage and answer any questions folks may have.
Also, make sure the process for involvement is clear and simple (but always keep any necessary steps to vet people for areas like kids and students).
When training leaders, point out that some people connect with others best by doing something rather than just talking in a small group and vice-versa.
This means you’ll have people in a team but not in a group or you’ll have people in a group but not on a team and that’s OK.
It’s just a reflection of the different personality types; it’s just one relationship-building mechanism in your overall relationship-building arsenal.
Learn to develop relationships with all and take advantage of every opportunity to do so.
It’s all well and good to talk about all these concepts in theory, but what’s the practical application? Here are a few action steps to take to ensure your church is on the right path for strong connections.
- Incorporate the value of relationships and community into all your team/volunteer training.
- Create a budget line item, if you don’t already have one, for connections (building friendships, relationships, etc.).
- Review your church’s values to ensure they reflect an appreciation for relationships.
- Review your church’s connections process and make sure it includes small-step movements from one level to the next.
- Identify what onramps you have and evaluate whether they are working or not – be intentional in any changes you make.
- Focus on one or two ways people can connect and make friends at your church; adapt to perfect systems.
- Review your qualifications for small group and ministry leaders, and incorporate training for creating and building relationships.
- Develop at least one “fun,” non-ministry-related activity for your teams to hold, and celebrate any deeper relationships that result.
- If your church is not yet hosting a regular Welcome Party, make a plan for developing one and bring it to leadership for approval.
- If you already host Welcome Parties, review the components discussed in this article and make any necessary changes to improve your effectiveness in getting people plugged into the life of your church.
- Most importantly, set up a regular schedule for hosting the parties.
- Get leadership buy-in and commitment to participate.
More Help Available
Reading about technique is one thing, but living it out is quite another … the proof is always in the pudding! Check out what’s worked for these churches and glean wisdom from their real-world experiences.
The Rock Church: Spokane, WA
The Rock Church in Spokane, Washington was a new plant in 2019 just before the Pandemic hit, and has been a CMU member church since it started.
Their vision is not to have a mega Church but instead to start several Churches under 200 people – and they’ve started five churches so far, the latest one in November of 2022.
The church has an average Sunday attendance of 90 and more than 50% of the adults attend in small groups. They attribute that to their emphasis on small groups and their church culture of personal connections. Danny Morris is the Discipleship/Mission Pastor.
“We’d rather people go to a small group,” Pastor Danny says, “because groups study together, serve together, and hang out together. It’s where connections and community are built.”
Like most churches, visitors are welcomed from the stage and encouraged to fill out a connect card with a small gift as an incentive.
Their leaders are trained to notice new people and during their weekly pre-service “huddle,” they remind their leaders that:
- Our friends can wait
- If someone is sitting alone, you need to meet them
They have a VIP area in their lobby where new people are greeted, interacted with, and given information when they indicate interest.
Small groups and serving are discussed. The welcome gift box is given here with a coffee mug, pen, the Gospel of John, and several cards – “You’re Important” with the church URL, an invitation, and a small group card.
They also have QR codes available for folks who want to check things out anonymously – those codes send folks to the church’s website where they can find out about serving, small groups, baptisms, etc.
They’ve also implemented a systematic 8-week follow-up system through Text In Church that ensures no visitors fall through the cracks.
Everyone gets a personal phone call and the church maintains a fully-funded coffee card that allows folks to go out for a cup of Joe and some “get to know each other” time.
They work hard to ensure everyone attends a Welcome Party at least once where they talk about the next steps, offering three options – making a decision for Christ, sharing a prayer request, or getting involved with a small group.
They have “formal” small group sign-ups twice a year, but their small group leaders and attendees are trained and encouraged to be inviting people to join their groups regularly.
Finally, they offer Steps Groups, which is their discipleship group training. These consist of just three to five people, small enough to really dig into their discipleship steps pathway. They focus on what Jesus told them to do, not just what they need to know. These are very action-orientated groups.
So far, their system has worked well for their culture. Their mission in forming this connections process isn’t as much on emphasizing growth numerically but on depth and discipleship.
Pastor Danny’s advice?
As you build your connections plan, start with your mission and then build your plan from there. This will keep you centered on what God is calling your church to be in your community.
Connect Church: Springfield, MO
Connect Church began in 2016 with 25 people and a vision to help people find a personal and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ and find their creative purpose.
They’ve grown from that humble beginning to a Sunday attendance of 1,500 with nearly half – 700 – involved in one of their 56 small groups.
Jeremy Potts, Executive Ministries Pastor, attributes that in large part to their great hospitality team made up of very relational hosts who create the right atmosphere.
But when asked what the most effective thing they’ve done to connect people at their church, he says hands down it’s, “Having an intentional, consistent follow-up process.”
They go all out to get people’s phone numbers so their lead pastor can send them a series of “soft” text messages – 4 messages over 3 weeks – to get people to engage back.
