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If I stand on the left bank of the mighty Mississippi River and look across to the right bank of the river, I can see that there is life and activity on the other side. But first and foremost, I can see a River...the River that stands between here and there. And the River is huge.

Knowing that there is another side to the river, including activity on the other side of the river that might be beneficial and enjoyable to me, does not, however, get me to the other side of the River. I need a bridge.

Therein lies a principle for guest retention: guests visiting your church need a bridge to get to the other side. They stand removed from the church experience by what is to them a daunting and threatening line of separation. Insider... outsider. Friend...stranger. Familiar environment... unfamiliar environment. Ease... anxiety. Connected...disconnected.

Known...unknown. Member...guest.

They need a bridge. When churches across America minimize the dividing line (the River) between the two sides, thinking it less significant for the guest than it is, they are failing guests by the hundreds, even thousands. I see them Sunday after Sunday, having come to the River and looked, only to walk in a mass exodus out the door, backed away by the enormity and the hazards of the River.

They need a bridge. But they don’t often get one. Instead they are offered the sights and sounds of the other side (viz. the church experience) as if those sights and sounds will somehow elevate them over or swim them through the currents of the River they face. They hear, “stop at the Information Booth and we will tell you more about life on the other side.” Or they are offered a Welcome folder with pics and paragraphs of exciting news from the other side --- all about how they can be involved. They are invited to sign up for the Men’s Retreat or register for the upcoming Church Festivities. But first, there is the River. And no bridge. “We are glad to answer all your questions,” they are told. But the answers don’t address the River.

When as many as 85% of first-time guests nationally don’t stick, it is important to ask why; something monumental seems to be broken. Is it the bridge? Is the bridge out?

A bridge connects one side of the River to the other. A bridge provides transport. A bridge bypasses the threats and fears of the River; it is safe and secure. A bridge allows the left side to experience the right side without hazarding the waters.

A bridge is a person that proactively engages the newcomer in such a way as to move them over the depths of the River --- connecting with people, programs, processes --- with ease and without threat for the newcomer. A bridge will meet the newcomer, understand the newcomer, welcome the newcomer, and THEN DO THE IMPORTANT WORK of helping the newcomer with introductions, connections, and relationships.

Rather than putting the onus on the newcomer to figure it all out, stand in line for information, look up next steps on the website, bust their own way into a small group, admit their ignorance of what everyone else seems to already know, and remember the names of hordes of complete strangers, a bridge is needed.

Are there any bridges into your church from the other side of the River? In the assembly line, automated, high tech, information-laden processes that churches depend on for assimilation, one word is too often strangely missing. Relationships!

We talk about Next Steps as the relational connecting point, e.g., through small groups. Certainly Next Steps can advance the process of relationship formation. But what about the First Step? The step before the Next Step? Is your church geared up for relationship formation at the First Step?

It is not enough to have small groups that are on the other side of the River from the guest.

The First Step relationally is on the guest side of the River. The bridge starts here! What might that look like? Here are a few tips:

  • First Step Hosts. Identify in your congregation an appropriately sized group of people who will make a concerted effort to offer more than the casual and passing greeting to arriving guests. That means they will spot them in the crowd and get acquainted. (e.g., Section Hosts during the congregating phase of the visit or Red Zone Greeters in the first 20 feet inside the building) They will learn and remember a name; they will offer assistance and escort the guest to destinations as appropriate; they will invite to the First Step Gathering, explaining what it is and how they will accompany them, offer introductions, and serve as their host to make it easy and less foreboding. The key: don’t just point there and don’t send there (“There” is harder than you think for the guests; it is the other side of the River). Go there with them and help make it happen.

  • First Step Gathering. Provide an immediate gathering point for guests to connect. Avoid the infrequency of a once-a-month or once-a-quarter next step event. The First Step Host should be able to accompany the guest they have befriended right into a First Step Gathering. There the guest is treated to food, provided introductions to the pastor, staff, and other members, offered an immediate intro to Next Steps with personal invitations from small group leaders. Any small group leader wanting to increase participation in his group will make it a priority to introduce himself to guests in the First Step Gathering. The key: Avoid the tendency to make this about information and enlistment. Keep the focus on relationship formation (guest to First Step Host, pastor, staff, group leaders, and even other guests); the information and enlistment will take care of itself. Provide introductions all around and insure the guest is not alone in the crowd for his next visit.

  • First Step Follow up. The First Step Hosts will then stay in touch. In addition to the standard church follow up sequence (e.g., of texts, emails, letters, or calls), the Host will demonstrate authenticity and reliability for the guest by a simple and quick phone call or text to assure the guest of his welcome and pleasure to know him and to anticipate his return on the following Sunday. When Sunday arrives, the Hosts will again greet the returning guest and pick up the conversation where it was left off, perhaps with events of the week or with further clarifications about Next Steps --- giving continuity to what has already begun. The key: be a familiar face in a sea of unfamiliar faces, a new and real friend, offering introductions and assistance to get to the other side of the River.

If you can capture the bridge principle, you can figure out its appropriate expression for your church. If you need help, let me know at I will be glad to walk with you through a bridging process for your unique church setting. Getting there will help your guests enjoy the benefits of the other side. Share your comments below.

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