Hope Fellowship (No. 87, Fastest-Growing; No. 72, Largest) in Frisco, Texas, had what it called a Connect Center, and each week it was very busy. A lot of new people crowded around, and volunteers constantly handed out literature. As the church matured and added multiple campuses, leaders began to recognize that fewer visitors were staying.
“Seven or eight years ago, we were growing at such a rate that it wasn’t obvious to us that we were also losing people through the process,” explains Mark Lunsford, executive pastor at Hope Fellowship.
Angela Linz, lead connections and growth pastor at the church, points to the underlying problem: “Somewhere along the way, people weren’t feeling personally connected.”
It had to be about more than just giving people the information they needed. So, as Linz’s team reinvented its process, they emphasized the personal touch. Linz envisioned an experience in which she wanted “everybody that walks in our doors to feel valued, seen and welcome.”
This reinventing and adapting is not uncommon for the nation’s fastest-growing and largest churches. As LifeWay Research in association with Outreach magazine surveys churches for the Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing and 100 Largest Participating Churches lists, we also notice patterns that can be helpful for all churches. One of the ways we see these churches reinvent themselves is through their methods of connecting with new people.
Systems or Innovations?
It can be easy to assume that everything these growing churches do is focused on innovation. The reality is that much of what they describe is an investment in systems and processes, and most of the innovation comes in improving these practices.
“It is helpful to have a system and to document it,” says Steve Klein, project director at Liquid Church (No. 43, Fastest-Growing) in Parsippany, New Jersey. “Everyone thought they understood how it works. Then, when you start to write it down, it gets trickier.
“There’s no way to tell if you’re doing well if you don’t even know what you’re doing,” he adds.
Regardless of your church’s size, the same benefits come from this type of forethought. How will visitors experience your church? What will their impression be? What questions will they have? How will you answer them? How will they connect?
The fast-growing churches we talked to do not take the answers to these questions for granted. They not only have envisioned the answers, they have re-envisioned them, reworked them and constantly look for ways to improve their practices. They also communicate their system repeatedly, so visitors hear it and regular attendees can point guests in the right direction.
Make Guests a Priority
“We found that it’s super important to focus on ‘new here’ guests as a priority in order to make sure that that is always in front of our minds,” says Klein.
Chris Hollomon, campus pastor at The Bridge (No. 5, Fastest-Growing) in Spring Hill, Tennessee, describes their first-time guest parking people as some of the church’s greatest leaders. This isn’t a place to put any warm body—it is an important ministry where people with the right gifts should be serving.
Getting guests to participate in the Next Steps process at Eastside Christian Church (No. 11 Fastest-Growing; No. 49, Largest) in Anaheim, California, is important enough that they hold these sessions during church with Senior Pastor Gene Appel saying, “I would rather you miss church for an entire month, so you can go to Next Steps.”
Aaron Burke, pastor at Radiant Church (No. 13, Fastest-Growing) in Tampa, Florida, says conducting and updating weekly classes for guests can be taxing and difficult on staff, but they have made connecting with guests a priority.
A few years ago Hope Fellowship’s Linz and her husband relocated to another city and were looking for a church for the first time. “It was a really hard experience,” she says. “I learned from that short time that when people walk in, they really want someone to make them feel seen and comfortable. It’s a really uncomfortable thing to be new at church. If we can take away that uncomfortable feeling for them and help them feel like we’re just really excited to have them there, that was my goal.”
“They’re really not guests until they’ve allowed themselves to be known as a guest,” says Greg Curtis, director of assimilation at Eastside Christian Church.
Whether this happens when they first arrive or later, the reality is visitors treat the introduction process much like permission marketing—they don’t want to hear your pitch until after they give you permission to do so.
For that reason, it is very common for churches to make getting this permission their first goal for a new guest. Burke of Radiant Church explains, “We ask them to fill out a connection card and that’s it.”
Curtis adds, “The one thing we ask guests to do is to come to a place we call Guest Central where they can exchange their contact info for a free gift.”
At Hope Fellowship, the welcome team is positioned by the main entrance with a large sign that says, “New to Hope? Start Here.” They have made this more personal by having a host escort guests through the building, showing them the things they need. After the service, the same host gives them a gift and seeks to continue the conversation.