They use Text in Church to automate the system and ensure no one falls through the cracks. They motivate people to provide contact information with a Welcome Box (and a coffee gift card) at their Welcome Center. And all their people know the one thing they talk about is getting involved in a small group.
Their connections process is simple with just two guiding principles:
- It has to be Personal and,
- It has to be Scalable
They also offer a Growth Track every month, different than the Welcome Party they offer 3-4 times a year.
The Growth Track is focused on the life of the church, with the first two weeks detailing the church’s vision and beliefs with the many opportunities to get involved.
The third week then focuses on the actual step of joining a team. All team leaders are there to greet and orient the new volunteers.
The Welcome Parties still tell the story of the church, review its values, and offer next steps as well.
Connect Church had plateaued at 1,000 people when they discovered that people were coming to church but quickly leaving.
So they made an intentional effort to connect through these follow-up processes.
By systematizing this process, their finish rate went from 70 to 95% and they’ve seen significant growth ever since.
Valley Community Church: Lafayette, CO
Valley Community Church is proof positive that no matter your size or budget, the follow-up strategies shared in this article will work for you!
Valley Community Church in Lafayette, Colorado was planted in 2014 and averaged 78-80 people on a Sunday … that is until they delved deep into CMU’s invitation and follow-up systems and experienced 30 visitors this year, with a 40% retention rate and 15% church growth.
And this Easter, 100% of their visitors (12 people – another 15% church growth!) returned and were still coming back after 3 weeks!
Their Connections Process is genius in its simplicity. Their system begins with gathering contact information so they can follow up with all new visitors.
Right now that happens organically, with an invitation to Welcome to Valley, a lunch for new people that happens right after church three times each year.
Here people find out about Valley’s purpose, mission, and vision, their membership process, and special events like Baptism.
Executive Pastor/Worship Leader Paul Ice says Valley is all about gathering people together, either in small groups or one-on-one meets.
There’s a culture of connecting with others and asking people to coffee/lunch, which has been their biggest success.
Their small groups typically meet once a month and it’s all about community, hanging out together, and a devotional from Sunday’s message. They boast 60% of Sunday attendance are members of a small group.
The biggest challenge should come as no surprise – it’s what we all experience – getting people’s contact information.
What they’ve discovered is although their environment is very welcoming, people are afraid to ask for visitors’ contact information.
So their answer is to better train their welcoming volunteers.
They’ve also incorporated two small steps that have proven very successful. They created a Google Sheet with descriptions of people so the second time they visit they are recognized and welcomed.
They’ve also been very successful in asking a visitor, “Can I text you my number?”
As I said in the beginning, their genesis is their simplicity!
Not only have they grown, but they’ve planted two other churches as well!
Mile City Church: Plymouth, MI
Mile City Church in Plymouth, Michigan, is a relatively young church – 8 years old (started in 2015) – but already has two locations (Plymouth & Lyon, MI) and another seven churches they’ve sent out (soon to be eight!). That’s a lot to accomplish in such a short period of time.
They attribute their success to three pillars of church engagement:
- Connections Pathway System
- Small Groups
Mile City knows the value of getting the word out about their commitment to the communities they serve and they spend their time and financial resources on ensuring they are known. They have a website and social media sites and they send out mailers to all new families moving into the communities they serve. The rest comes from word of mouth.
Once someone interacts with Mile City, they are put into a systematic Guest Services Ministry that ensures no one falls through the cracks.
Tour guides show people around and make them feel welcome.
First-time guests get a handwritten card and a Starbucks gift card.
Visitors are challenged to come three weeks in a row because, as Mile City Lyon Campus Pastor Miah says, “It’s hard to learn about a place without coming a few times.”
Once people have connected, they move into a Discipleship Track that includes a Next Move gathering once a month after the second Sunday service.
Similar to a welcome party, it’s where people hear about the mission and vision of the church and are given the opportunity to get plugged in.
Participants are given a “Next Move” book that talks about church plants, they’re taken through a Spiritual Gifts test and fill out a card indicating their top two spiritual gifts to get them connected with an appropriate team.
Everyone who attends Next Move is called directly to get them plugged in wherever possible.
Small Groups are considered one of their seven mile markers, a way to ensure people are engaged and connecting. They offer both sermon-based discussion groups and fellowship/activity groups, especially over the summer months.
When you ask what’s worked best, they are quick to say getting people plugged into serving on a team (i.e., guest services, kids ministry, worship, etc.). They have 157 people serving on their Guest Services team and 325 people (from an 800-person church) serving somewhere, nearly 50%. Their connect cards have also been very effective.
Their current focus for future improvement is connecting people to their local community. While they currently have 300 people in their City Groups and 75 people in their Coaching Groups, their vision is to build a team to serve the community wherever they are needed.
Their track record is tough to beat – 2 locations, 800+ attendance, 7 plants, and consistent growth over the 8-year history of the church – all during a worldwide pandemic!