One of the first principles Searcy points to is the ratio of first time guests to regular attenders. The first week we met, someone on our team turned to me, the leader, pastor, shepherd of the church who sets the tone for everything else and said, "How many guests do we average each week?" Every other person on the team turned to me expecting an answer. Embarrassed I had to admit, "I don't know."
Before I share with you what I have learned, allow me to share with you where we are now. In 2014, about 8 months after we started being intentional about assimilation, we are seeing our attendance increased by 50 to 100 people each week compared to our numbers from 2013. Since October of 2013, we have averaged 18 guests per week. This past Sunday (2/23) we had 42 registered guests.
So what made the difference in us going from passion without a plan to growth?
- Pay attention to what is actually happening.
I shouldn't say "no one" in our church was paying attention to guest registration. I also don't want to convey that I was totally apathetic about it, but I was merely going through the motions. The few guests we did register would come across my desk as letters to sign. I would sign them and send them on.
For the few that saw where we were falling short and would call my attention to it, I would give them a standard answer, "Yeah, that's something we need to do better." That answer is like the next breath you get on a ventilator while in a comma. It keeps you alive but accomplishes little else. Once I started paying attention and reading up on the subject, I could see where we needed to improve.
As pastors we are guilty of dreaming and whining, wondering, and wailing when the dream doesn't match reality. Yes, I wanted guests to come and stay. Tons of them, but it wasn't happening. Nothing changed until I payed attention to reality. Hey pastor, if you want things to change, pay attention to what is actually going on instead of thinking only about what you would like to happen.
- Learn together.
Our Sunday School director is the one who first introduced me to Fusion. He discovered the book when he attended a Sunday School growth conference. When he asked me to read it, I'll confess, I told him I didn't have time. When I finally began to read it, I saw the potential. But I've been down this road before. Great book. Great ideas. It all vanishes in total frustration because no one else gets it.
I learned a long time ago. If I want things to change, I can't be the only guy who reads the book.
Instead of only two of us reading it, I invited several people to form a group so that several of us could learn together. I had one of our team members create a PowerPoint presentation of the key ideas in the book. I shared the presentation with our staff. I asked several key leaders in the church to come together for a session on a Saturday morning and we shared the information with them. The information was shared multiple times, even in meetings that had nothing directly to do with assimilation (ultimately it is ALL about assimilation).
The more we shared the ideas the more they caught on. This happened not so much because we were sharing the ideas in a way that we were telling people what to do, we were sharing them as we were learning together. Our approach was less "let us tell you what to do" and more "let us invite you into what we are learning."
Another critical takeaway from this point is pastoral honesty and humility. Pastors, it is dishonest to take someone's ideas and parade them around as if they are the product of your own work. Furthermore, I have found it true that as a pastor, even for the people who love you, when you suggest change, people don't think you know what you're talking about. I can't tell you how many times I have brought someone in who will say what I would have said, but our people received it because they perceived our guest as an "expert." Use a book. Tell them what Searcy said, or what whoever you glean ideas from said. You're just the pastor. You can't possibly know what you're talking about :)! Be humble, point them to the "book" guy!
- Register people everywhere, all of the time, a lot of different ways, for everything.
If there is any point in the process in which our failure was glaring, it was in getting our guests to use our registration cards. Yes, I know what you're thinking. You've tried it all. Me too! I've tried passing a folder down each row for everyone to sign in. In the past I've had our ushers hand cards directly to our guests. Tear offs, pew cards, gift bags . . . if it has a perforated edge . . . I've used it. It all ends at the same point of frustration. You can't get everyone to use it . . . whatever it is. So we would move on to the next thing.
That's the problem, we move from one thing to the next. Some people will respond to some things. Some people will respond to others. So don't use just one thing, use as many as you possibly can.
We register people at the door. We register people in our classes. We register people as they drop off children. We register people who respond at the end of the service. We don't have just one time or one way we register guests. We are meeting people all along the way. We even have people who carry around cards and register people when they meet them. If they won't fill it out, we will do it for them. We register people all of the time, everywhere, and we use almost anything we can. We are about to launch a church app with a module for people to register on their device. Some dude may not use your card, but that same joker will sit there during your sermon and use his phone! Hey, at least you may somehow entice him to be responsive to something you say.
If you have only one way and one time you register guests, you are making a big mistake.