Offering a gift is not unusual. Our research among Protestant pastors has shown that 42 percent of all churches offer guests a gift. The most popular items are mugs or cups followed by food items. A quarter of the churches that give gifts mention an information packet as part of their gift.
Radiant Church mails a gift card to the guest the next day, a practice Burke says they have been doing for four years.
“There’s an idea that the church wants something from people, and we want stuff for people. We want to set that tone right away, that we’re here to serve them, not for them to serve us,” he says. “If you never return, at least take your kids to go get a sandwich at Chick-fil-A.”
In the same way fastest-growing churches have one initial ask for contact information, they seem to all have a clear second step with their follow-up—encouraging the guest to attend a class or a conversation.
“The big ask is always Next Steps,” says Curtis. The goal is to have all efforts guide visitors gently toward the same place, like a floating down a “lazy river water ride.”
New member and orientation classes have been around for a long time, but one of the innovations among fast-growing churches is that that these classes are offered to guests every week. While most have multiple weeks of content, a guest can start any week.
“We learned the hard way it was better to go with smaller things with more frequency than to have something more spread out,” says Curtis. When they offered these experiences quarterly, they got a bigger group in the room at one time but a much lower percentage of guests.
“We learned the power of imminence,” he adds. Asking people to come back and take a next step in a month was not imminent enough.
“We’ve tried way more things that didn’t work than have worked,” explains Burke. While they have always offered next steps classes, they have tried asking people to come back at night.
“We will get a fraction of the results,” Burke says. “The idea is to strike while the iron’s hot. You’re here today. You like what you heard. God’s pressing on your heart. Take a next step.”
As Eastside tries to view their process from the visitor’s perspective, they have gone out of their way not to refer to this as a class.
“Following Jesus with us at Eastside is an adventure. It’s a journey. It’s not a classroom experience,” says Curtis. “When you come to Next Steps, you’re going to get a backpack. We’re going to give you a new piece of equipment each week as we train you in four different ways of following Jesus with us.”
Next Steps class or not, a group orientation is not the only method. When a single mom couldn’t stay after church for the class at The Bridge, a volunteer met with her one-on-one before services. At Liquid Church all of these conversations are one-on-one. They tried classes but were not getting the level of involvement and engagement they wanted.
Their campus pastors seek to set up eight to 10 coffees or meetings each week. At least a third of those should be with new people. They typically text visitors and use the TimeTrade app to offer times to meet.
“It’s more accessible,” says Klein. “For people who aren’t extroverted, looking to get plugged in right away, it’s a bit of a step to say, ‘Hey, let me sign up and hang out with 10 other people, and who knows what we’re going to do.’
“I meet people all the time who were new one week,” says Klein. “Then a month later they’re plugged in a team. I’m like, ‘How did that happen?’ More often than not, it’s that campus pastor coffee.”
Holloman and other campus pastors at The Bridge are experimenting with something similar, carrying a small notebook to get a few phone numbers each week for follow-up. A couple weeks before we talked, Holloman had met someone and asked the man for his number to get in touch.
He received a note from the man’s wife. She shared, “I literally prayed that morning that my husband would find a connection with a man in the church that would welcome him in.”
Holloman has made it a goal to meet three or four new people each week. After connecting with them, he hopes to also introduce them to each other.
Real, lasting connections typically do not happen until a guest gets involved in a small group or a group that serves together. While churches with many guests are sometimes able to launch a small group or Sunday school class from a next step class, most guests end up visiting several trying to find a good fit.
The same table hosts sitting with guests at the Intro to The Bridge class follow up with their visitors the entire next month specifically to make sure there are no roadblocks to getting connected in a community group.
Hope Fellowship invites guests to their next group launch where new groups are started. Several churches offer group fairs several times a year to try to help people find a group.
Getting involved in a group that serves can also provide a solid connection. When you volunteer or find a small group of friends, you are needed, and you are wanted. If that experience doesn’t happen for a guest within the first four to six months, they’re gone.”
One attendee at Liquid Church had fallen off the radar. He had stopped serving and wasn’t coming to church anymore. Klein explains, “Life got in the way. It happens to everybody. It could be a seasonal thing, or something happens in your life.”
