No – we are not talking about my favourite Star Trek baddie, the Borg. We are talking about the process that must be in place for making new people feel welcome when they visit a Sunday service. In the Tree, we call that process “assimilation” – people moving from coming to a church service but feeling “not us”, to coming to a church service and feeling part of “us”.
80% of families who move area and are looking for a new church just go from church to church until they find one that is friendly. That is all they are looking for – not healings, not miracles, not an accurate exposition of the hypostatic union, not an all singing all dancing youth ministry, but for a church that is friendly.
When I heard that statistic, I thought – I know that’s true. People come to the Tree who disagree with grace and the complete work, but they know we love them so they keep coming. Other people would agree with us line by line, but maybe they wanted a leadership position or pulpit or something we were not going to give them, so erroneously feeling unloved they left us.
People have to be allowed to belong to our group before they will believe what we believe. They have to experience our unconditional grace and love before they will believe in God’s unconditional grace and love.
In Luke 7.11 it said that Jesus was followed by His disciples and the crowd. We have to allow there to be a crowd – people do not instantly decide to become disciples. It’s healthy to have a fringe of people in your church still trying to work things out – but while they are working out their response to God and His grace, if they are responding positively to you and identify with you then you need to ensure that they feel part of your church. That will not happen by accident – or if it does, it will not happen as well as if you do it intentionally and on purpose.
So what is our process of assimilation at Tree of Life Church? And as I share this – don’t try and copy it wholesale – it won’t seem authentic and people will quickly pick up on that. A lot of churches suggest getting new people to stand up in the service and give them a round of applause or a small present. That would not work in Dagenham. I don’t believe it at all – the church is too variegated for people to feel at home and have that happen. So we need to be more low key.
So we have a three fold process, which is working well. I am also going to suggest two changes that I am considering making in the near future to help us grow.
Firstly, we have a postcard called a Connection Card. On the front it has a whole bunch of tick boxes that say things like “I want to know Jesus”, “I want to help on Sundays”, “I want to be water baptised”, “I am a first time visitor”. All our ushers hand these out to anyone. On the other side, you put your name and address and how you heard about us, and if you have any prayer requests or praise reports.
Now anyone in our church can fill them out at any time – as the church grows it is difficult to communicate with people all the time, and this means that anyone in the church can write a note that the pastor is 100% guaranteed to read.
People can then put them in the offering bucket as the offering bucket is passed around. Now, the 1st or 2nd time visitor can hold onto theirs and hand it in directly to our information desk in exchange for a small gift (chocolates, a book). This means the person staffing the information desk (who has to be an elder) can make sure that their email address is legible and also spend some time listening to the persons making them feel at home.
Then I read every card personally on Monday. At the moment, we average between 6 and 20+ cards every weekend across the network, often with five or more from new visitors. I read everyone, pray for everyone, email everyone and send a postcard to everyone. That is my number one priority on Monday. Before I process the counts for the weekend (please please tell me that you do at least a headcount each service as a minimum – if you don’t measure how can you know how well you are doing), before I process the offering, before I do anything.
Get out of the idea that a pastor should rest on Monday. Monday is your single most important day – apart from Sunday. That is the day you deal with what the stirring on Sunday revealed. Do not rest – strike while the iron is hot. You can rest on Friday or Saturday, and be able to hit Sunday with full energy and life and smash that service. On Monday there is work to do!
Those postcards instantly double our retention rate. The truth is that the average church in the United Kingdom has 4% MORE new visitors per year than the size of their average congregation. That is a gift from God! Think about it – if you have a church of 100, you will have on average 2 visitors per week. That’s 104 per year – MORE THAN YOUR WHOLE CONGREGATION. Keep 10% of those and you will grow. We keep 15-16% of new visitors at the moment which means we are a growing church. Keep 5% and you will stay the same. If one postcard to every new person and one email to every new person turns your church from a surviving church to a thriving church then this is the single most important decision you will make as a pastor – to build a healthy process of assimilation into place!
So many pastors get hundreds of people pass through their doors per year – a personal gift from the Father to that pastor. And they let all of them slip through their hands. Ouch!
Secondly, to ensure their experience from door to service is a positive one, every single service we have 2 people in place whose only job is to deal with new people. The first one waits outside the front door with our first usher. But whereas the usher stays in place and greets everyone, the greeter (Greeter 1) takes new people through the path way to the auditorium. They introduce them to everyone they meet, explain how church works and then pass that person to our second greeter (imaginatively titled Greeter 2) shows them around the auditorium, helps them find a seat, makes sure they have a connection card and shows them love.
Meanwhile Greeter 1 is running back to the front door to do it all again. We ask people we are not sure about if they are new – because we know regulars won’t mind because they know why we are doing it. We then smile as big as we can – we want people to know that we are genuinely chuffed they came to church. They start as guests, but we want them to feel like family.
This is a new procedure for us. I developed it on purpose. The first week we introduced the greeters we had a completely unprecedented 15 new visitors. It was the middle of the holidays, a quieter than normal Sunday with no special programme or special speaker. But as we put the procedure in place, people just came. God is looking for churches that will welcome people.
Our third and final piece of the assimilation process is our information desk. It’s just a table opposite our teas and coffees where new people can ask any questions. There is always a leader of the church at the information desk and they can answer any question – double check we have people’s details, and just show kindness and grace.
That is how we do it, and that is partly why we are a growing church. How we deal with new people is process and purpose driven – it is done deliberately not by accident. We are a friendly church, the Assimilation process just lets us prove it.
Right now I am thinking about assimilation as I want our procedures to be even tighter. One thing I notice is that people normally sit in the same places in churches. So if a new person is in your zone, you notice if you are even a little observant. I am considering appointing 6 zone monitors (if anyone has a better phrase let me know!!!) sort of front left, front middle, front right, back left, back middle and back right who will have some cards and a mission to welcome and make welcome any new looking people in their zone. Even if the response is “well I used to sit over there but…” it’s still nice to make people feel welcome.
My second plan is to start the assimilation process from the car park not the front door. That’s wrought with difficulties because we are in a cinema and about half the people arriving are for the cinema, but I thought if we baked some freshly baked brownies or muffins then people wouldn’t mind us handing them out and asking if they are here for church, and then walking them to the usher and greeter. We have set up our “I’m New” page on the website for people to put their car license into so we can go and visit new people, but I am just thinking it through at the moment.
Our goal: to be the singe most welcoming church in London. We will only achieve it if we do it deliberately and in Him. But it can be achieved. And we can mend the nets and ensure no fish escape us!