Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is one of the world’s largest providers of Christian products and services, including Bibles, Bible studies, research, church music, supplies and digital services. Previously he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism and led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm which provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations.
Having spoken TO – consulted FOR – and participated IN – hundreds of church congregations of various denominations around the country, Thom has had a keen insight into what works, and what does not work, in terms of attracting – and retaining – new members. In terms of our own “Get the 80” goal of the St. Monica “Parish Vision,” take a look at his insights below (as well as my own, personal italicized comments) and see if you find them as intriguing as I did:
- Having a stand up and greet one another in the worship service. This response was my greatest surprise for two reasons. First, I was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, I was really surprised that it was the most frequent response.
(Fr. Zlock: Ok, NOW what do we do!?)
- Unfriendly church members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it.
(Fr. Zlock: My question is – how would we measure this? If they only come once, and then never come again, and don’t tell anybody why, how do we fix this?)
- Unsafe and unclean children’s area. This response generated the greatest emotional reactions. If your church does not give a high priority to children, don’t expect young families to attend.
(Fr. Zlock: I have not heard this as an issue in our church. However, I would like to be able to provide a more comfortable and inviting space (other than the lobby) for conscientious parents who take their smaller, more “active and enthusiastic” children out of the main body of the church for a little bit).
- No place to get information. If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.
(Fr. Zlock: This is an issue at St. Monica. Levi Keene has recently taken the helm in re-training and re-organizing ushering and hospitality at the parish to make St. Monica more welcoming. In addition, most people are willing to call the parish office in the rectory during the week for information. Nevertheless, I would love it if we had a “Welcoming Desk” in the lobby that was occupied on Saturday evenings/Sunday mornings where a person could provide information before or after Mass. The main issues would be (1) constructing the space; (2) cost and (3) since most of our staff are not parishioners and attend their own parishes with their own families on weekends, we would need to find people willing to consistently and reliably schedule and fulfill this ministry week after week after week. From my personal experience, this would be difficult at St. Monica.)
- Bad church website. Most 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.
(Again, this is a cost issue. A quality website rebuild can cost between $15,000 – $30,000. The more important – and more difficult issue – is hiring someone to regularly and consistently manage and update the data, chase after people who have “volunteered” to write articles for the website, analyze the web-site usage metrics, manufacture, edit and load video, photos, graphics, etc…. You get the picture. To keep a website first class and high-quality is a long-term and expensive proposition. And, by the way, I haven’t even begun to touch upon the management and integration of an effective, parish “social media” platform.)
- Poor signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there.
(We’re talking about this currently. It’s an issue at St. Monica. We have no signage at the entrance near the gym. The sign near the church is showing its age. The sign at the third entrance was vandalized last year. Quality signage is expensive (Sorry to keep harping on the same cost-theme but it is the short answer, and solution, to many of these issues). We simply have not had, and thus have not spent, the money on such items over the past several years. However, we are aware of the issues and are discussing them as we look forward to the future.)
- Insider church language. Most of the respondents were not referring to theological language as much as language that only the members know. My favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.”
(I don’t know if this is an issue or not. It might be – it might not be. I would need people who are new to the parish (and courageous enough to speak to me about it) in order to alert me when I use too much “church language”.)
- Boring or bad service. My surprise was not the presence of this item. The surprise was that it was not ranked higher.
(Thankfully we have pretty good, detailed information on this from the two parish surveys that we conducted over the past several years. We know where we are strong; we know where we need to get better. This issue at St. Monica does not seem to “quality” but rather issues surrounding “taste” and “style”.)
- Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches.
(…or people sit at the end of the pew, while the rest of the pew is empty and then roll their eyes and sigh if you say, “Excuse me, may I please get into the pew?” Frankly, I REALLY hope that is not the case at St. Monica, but – again – it might be. Personally, it’s so rude and it drives me nuts!)
- Dirty facilities. Some of the comments: “Didn’t look like it had been cleaned in a week.” “No trash cans anywhere.” Restrooms were worse than a bad truck stop.” “Pews had more stains than a Tide commercial.”
(This was an issue when I first arrived. I hope that it has gotten “noticeably” better. When I arrived, one of the first items that I wanted to address was the cleanliness of all of the parish facilities. We hired a cleaning service (FaithWin) which scrubbed every building (even the tops of the pipes in the gym!). They now maintain a regular cleaning schedule of all of our buildings and monitor the inventory of our cleaning and general repair materials. Doyle and McDonald does the landscaping, lawn cutting, snow removal etc…) Our Facilities Manager Frank Pantano (along with Business Manager Terry Carey with help from Frank Orman) keep an eye out for repair and cleaning needs. We also have an exterminator who checks in on a regular basis. Do we mess up sometimes – sure. The buildings are now being used more often and more heavily than they have been in several years. That has an impact. In addition, there are also people (unfortunately more frequently that we would like) who use the facilities and are simply not as considerate of the facilities as we hope they would be. Thus, situations arise and conditions can quickly become sub-standard before we are aware of it or have a chance to address the issue. Nevertheless, as you can see, we do have a team in place to try and stay ahead of the issues.)
Two final comments:
- At St. Monica, our goal for this year is to try and grow the parish by 10% (i.e. “Get The 80”). That can’t be my job alone. EVERYBODY is a stakeholder. It starts with prayer (“Forming Disciples – Step #1, 10 minutes a day. Remember?) which leads to the Lord’s voice whispering to each one of us how we can be more welcoming. We need to be better. People will come. We need to make sure that they come BACK!
- It’s YOUR parish – take ownership of it! Telling me and Parish Staff where there are issues and problems and situations and places where things are “not up to standards” is not helpful. Don’t present me with a problem, unless you also propose a solution along with it. Better yet, offer to “solve” the problem. As one IHM Sister once said to me, “Be the ‘answer to’ somebody’s prayer rather than the ’cause of’ it”. Other people will notice – and perhaps come back.