Are we batting 1.000? Nope, but great major league hitters, Hall of Famers, bat just over 30% and I promise you we are past that. There was a time that 30% would have been a monumental improvement. There were several weeks last year in which I know we had guests but received 0 response. From judging our average of 18-20 per week and knowing that we registered 42 last week, it looks like we may now be effectively registering at least half of our weekly guests.
- Pull it all together.
So we started registering people everywhere, all the time, with everything. PROBLEM. No one was pulling it all together. We had Sunday School registrations. We had children's church registrations. We had front door registrations. Because we were now paying attention we knew we were having guests, but we were still getting very few actual records from their visit.
We were getting people to register, but we were not compiling the information into one central location. In leadership meetings we would assess the day and wonder where the guest information was. "I know so and so was here, but where is their information?" For a short time this meant we were doing a great job getting people to share their info, but we were dying on the vine when it came to following up. The simple solution was to create a way to pull it all together. If you decide to register people everywhere, all of the time, and use anything you can, don't make the mistake we made by allowing those stacks to lay around and get lost. Designate someone, somehow to pull it together.
- Put a card in every hand.
The biggest mistake we were making a year ago is that we were trying only to get registration cards in the hands of our guests. Big mistake. Searcy was a great help to us on this one. Your guests don't want to be guests!!! No one enjoys being new - unless you just have some odd thing in your life we should probably talk about. Your guests want to come in and leave without a lot of special attention being directed their way. By targeting our guests we were not winning them over, we were making them feel uncomfortable.
Easy solution. Everyone gets the same thing whoever they are and wherever they are. If you want your guests to register their children, they should have to do so, not because they are new, but it is what everyone else does.
This leads to the next critical change we made.
- Get everyone to use a registration card every week.
At Liberty, we call them "Connection Cards." These cards are not simply guest registration cards. Our Connection Cards are for prayer needs, sermon response, and sign ups for events going on at the church. In our service there is no special guest card. Everyone has the same card and we use it for everything.
Again, everything you use needs to be for everybody. The more reasons you can create to use the same card, the more likely you will be in getting the people you really want to use it.
- Refer to the registration card as many times as you can from the pulpit.
We made a big mistake in trying to give cards only to our guests. As stated previously, we were also making a big mistake in trying at only one time to get them the card. We found that the more times you can refer to your card, whatever you call it, the more effective you will be in getting guests to use it. This is a step that has been the biggest challenge for me. Problem #1, I am a creature of habit. Problem #2, I am sermon focused. I feel your pain, pastor, in trying to add one more thing you need to talk about to the day. But I can tell you this. The difference in registering 15 guests and registering 42 is how many times I talk about the card.
In recalling this past Sunday, I counted 5 times we talked about our Connection Card. The result was that it was one of the most effective days we have had registering guests. I'm partial, but I think the most critical times were the times I asked for everyone to put their cards in front of them both at the beginning of the sermon and at the end. I began the sermon by telling the people we were all going to use the card to respond to a specific idea from the day. We created a real sense that you needed the card to be able to effectively listen to the sermon. That was a game changer. It was no longer "we want this from you", it was rather, "you are going to need this."
- Create a "culture" that expects guests.
We still do things that Liberty has done for years, but we do them with a different mindset. One example is hand shaking time. Most churches like ours are very friendly and view a time of shaking hands during the service as being almost as sacred as the hymns. The time we once used for "greeting your friends" we now use for "meeting our guests." It is not about saying "hello" it is about making introductions. Before we shake hands I like to call attention to that fact. It used to be, "Turn around and shake hands with two or three people around you." Now, especially with 20+ guests per week, it is "If you see someone you don't know (and you probably will) introduce yourself." The people at Liberty know that each of them are a critical part of our church's growth. They must not only bring guests, but they must meet our guests. Everyone at Liberty is a greeter.
The biggest reason we miss our guests is the same reason you may get bit by a copperhead on a trail. You weren't looking for it. Learn to look for guests. We have people in our service, who are not designated greeters, who do nothing but look for guests so that they can introduce themselves. And yes, they carry registration cards!
- Realize whatever you do will never be perfect.
Are we perfect in what we do? No way, but we are doing better. Do people still fall through the cracks at Liberty? Yes, but it isn't because we weren't paying attention. I continue to be frustrated by some of the things that we don't do well. But my frustration is overshadowed by the satisfaction I draw from our drastic improvement that has resulted in growth.