Shirley and I once visited a church whose pastor I had coached (poorly, as it turned out) in the Connection System. We were greeted extravagantly at the door, personally escorted to the refreshments, handed great brochures about the church’s ministries and led to our seats in the empty main room—where we were left with another visiting family for 15 minutes while the regular attenders of the church had what sounded like a party with each other out in the hall. Smooth process, but a bad system because they forgot the main thing: people are looking for relationships when they come, not a conveyer belt to the right seat.
If you want to retain those who come into your gatherings, this is a critical system for you. Connection means enfolding into the congregation the people God sends to you. In preparing to connect with new people, two questions must be answered to develop a healthy Connection System. People who visit are asking these unspoken questions: “Am I wanted?” and “Am I needed?” If you intentionally answer these questions adequately within a reasonable period, you will retain more of your visitors.
Visitors may say they came to your gathering for a variety of reasons, but the real reason they are there is that the Holy Spirit drew them to your gathering that morning. You have the opportunity to connect them to the congregation so that hopefully they will stay to hear and receive the gospel over time, becoming mature disciples and co-workers with you in the Kingdom. Before they come, you need to prepare all connection team members, as well as your entire congregation, to be ready to answer the question, “Am I wanted?”
But let’s keep this simple. The goal of a good Connection System is to lead visitors from their first visit to their becoming part of one of your Growth Systems as quickly as feasible. This means that if your connection team can move new people into a small group, ministry or mission within the first months of their arrival, they will find deepening relationships (Am I wanted?) and get a chance to serve others in some capacity (Am I needed?). Making this the ultimate goal means that you have to pay attention to your Growth Systems if you want to increase your church’s capacity for retaining visitors. Moreover, to increase the number of small groups, ministries and missions, you have to develop more leaders of 10 or 50 to fuel this increase. These systems are interlocked, so the failure in one will trigger loss in the others. Keep that in mind when you evaluate your systems.
In forming your Connection System, think of the process in light of the following progression:
Connect with visitor within the first ten minutes relationally (arrival). The reason I say “within the first ten minutes” is because research has shown that visitors tend to make up their minds about whether or not they will return again in that critical period. Notice that this is probably before they have heard the first worship song and long before the pastor preaches. What they are looking for is relationship, especially if they are unchurched. Caring about the service itself is secondary to this.
Begin your “Seven Touch” process (first two weeks). Seven touches is a process where you and your team connect personally with the first time attender, starting with their first visit. It does not matter what you choose to use as a touch (email, phone call, invitation to return, meet the pastor) but remember they are looking for relationship and you cannot have a relationship with an email or gift. A personal call or visit still goes a long way to move people towards connecting. It also serves as an opportunity to sow the gospel. After all, you are not after recruiting an audience, but making disciples.
Invite the returning visitor to an upcoming event (by end of second week). It takes planning to carry this off. But this is one of the fastest steps in helping people make up their mind to connect. At such an event they can be introduced to Growth System leaders who not only get to start a relationship with the visitor, but also invite them to attend their small group, ministry or mission.
Connect the visitor to one of your Growth Systems (by eighth week). Visitors become part of a congregation and stay long term only if they develop at least six new friendships in the first six months. Otherwise, even people who said ‘yes’ to Jesus will probably leave because they feel personally that they are not wanted. They will definitely sense they are not needed. So when they stop coming, they will not feel the kind of loss you might in losing them. Keep this clear in your mind: Your gathering is not going to hold people to your congregation unless your team is intentional about connecting people deeper into the life of the congregation.
Because of its critical nature, one church I know recruits its best people for this team. They are charged not just with meeting people, but making sure these people are guided into the life of the congregation. They check to make sure that nothing in the building will disrupt the visitor’s experience—dirty bathrooms, too cold or hot temperature, unsightly materials out in the greeting areas. They also check the church’s signage to assure that visitors can find their way to wherever they need to go in the building.
Of the eighteen systems, the Connection System has the most moving parts. Included in this system besides actually greeting people are hospitality, ushering (yes, you need people to guide people to where they need to go) and childcare. How you do childcare makes a huge statement to visiting young families who are leery of leaving their child with strangers. All of these different components need to be overseen by the same leader who is charged to make sure the quality of service does not vary between them.
You will continually need to adjust and change these parts as the church grows. Why? Because it becomes increasingly more difficult in a larger church with multiple services to spot who is new. By the time your congregation reaches the large church level (500+), visitors have to start self-identifying. Nevertheless, the actual parts of this system remain constant from one size level to the next and these parts can be integrated into new formats that continue to encourage new people to be integrated into your congregation. Every person you retain allows you to see them grow as disciples. That is what makes this system so important.