{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Leadership: On Cultivating Relationships with Prospective Church Members

Gaining new church members is an important task of the church. Now I know that I’ve probably labeled myself of late as one who doesn’t care about numbers or who thinks using attractional practices is manipulative. But the truth is, church’s need to gain members in order to continue the faithful task of being the body of Christ. Now please hear me, “gaining members” can come in a variety of ways and doesn’t have to be narrowed to our traditional understanding of needing more people to pay the bills and keep the church building running. But nonetheless, it is important that churches strive to understand how to gain new members in meaningful and substantive ways.

I’m very proud that I’m serving at a church that wanted to gain new members and was open to new ways of doing so. As of January 2012, we’ve added almost 100 new members in the last 18 months. Please note that while this is more than we’ve added in the 3 years preceding put together, it is not the huge influx of members that we hear stories about from church plants. We’re a historic congregation located in a downtown, urban setting. We’ve literally been here since the founding of our city. And I think it’s important to distinguish that from church plants that often crop up in new and budding suburbs that are capable of adding hundreds of new members every year because besides doing good ministry, the population shift is doing them a big favor.

For those serving a context similar to mine where you have history and culture to navigate through, I want to offer some lessons we’ve learned over these last 18 months of slow, steady growth:

Hospitality not a method of attraction, it’s a way of life

It can be easy to be in a setting where decline radiates the community as a whole and think you need to employ anything and everything to attract people to your church. But hospitality is one of the most basic expressions of the love of God and should not be used as a means of being “attractional.” At my church, we struggle at times with this because success seems to breed the mentality of increasing production. If we can be hospitable and attract these few, why not increase our efforts to attract more? It’s important to guide congregations to see membership growth as a by-product or out pouring of existing as a faithful church. The growth is not the mission of the church but instead can be the natural reaction when a church is faithfully living out its mission of being the church.

Prospective Members are to be viewed as opportunities for relationship

One of the arts of being a growing church is learning how to cultivate relationships once visitors come to your church. It’s much like courting or dating. Get to know people and their stories. Follow up and create an environment where the community does the heavy lifting here. People aren’t coming to churches seeing if they want to join a pastor–they’re coming to see if they want to join their lives with the life of the church as a whole. It’s everyone’s job to get to know new people. And don’t be too abrasive in getting to know new people. Just like you wouldn’t want to come on too strong with a person you’re dating, you don’t want to overwhelm people visiting your church. On the other hand, learn to discern those moments to “take the relationship to the next phase.” If a person or family have been visiting worship for sometime, find a time to privately ask them if they’ve thought about Sunday School or small group opportunities. Give them a clear and concise list of these opportunities and leave it with them. Ultimately it’s their decision to make and you have to trust the Holy Spirit in the timing of these decisions. We have to be both intentional and graceful in proceeding in these relationships. Let people know you care and trust that they know it.

Be Self-Aware

No one wants to deal with a person who struggles in knowing who they are. We all have friends who seem to be chameleons and it’s a turn off. Before you worry about how to “attract new people” work on finding who you are as a church. Again I come to the dating analogy: if I don’t know who I am as a person, how healthy will my dating life be if I’m consumed solely by how to attract others? Despite what the Apostle Paul says about “being all things to all people,” churches just can’t be everything to everyone. Churches should regularly examine and discern who they are in light of the current time and the place they occupy. But we also have to be self-aware enough to admit that we can only be who we are–we can’t be another church in our community or area no matter how envious we are of them. People will visit your church and be more likely to come back if they sense a confident self-awareness. If for nothing else, you’re less likely to bend over backwards in a desperate attempt real them in.

Be Authentic, NOT Attractional

This plays off the previous point. Remember the guy who always wanted to drive the coolest car or have the coolest clothes because he was convinced that if he had those things, girls would just flock to him? Maybe you were that guy at one time? Focus on being real before you focus on living into some idea of being “attractional.” Often that definition comes off as inauthentic if it’s not an expression of who your church really is. Stop going to seminars promising to teach churches, “12 ways to be more attractional” and just spend time sitting and listening and learning. You might be surprised to find out that your church, no matter what size or context, is a pretty cool church that folks would love to be a part of. The major hurdle standing between these people and your church might be your grand attempts to “be cool” that end up turning people off rather than attracting them.

In the end, I suppose the best lesson we’ve learned is that there’s no real formula or method for gaining new church members. It’s true what your parents tell you when you’re a kid, “just be yourself and people will like you.” If I could make a declaration to churches everywhere it might be something like this: stop trying so hard; be true to the gospel and let that inform you of who you are; love people for who they are and not what they can do for your church.

Question: What do you find to be meaningful ways to gain new church members?