In 2003 with the help of Lutheran Social Services, we adopted a beautiful little girl from an orphanage in Solikamsk, Russia, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow. At 18 months she was small for her age, and neither walking nor talking. Once we got back to the United States, she began doing both incessantly. She also grew six inches in six months. You can’t sustain that kind of growth. (If she had, she’s now be eight feet tall.) Growth isn’t incremental. It comes in bursts, called “growth spurts.”
Churches grow the same way: in growth spurts. If your congregation wants to grow (many don’t), then you’ll need to plan on having some growth spurts. In an article on breaking the 200-300 barrier, Rick Warren (http://www.timberridge.org/images/59506/HowToBreakThroughthe200-300Barrier.pdf) says that many churches don’t grow for sociological reasons, not spiritual ones. The reasons are often invisible to general membership. The way a church is structured, the way the pastor functions, the family system, the facility, and so on. Churches that grow have leadership that is acutely aware of these factors and is constantly reorganizing for growth. Or as the pastor of a large Houston-area mega-church said to me, “Do now what you are going to have to be doing when you are twice this size.” Big Sundays are a way to get there.
Many congregations will double their worship attendance on Christmas and Easter if they are intentional about inviting in the community. A large percentage of these folks will be visitors. Some will not be prospects because they are out-of-town relatives. The rest, however, are folks who may return if they like what they see. And if they’re invited into ministry, fellowship, serving, they will eventually join.
A congregation with a worship attendance of 80-90 won’t gradually grow through the 100 barrier. The only way to get past it is to burst past it. Plan a big Sunday that attracts 150-200 people. The following Sunday you won’t have that many, but you may fall back to 120. Add enough of these Sundays together and in time you will see significant growth. And your congregation will get used to seeing new faces around, becoming better at welcoming.
Kinds of Services
Christmas and Easter are obvious times to expect a crowd, but don’t leave it at that. Plan a big Sunday once every couple of months. Once Christmas is over, plan your big Sundays for the year. Consider these possibilities:
· Valentine’s Day
· Mother’s Day
· Father’s Day
· Vacation Bible School Day
· Rally Day
· Reformation Sunday
· All Saints
· Invent a day
The Sunday closest to February 14 is an opportunity to celebrate marriage. This year (2010) February 14 is a Sunday. Why not invite people to do a reaffirmation of marriage vows? What if you had 12 couples reaffirming their wedding vows and a party afterwards? They would bring brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, children and friends. Put an ad in the paper letting people know it’s happening. Celebrate fidelity. Bring in a crowd. Have a photographer present. Show a video on strengthening your marriage during the Sunday school hour.
Or consider the Love Changes Everything for February 14. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) is encouraging congregations to talk about immigration reform. It’s important that people realize the role of hospitality to the stranger in the Bible. It’s important for people to understand how our current draconian immigration practice is tearing apart families. Bring in a speaker. Advertise in the paper. Even if this topic is controversial in your neck of the woods, all the better. This will put you on the map. People will perceive you as dealing with relevant issues. Your church will get noticed.
Use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to lift up the role of mother. Father’s Day can be a great opportunity as well. Consider doing things that appeal to dad’s on that day. One year we brought in a bunch of easy chairs and awarded the oldest dad, the youngest dad, the dad with the most kids, etc. by letting them sit in the comfy chairs. We used sports images in worship. Consider inviting an NFL or NBA chaplain to come.
Many congregations still do Vacation Bible School. Lots of unchurched kids attend because their parents use it as cheap childcare. After a week of singing songs, the kids are ready to sing for the congregation. Have a big bash on Sunday morning. Leave the VBS decorations up. Have the kids sing, show off their crafts. Plan a lunch. Don’t charge anything for the lunch. Budget for it or have benefactors donate food. Make it festive.
Invent a day. Make a day named after your city: Baton Rouge Day. Invite the mayor, police chief, etc. use Romans 13 to talk about the kingdom on the left, and Christian’s duty to support secular leaders. Have a teachers’ day, firefighters’ day, or health care workers’ day. Invite people to come in uniform, or wear name tags. Heath care workers could be done around St. Luke Evangelist day (October 18?).
Whatever you do, get your event to be seen as the community’s event. Baton Rouge end of Hurricane Season Celebration Worship, for example. Or Humble Baccalaureate Service. A number of congregations do a Blessing of the Animals on St. Francis Day (October 4?). You would be surprised how deeply people love their pets, God’s creatures. They appreciate a time to celebrate this. Keep the service short. Have treats. Expect accidents. People will perceive your church as friendly.
