How do we improve welcoming and connecting visitors into our church community?

12 Sep 2021 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

How do we improve welcoming and connecting visitors into our church community?

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

Research shows that for a church of 100 people per service, there are 160 people per year who make a first-time visit. Of these, just over half are well churched, and just under half have little or no other experience of church - they are all at sea in these new surrounds. The first visit for 67% of these people is to an ordinary worship service, and mostly in January.
With these kinds of statistics, Rev Mat Harry (New and Renewing Communities Catalyst with the Vic/Tas Synod of the UCA) engaged with John Jeffries to ask: How do we improve welcoming and connecting visitors into our church community?
John brings a unique and fascinating blend of Christian leadership experience as the long-term CEO of one of Australia’s most successful International NGOs (Christian Blind Mission). He combines this with extensive governance experience from serving on boards of several Australian and International NGOs working in disability, medical research and community housing.
From an evidence-based research approach (using ABS, McCrindle and National Church Life Survey data), John provides an engaging presentation about:

  • When a visitor decides whether a Christian Community is friendly or not.
  • Who should welcome newcomers.
  • Why first-time visitors choose not to return.
  • How to welcome so people belong.

You can view the full presentation at:
Here are some points from the presentation that grabbed my attention:

  • When do you think the welcoming starts? Most church members say it is when people come into the carpark, or at the door. But latest data shows that 90% of newcomers have already been to your website before they enter your church car park or door. So, we need to set up our church websites with these people in mind. The most visited page is “meet the team” or “about the pastor” because a newcomer is trying to get some idea of what it will feel like if I go to visit this church – the kind of people who will be there. They want to understand what the pastor is like – what football team does she follow, family, what hobbies the pastor has.
  • When does a visitor decides whether a Christian Community is friendly or not? Most people think it is probably the warmth of the welcome when the visitor arrives at the door. Research says the key time is the first 10 minutes following the conclusion of the service. Sadly, in most churches the welcome teams have knocked off at the end of the first song in the service. And, after the service, the ‘in’ people all talk to each other and new people are left like a shag on a rock.
  • 36-hour rule. What happens when a volunteer makes contact with a visitor within 36 hours? – 85% return to worship the next Sunday. When delayed to 72 hours, only 60% return. 5-7 days, 15% return. If it is the minister who makes the contact, you can half these percentages. Not saying the minister is no good at this. Rather, it shows the power of the volunteer lay people. If a volunteer does this follow up, it says I love this church so much that I want you to be a part of it. The most powerful testimonial for the church comes from the lay people. When the minister does it, that is lovely, but in the back of your head you are thinking they are paid to do this.
  • When my contact point with a church is just one person – say the minister, I speak of going to minister’s church. When I have multiplicity of contact points in a church community, I begin to speak of this as being my church. If the social space of the members at the church is full, there is no room for new people. One church brought in a rule that no-one was to talk to their friends or do church work after a service until they could see that all visitors had someone talking with them.
  • Why do people drop out of church? 45% did so because they did not feel part of the church. 25% left because they felt excluded by ‘cliques’ and ‘in’ groups.
  • How were you successfully made to feel welcome? 48% - attender spoke to me. 28% - minster spoke to me

In our Synod we are committed to becoming a contemporary, courageous and growing Church - across all geography, cultures and generations. To do this will involve improving how we welcome and connect visitors into our church community. These people are already looking for us on the internet. They are already arriving at the doors to our churches. Surely, the easiest place for us to begin is with those who are already seeking us out.
As a first step, why not arrange for your church council to meet on zoom and share screen to watch the video from the link above. Then begin to form up an action list of the first things you can do to improve welcoming and connecting visitors into your church community. During these COVID times, perhaps the first cab off the rank will be your website. If you are using microsites, and would like some assistance in reviewing your website, please contact our Presbytery Operations Manager – Janise Wood, 0455 558 130.
Mat offers these further thoughts about websites:
Over the past 3 years I have looked at a lot of church websites &/or Facebook pages and have been confused.  Often a website or the banner on a Facebook page will have a static picture of a building rather than the people enjoying community.  We say things like “the church is the people not the building”.  However, so often the thing we advertise to the world is our building.
If a new person did check out our online advertising, they would be confused about the possible entry points and welcoming into the church.  It is rare for a church to be clear on the pathways for new people and new connections to move to belonging.
The Welcome begins with the entry points that face the community, so it needs to be as clear and simple as possible.  Internet presence is one of those entry points. 
In Thom Rainer’s “Top 10 Ways Churches Drive Away First Time Guests”, number 5 is.
Bad church websiteMost of the church guests went to the church website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a website are address and times of service. It’s just that basic.
Mat goes on to give an example of what he thinks is a church website with clear pathways for new people:
And that example is Follow Church in Officer.  They even have a tab to click on their opening banner “I’m New!”.  Maybe check out their website and other social media.  It is slick and it is extremely professional.  Sometimes this can just make us feel as though our stuff is inadequate and inferior.  This isn’t the point… the point is that the website is clear about how you can join in, with multiple entry points.
Uniting Mission and Education of our Synod is close to releasing a resource about welcoming newcomers. Keep an eye out for it. In the meantime, you will find this link to UME helpful:
Five things you can do to Grow your Church - Uniting Mission and Education