A volunteer leader on the guest connections team reached out to the man, and he was happy to hear from the church. He realized somebody actually missed him and cared for him. He returned and has been attending and serving for the last month.
At Hope Fellowship, Lunsford has found that “people that follow through and get involved in serving are now much more connected to the mission.”
Burke adds another dimension to solidifying the connection. “Our bread and butter that keeps people engaged is changed lives. We have to provide them with proof that what they’re a part of actually works. For me, my full-time job is to provide avenues for people to encounter God’s presence so that their lives can be changed.
“If lives are changed, people stay committed, people keep serving, people keep giving. That to me is the bottom line. How do we keep people engaged? We keep showing them that what they’re doing is working,” he says.
Listen to the Data
As a researcher, I noticed that Radiant, Eastside, Liquid Church and Hope Fellowship all mentioned including a survey link in their follow-up emails to guests. Often the survey answers are reviewed by the pastor or campus pastor.
Burke explains, “It lets guests know that what they’ve experienced, we take seriously.”
When that feedback includes something that was not right—and the guest identifies themselves—it gives the church an opportunity to let the guest know they were heard and that the issue is being addressed. That often helps create connections as well.
Data can also trigger a need for action. When Eastside realized only 1 out of 32 people who were baptized went on to attend their Next Steps program, they knew something had to change. Once those changes were implemented, the number jumped to 1 in 5 people attending.
Lunsford of Hope Fellowship admits one of the harder things to track is when long-term attendees stop attending. But they use the data they have to generate reports of those with no “footsteps” in their system for several months. The campus pastor follows up to ask how they are doing.
The Bridge runs an automated report that shows who hasn’t served in three weeks. Their team checks on these people and asks if they need anything. This communication can go both ways. When a volunteer leader doesn’t get anywhere, they have the freedom to ask a staff member to reach out too.
If a church knows how many people have identified themselves as guests, they know how many attend orientation classes. Eastside is even able to estimate how many return a second time based on how many free drink coupons are redeemed at their café.
If these steps are the things that matter, then it is wise to track them.
Work on What You Control
“We can’t force everybody to want to take their next step,” says Lunsford.
As a result Hope Fellowship has not tried to go after those who do not respond to the invitations and conversations they offer through multiple avenues. If someone is simply willing to have a conversation, Lunsford is convinced there is no way they won’t know how to get involved.
At The Bridge, they describe the many things the Lord is doing at their two campuses. But they also acknowledge God is using other great churches as well. They are not afraid to say, “This might not be the place for you. We hope it is, but it’s more important to us for you to find the right church than to be at our church.”
That kingdom focus communicates that The Bridge cares about more than growing their church. Holloman believes articulating this gives people permission to “really look and see if this is the place I’m supposed to be or not.”
What is the one thing these processes and the systems cannot do? They can’t make church members and leaders care. But intentionality can help even with this. Hope Fellowship teaches their table leaders and group leaders how to care for people. Pastor John McKenzie reinforces a culture of caring from the stage. “If people matter to God, then they should matter to us,” he says.
When people connect with a small group or team that serves it provides avenues for the church to care. At Hope Fellowship, one team leader noticed a woman had confirmed she would serve two weeks in a row but did not show up. The leader texted the woman to check in and see if they could help.
The woman texted back saying she had been struggling with depression. She got up both mornings and just didn’t want to come. “I really didn’t think I’d be missed,” she said.
That text from the leader changed things. “I’ve never been to a church where somebody’s actually told me they’ve missed me there,” she says. “They’ve told me that I didn’t show up, or I didn’t follow through. But nobody said, ‘I missed you.’” She got back involved and also started attending the church’s regeneration program for those needing help with different types of recovery.
Reaching and connecting people with your church does not happen without envisioning and planning for what their experience will be. These connection points will not improve unless you are listening to the experiences your guests are having. In research we call this journey mapping.
You can envision an ideal first-time visitor experience, but journey mapping describes the path guests actually take, evaluates their experience and measures what they value in that experience. Without those insights, your guests’ journey may lead right out the back door.
Scott McConnell is executive director of LifeWay Research.