Here is how to “lock in” a new church member for life — even in a pandemic

Do you think that once you have a new church member you’ve got them forever? Think again.

On this side of the grave, nothing is forever — and that includes church membership.

Here’s a shocker:

A 2011 study from the seminary at Wesleyan University reports that 82% of new church members drop out in their first year at a church.

Why does this happen?

Well, more than one new member who stops going to church confesses that they didn’t make enough friends. In fact, one writer says that if someone who’s new to your church doesn’t make seven new friends in the first six months, they won’t stay.

People don’t join a denomination. People join people.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that while people may join your denomination when they join your church, it’s the personal connections that make them stay.

Your congregation cannot take its survival for granted. A growing congregation is always reaching out, and the outreach continues long after New Member Sunday.

In fact, if you ever wanted an occasion to get closer to newcomers, the perfect time is just after they’ve joined your congregation.

Reaching out has now become intentional

In early March, my church brought in 12 new members.

And then the pandemic hit and the physical meetings of my church’s congregation were cancelled.

How many of those 12 new members will still think of themselves as members in a year?

It will be harder to keep these people. In this time of lockdown, there will be:

  • No more informal encounters before and after church;
  • No more exchanging private jokes during the passing of the peace;
  • No more winks as you go down the aisle with the collection plate; and
  • No more digging deeper into the nature of Jesus with newcomers during a Theology on Tap session.

During this time when church is cancelled, you might be thinking that this is an enforced break from reaching out to newcomers.

Which would be the absolute wrong thing to do.

If you are someone who gives and loves no matter what situation you find yourself in, well, COVID-19 is just another situation.

The pandemic tests your motivation for reaching out.

Why are you interested in newcomers? It cannot be — it must not be —just to see more people in the pews on Sunday morning.

You may be doing physical distancing — and please do stay at home — but that doesn’t mean you have to do social distancing. If anything, the pandemic and the hardships it brings is a reason to get closer to other people in your congregation.

But with the lack of so many informal opportunities to connect, your reaching out has to become intentional.

And I suggest you start by making phone calls.

The pandemic will bring back the phone conversation

The phone call has fallen from grace over the past 20 years. I’ll wager that if your home has a landline, and it rings, you let your answering machine pick up because it’s so often a robo-caller.

But for some people the phone call is their secret tool.

Before the coronavirus had us all in our bunkers waiting for the all-clear, Allen Gannett of Fast Company noted that many of the most successful people he knew were “phone-prone”. So he decided to be like them and respond to every email or text that required follow-up with the simple message: Call me.

And thus began his week of fulfilling phone conversations — chats with people where he could hear not just their words, but how they said them. He had discussions where he could read between the lines and hold someone’s hand by simply listening and responding. He was surprised how the interactions were actually quicker than email because there were far more than words alone to provide context.

I’m using the phone to make calls quite often these days since the COVID-19 lockdown, and it’s been interesting.

I’m calling people on the periphery of our church’s congregation.

They could be people who’ve just joined, or people I’m in the process of getting to know better. I phone them and after the initial hello, there’s a mild inflection in their voice which implies, “So, what’s this about?”

And they are always surprised and delighted that there’s no agenda — there’s only good news. The good news is that someone cares enough about them to not only think about them but to actually reach out and enter the area code and seven digits that will bring us together for a few minutes.

Are you too shy to use the phone?

Speaking as an introvert, reaching out to people over the phone is daunting. It takes me back to my single days where I might almost phone someone to ask them out, only to fail to enter that final number that would actually have me confess that I’d like to see them socially.

Sometimes I’m just too shy to do it — and maybe you are, too. Which is probably why there’s so much loneliness today. We’re afraid to show ourselves to each other in all our need.

The smartphone has changed the phone call — the new rules

I’m phoning people on our church rolls just to find out how they’re doing; to see if they need any help; if have a prayer request; or to tell them about how our service has moved to a digital venue. Here’s how you might do it:  

  • Guess the age of the person and if it’s less than 40, set up a time to talk by texting. In the text, mention that you’re from the church.
  • At the appointed hour, make the call. Remind them of the appointment. Joanna Stern, the personal tech columnist at The Wall Street Journal, notes that you don’t need to identify yourself if they’re using a smartphone, (they can see that it’s you) — but if you’re a layperson, do remind them that you’re from the church — that’s not on their call display. If you’re using a smartphone, you may get a message that asks if they may call you later.
  • When you finally do connect, explain that you’re interested in how they are doing and that you wanted to call. Now, your church may be calling everybody, and you’ve been assigned to call this person. By all means, don’t make it less special by saying that everyone is getting a call — unless it would make the recipient uncomfortable to think that they alone are somehow the focus of your attention. If you’re in a relationship, mention how you and your partner are thinking about them. It’s touching that you are interested in them; let that concern stand there in all its unadorned honesty.
  • Ask if they need any help. Is there something you can pray with them about? If you’re looking for some great prayers to say during the pandemic, you can find some fine prayers around the pandemic from the Church of England here.
  • Inquire as to whether anyone else from the church is keeping up with them. If no one is, you may ask someone from the congregation to contact them.
  • Tell them of any news at church. If your church has an electronic newsletter, ask if they receive it — and if they don’t, offer to put their email address on the list for them.
  • Don’t go on too long — and do let them speak by leaving a pause after your statements. Since you initiated the contact, it’s up to you to close the conversation by remarking on how pleasant it was to chat with them.

Reach out and touch someone

Certainly the coronavirus is a test for us all. It is a challenge not just to protect other members of our community, but to stay connected with the people we’ve made a commitment to care about personally.

If reaching out to newcomers has always been intentional for you, very little has changed, and you’re probably knee-deep in phone calls already.

Tim Kreider’s opinion piece in The New York Times is called “I Just Called to Say … the Phone Call Is Back”. If you see using the telephone to make a phone call as something your parents did, or you’ve gotten out of the habit, calling people might seem just a little bit intrusive. But you can get over the unease pretty quickly.

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