By Guest Blogger, Kevin Clark
Last year, my family moved from a large city in California to a tiny town in Colorado. Being fans of Mexican food, we visited a restaurant recommended by a friend. The food was mediocre and the service uninspiring. To be fair, we should have thought, “Maybe the staff had a bad day. We can try it again.” But with other options available, we never did. Most first-time visitors to a church do the same. One of the big frustrations pastors feel is the difficulty getting first-time visitors to return for a second or third. I know this is true, because I’m a pastor and I’ve felt that frustration.
At Encompass Church, we’ve launched what we believe is a unique experience called “Guest Reception” (GR). It’s proven to be valuable for visitor retention. GR is a four-week cycling event. It’s held in a room off our lobby that's easy to find. We invite guests to attend when we make announcements. We also have a dozen people (hosts) whose “job” is to hunt down guests, get to know them, and take them to GR if they’re interested. Because GR happens during Sunday School (after worship), children of guests also have a place to go.
Three rotating teams of three couples each host GR for a month. Each team provides a light brunch. They don’t always cook the food themselves. Often, they ask others who love to cook. We always have fruit, an egg dish, pastries, coffee and water, all easy stuff. After our worship service, hosts bring people to GR, help them get food, and sit with them at small tables where they get to know them. As soon as I escape from the auditorium, I join them, introduce myself at each table, and chat before we start.
GR is a four-week introduction to Encompass, but it isn’t required for anything. (We have a 90-minute, quarterly membership class for those who want to join officially.) Each GR session is standalone; they can be attended in any order. We have four topics. Week 1 is “How can we know God?” Week 2 is “How is our church structured and led?” Week 3 is “What do we really believe?” Week 4 is “What things do we do as a church?”
Each week, we pass out a Guest Reception Survey and ask them to fill out as much as they’d like. (We have trouble getting people to fill out cards during the worship service, but most fill out the survey even though it asks more.) Then, I ask everyone, (team members included), to briefly introduce themselves. I ask for first names, a little about their families, what they do, what part of town they’re from, and what brought them to us. I go first to set an example. Then, I pass out the portion of the Guest Reception Workbook we’ll be covering and walk through it, allowing lots of time for questions.
The feedback is great. We often hear, “I’ve never learned so much about a church without hunting for information,” or “This is the first time I’ve gotten to know a pastor.” GR was not my idea. When I first arrived and heard what they’d been doing, I thought, “That will never work,” and “How will I have time to prepare a sermon and do that, too?” But it works surprisingly well. I don’t have to prepare anymore, because it’s familiar. I just show up and do it. It’s often the best part of my Sunday. We do have substitute teachers to lead when I’m gone, but I do it myself when I’m there, because I really get to know new people better.
What makes Guest Reception work? Food is important. It helps break the ice to sit and eat with someone. But the essential key is team members who seek out guests before and during worship services and who bring them to GR. Making announcements from the stage isn’t enough. Only the curious or outgoing tend to “volunteer” to attend. An invitation by a team member, who says, “I’d love to introduce you and get to know you,” does wonders. If you try it, put together a team. Start with a few who commit to bringing guests to GR and staying with them for the entire session. It’s even better when those team members look for guests from last week, greet them by name, and sit with or near them the next week. If guests attend all four sessions, on week five our team members take them to Sunday School classes… we call them Adult Bible Communities (ABCs)… and introduce them. We also have ABC, Small Group, and other ministry leaders drop by GR to introduce themselves.
I admit I was doubter at first. You may be, too. You might think this is a method that only works at big city churches. We’re a “small-ish” church of 200, up from 150 in the past year. More than half of our congregation and guests come from a small town of 1,500, ten miles away. It’s not the number of people in Guest Reception that makes it work. It’s the kind of people committed to serving and loving guests that brings new people back. Like a restaurant where waiters get to know your name and chefs drop by your table to introduce themselves and ask what you think of new recipes, we believe your church can capture guests. People come back when they know they matter. Happy Guesting!
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