Rally Day is the Fall kickoff event. Want a crowd? Have a free barbecue. AT least in Texas, that will always bring in a crowd. Have a free will offering. Most people will give and while you won’t break even, it won’t cost all that much. Put a big sign out front inviting people in. Have a mission fair going on while people mill around.
The Reformation is something that lots of folks recognize as an important event in Western history. Why not be the church that has the area Reformation service? Have an Octoberfest along with it. Serve sauerkraut and brats. Bring in a crowd.
Whatever you do, be sure to go out of your way to invite in the community. Figure out ways to get eh word out in your community. Posters, door hangers, newspaper ads, signs, etc.
Christmas and Easter are not the only times for big Sundays, but they are gifts: times when lots of people will come, because it’s in the air. People know it’s Christmas, and even with declining worship attendance in America people still think of going to church as a way to celebrate Christmas. The only thing left for you to do is let them know when the services are and invite like crazy.
I’m surprised when I drive past a church a week before Christmas and there are no service times posted for Christmas Eve worship. Do they want people to come? It appears not. How will people know what time the services are if the only place you advertise them is in your church bulletin? How will they know if they are welcome?
So in December it’s worth the cost to purchase a Christmassy banner or sign that says “All are welcome!” and posts the service times. If times don’t change next year, you can use it again. Let people know when the services are:
· Put a banner or sign out in front.
· Make sure the answering machine has service times (and directions).
· Consider a newspaper ad.
· Print invitation cards inviting people to worship. Send them to targeted neighborhoods in bulk and also give them to your members during Advent to use to invite their friends.
On other days the same rules apply. Print up welcome cards so that your members can invite friends and neighbors. Have them out six weeks before the event. Let your members know that there will be a sermon that will connect with a broad audience. The music will be excellent. They won’t regret inviting their friends.
The Big Day
When the day arrives be sure to have excellent hospitality. If people come and visit and no one says a word to them, they probably won’t come back. Double your ushers and greeters. Meet people in the parking lot (with umbrellas if it’s raining). Make sure the pastor is out greeting as well.
The music and sermon should be the very best. Use the day to start a new sermon series on a topic that will make them want to come back and hear the rest. Make sure the congregation is trained to reach out to visitors during the Peace, otherwise this time heightens their sense of not belonging. Be certain that communion instructions are clear so that people don’t get embarrassed.
Have information out about the ministries of the congregation. Have fliers out about your preschool, upcoming mission trips, fellowship events, new small group opportunities, Vacation Bible Schools, etc.
Have cards available for people to register their presence. If you have a guest book, have it out and attended by a greeter, who can welcome guests.
Don’t let them scoot out the door too quickly. Put refreshments between the pew and the parking lot. Have stealth greeters look for newcomers and spend time getting to know them.
Before you leave Sunday get all the visitor names together. Have ushers or counters pull out the visitor cards. Get names from the guest book. Have your counters get names and addresses from any checks that were in the offering plate.
Have a “Thank you for worshipping at Faith” letter ready to go out first thing Monday morning. It should simply say thank you for visiting and invite them to come back.
In addition to the letter, make a call or a visit within 48 hours. If there are only a handful of visitors, the pastor can make those calls, but studies show lay callers to be more effective. Again the goal is simply to get people to come back the next week. It can be as simple as, “Hello is ___ there? … This is ___________… I just called to say thank you for worshipping at _______ Church on Sunday… What brought you to ___________Church? … Are you new to the area? … Is there anything we can do for you? … I’d love to meet you. I’d like to invite you to come again this Sunday…
At home visits are trickier. If you have people that go to visit, make sure they are well-trained, and good listeners. People these days don’t open their homes as readily. Best to have two visitors (at least one of which is a female). Have them take a packet of information and simply say thanks for visiting. (Some congregations will take a loaf of bread or a plate of cookies. ) Your goal is a quick non-threatening contact. You don’t leave the porch unless they drag you in. This requires a team of trained visitors.
Pastor Don Gebert suggests a plan where you have people trained and prepared from every major neighborhood in your vicinity. Then on Sunday afternoon you just call them and give them a name. People tend to be more receptive when you say, “I live just up the street a little ways.” See Don Gebert’s video at http://gulfcoastsynod.org/evangelismnew.htm .
Remember, quite often when people visit your church they are in crisis. Perhaps they’ve just moved to the area. Moving is one of the top stressors. They are new to the area. They need friends. They don’t know where the Post Office is. This provides a great opportunity for ministry. Or perhaps they are recently divorced, or grieving the death of a loved one. There are lots of things that drive people back to church. Sometimes they just sense the need for something spiritual in their lives. Trained visitors can listen for this, and even ask it bluntly: “So what brings to you be searching for a church?” This kind of caring call is more than recruiting. It’s ministry. Compassion.
Michael Rinehart, bishop