Welcome Back! How Some Churches Work to See Visitors Return

By Krista Petty

The outreach strategy is working. Your church has an abundance of first-time guests, or maybe a nice, steady stream of curious new people from week to week. Now what? What does it take to get them back for a second look at all your church family has to offer? And just as important, what gifts and strengths does that new person or family have that the kingdom of God may miss without their involvement?

Without planned and purposeful follow-up, visitors may come and go through a revolving door without setting down roots or feeling involved. Several growing churches from around the country share about that precious window of opportunity to capture a visitor’s attention and information so you’ll be able to say, “Welcome back!”


Rockbridge Community Church, Dalton, Georgia

Only five years old, this Georgia church plant has grown by 50-60 percent annually and averages 1,200 in attendance each weekend. What’s made this happen? Besides the great preaching, creative worship, and strong small groups, they use cookies.

“Since day one, we have followed up with first-time visitors by personally bringing baked goods to their homes within three days of their visit to our church home,” says Aaron Gable, executive pastor. “Following up with visitors is like courting or dating, so we put our best foot forward to get to know people and ask them to get to know us. We believe that when people give us their information, they give us permission to begin a relationship.”

Rockbridge captures visitor information using a communication card given to each person as a part of the weekly printed program. But simply giving the card is not enough. “We strongly promote this message: ‘Connect to Christ and his community because just attending is risky,” says Aaron. “If we don’t know your name, we can’t minister to you when you need us. Life happens and we can respond if we know you.” While it’s a bold approach, it’s working for this southern faith community.

After cookies are delivered, a letter goes out and a staff member or volunteer makes a phone call. Both the letter and call are specific invitations for visitors to step into the next environment at the church: personal involvement through small groups or ministry teams.

Newcomers learn about both at the monthly Inquirers Lunch. By taking a strong promotional approach, the church has seen attendance at the lunch jump from 20-30 to almost 80.

“We don’t take a ‘Cool-Hand Luke’ approach. We know people are only one life situation away from walking out the door of the church. If they aren’t very well connected in a ministry team or a small group, they will often go back to their old way of doing things outside of the body of Christ. At the Inquirers Lunch we tell guests that if people really know you, they can help when life happens.”


Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church

While it may seem old-fashioned to some, leaders at Worthington say passing the attendance roll down the pews is still a tried-and-true method of gathering information from the four to seven first-time visitors they see each weekend. “Believe it or not, we have an uncommonly high return of visitors noting their contact information,” says Marshall Hayden, senior minister. “Our own people cooperate with this because we use it for special event sign-ups as well as attendance. Visitors often model what they see the members doing.”

On Mondays, a small team of volunteers handwrites personal notes of welcome to the guests, and a letter from Hayden is also sent. The list of visitors is also given to an evangelism team, which prays for each visitor and makes contact by phone saying, “We’re glad you came. If you would like, I could meet you next Sunday and answer questions and show you around.”

Hayden says, “People are pretty receptive to meeting someone before next week’s service to learn more.”

After a person or family has visited Worthington three times, another phone call takes place—this one is made by the senior minister himself. After serving this church for 25 years, Hayden still views visitor follow-up as an important part of his role.

“People are surprised that I call them personally,” he admits. “During the call, I try to learn about the family and ask if they would like to meet and talk about the church. Quite often they agree to meet—usually at the church. This has been an effective means of meeting people and encouraging their faith journey.”

Of those he talks to on the phone, 60-70 percent set up a meeting. From those Hayden meets with personally, about 50 percent become members at some point, some after also attending the “What We Believe” class he teaches.


Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

Bloomington is not just home to Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, it is also home to 38,000 college students attending Indiana University. The church tracks at least 10 visitors a week but finds most of the visiting students don’t fill out the communication card attached to the weekly bulletin.

According to Cindy Hosea, Sherwood’s involvement assistant, the church employs two separate strategies for connecting with different generations. A free pizza lunch gets the students warmed up to sharing their information while “connection coaches” are vital to connecting adults and family visitors.

“At the start of each semester our college ministry hosts two to three consecutive lunches after weekend services,” Hosea says. The college minister and volunteers do all of their own personal follow-up with the students attending.

For adult visitors, Hosea sends a personal letter and any other specific ministry-area information requested. Two weeks after the first visit, visitors receive a personal call from a connection coach. She explains, “Our 20 connection coaches are trained volunteers matching the first-time visitors to serving, growing in a class or small group, or even sharing in community service.” This model presents the values of Sherwood Oaks—grow, serve, share—right from the start.

Connection coaches often identify specific interests or even counseling needs. “These coaches all love meeting new people and have a gift for discernment. If a coach learns of a specific need, he connects the visitor to a ministry connector, who is a specialized leader within a specific ministry area (such as recovery, children, youth, women’s, etc.). The key is intentional effort to get to know people,” she says.

This coach and connection strategy is working. Sherwood Oaks has been using this system of visitor follow-up for a year, tracking involvement using a church database system along with the personal connection.

“In the past year, 60 percent of those who have gone through this system of visitor follow-up are participating in the life of our church. In fact, there is a higher rate of involvement (20 percent) with this group than the rest of the congregation.”


Crossroads Christian Church, Corona, California

With approximately 25 first-time visitors each week, this church of 5,500 makes sure no one gets lost in the crowd. “We have greeters all over the campus, and all are trained to take newcomers to the Welcome Center for a free gift,” says Charlotte Chambers, who oversees 300 weekly service volunteers in her role as congregational care director. The free gift for visitors is also mentioned during the worship service—an important part of the process. “When announcements are said from the pulpit, people really respond!”

When visitors come to receive their gift, volunteers take down their information. “In fact, anyone who inquires about anything is asked to fill out an information card,” she says. And the free gift? It actually looks like a real gift! Chambers explains, “It’s a box with goodies inside such as a music CD, Post-it notes, a brochure, and a campus map.”

Crossroads also collects contact information with a small tear-off form attached to the bulletin. “On the form, we ask if it is their first, second, or third visit with us,” she notes. With visitor information in hand, Chambers and her assistant track newcomers in a database system, generate a welcome letter from the senior pastor, and present the list weekly to staff and volunteers. “Each pastor, including the senior leader, gets one to three visitors to call and pray for,” she says.

After that step, the church takes a more organic approach with guests. “People in our area are very busy and do not like the idea of being ‘harassed.’ They often drive 30 minutes or more to work every day and their kids are in sports year-round. We give them information and opportunities for involvement. Then, we give them time to make choices and respond,” she says.

Above all else, Chambers has learned that church staff and volunteers should be available to people and simply return phone calls. That’s exactly how she found Stan Skrocki, one of her star decision room counselors. “After calling two other churches and receiving no answer, [Stan] called our church after regular hours and left a message for the pastor who was on-call. His father had passed away, and he was devastated. He was astounded that his phone call was actually returned.

A week later, he called and left a message with me, looking for more information about visiting the church. He was again surprised I called him back. On his first visit, he was really pleased with our friendliness and touched by the service. He visited our decision room, received our church gift, was called by our staff, and shortly after, committed his life to Christ.

After being in a small group with another decision room volunteer, Stan and his wife, Jeanne, are now serving with our decision team. What a gift to our church body!

Krista Petty is a freelance writer and coach for externally focused churches. She lives in Johnstown, Colorado with her husband, Steve, and three children.

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