Growing church membership is a top priority for many faith communities. However, faith community leaders know all too well that becoming a member doesn’t always mean long-term commitment — or even active involvement in the faith community.

Perhaps the answer to cultivating a more engaged congregation lies in focusing on more than just member counts. Rushing visitors along to membership does little more than leave faith communities with reluctant newcomers or worse yet, empty seats. Regardless of membership status, there’s a big difference between being a passive worship attendee and being a dynamic, thriving member.

The process of moving your faith community visitors and members from “passive” to “active” is known as “assimilation.” This is a major objective for faith communities and one that takes far more effort than simple visitor outreach. Assimilation is more than just one strategy. It’s a process that takes time. Think of assimilation as a mindset toward growing your faith community family — an ongoing cycle of turning visitors into members and promoting the spiritual growth of all believers.

The assimilation process can be divided into four steps, each designed to go beyond merely drawing in new believers, but also showing them how they are cherished and valued.

STEP ONE – Invitation

Before a faith community can begin to assimilate members, it must get them through the doors. Faith communities can do this with informative, welcoming signage, in-person and social media outreach, and invitations asking members to “bring a friend.” Have greeters ready at services to receive visitors and answer questions.

Be sure to collect contact information for first-time visitors, including phone numbers and email addresses, family members’ names, and birthdays and anniversaries. Consider offering a small gift or “welcome packet” that to help visitors learn more about your faith community when they return home. Survey your most involved new members. Ask them their initial impressions of your faith community and what prompted them to join. This may provide insight into how your faith community is perceived, and it will help you learn what’s working and where you may need to refine your communication.

STEP TWO – Connection

Once visitors gain a first impression of your group as a warm, caring community, you’ll want to make good on that promise by starting to build relationships. Many pastors do this by setting aside a moment during or after a service for congregants to greet their neighbors and introduce themselves to new faces.

Returning visitors may appreciate being paired with “prayer partners” — members with whom visitors can share concerns, ask questions, and reflect on weekly sermons. The more meaningful the bonds that visitors form with established members, the more reasons they’ll have to return.

This is also the stage at which faith communities may want to implement a communications plan. Phone calls, emails, or text messages keep visitors engaged from one week to the next. Some faith communities may have the resources to make phone calls or write notes individually. However, many rely on automated messaging systems to reach out.

STEP THREE – Participation

After spending some time getting to know your faith community, visitors may be ready to get more involved. This could mean becoming a member — or simply joining a class or a choral group. Resist the urge to pressure visitors into membership before they’re ready. Instead, let each visitor draw closer to your faith community at his or her own pace. If a visitor does decide to become a member, be clear about your faith community’s expectations for membership. Be sure that new members understand basics, such as: what is our doctrine — what do we believe? How often am I expected to attend worship? How else can I contribute (tithing, time, service)? What can I do to grow in faith?

Establishing clear guidelines for what it means to be a member of your faith family helps ensure that those who do choose to join are truly dedicated — and become engaged, involved members.

STEP FOUR – Contribution

Faith communities may eventually ask visitors who have transitioned into full members to take on more responsibility. For example, they might ask new members to chair a committee, teach a class, or help organize a mission trip. A crucial part of building engagement is helping members see that their involvement matters. As they take on new leadership roles, they discover that their assigned programs and events truly can’t run without them. Serving as a greeter at services is an excellent job for new members. It gives them the opportunity to meet fellow congregants and share the joy of their new faith community home with first-timers. In this way, new members become a fruitful source of yet more engaged visitors and members — bringing the cycle of assimilation full circle.

The time required to move through the assimilation cycle will be different for every new member. Some may be ready to dive right into life in your faith community, while others may need more encouragement or choose a slower pace. Remember: we should practice patience and understanding.

ALSO: WHY IS “GROWTH” SUCH A DIRTY WORD IN SOME CHURCHES?

Do’s and Don’ts

DO’S

  • DO have clear, prominent, welcoming signage.
  • DO strategically place greeters throughout your building, parking area and walkways.
  • DO personally greet every visitor.
  • DO make sure greeters are friendly and knowledgeable about the faith community, the building and ministries offered.
  • DO follow-up with visitors within 2-3 days.
  • DO have a welcome packet for visitors with information on groups/ministries, volunteer opportunities, next steps etc.
  • DO collect contact information including information about interests and preferred method of communication.
  • DO have well-identified ushers who know where classrooms and restrooms are located.
  • DO learn people’s names and remember them.
  • DO make a good impression — make sure website is up-to-date and facilities are clean.
  • DO learn more about visitors’ interests and where they are in their spiritual journey.
  • DO personalize event/group recommendations: match visitor interests with what your faith community offers.
  • DO help visitors make new connections: introduce visitors to regular members.

DON’TS

  • DON’T be pushy — Let visitors join at their pace, not yours. Remember, in most cases, visitors initiated a relationship with you and your congregation.
  • DON’T introduce first-time visitors during service. This may be intimidating to some, and many people don’t enjoy being “in the spotlight.”
  • DON’T assume that one welcoming or communication method fits every visitor
  • DON’T automatically join visitors to your members’ mailing, emailing or call list.
  • DON’T use “insider language” when talking to visitors. This creates unnecessary barriers.
  • DON’T be sloppy: make sure that sermons, presentations, and lighting are well planned and organized.