An earlier version of this post originally appeared on August 20, 2012.
The end of summer is nigh. If you are like most churches, you are only a few short weekends away from the fall attendance surge. College students are back, families are returning from summer vacations, and people from the community are hitting one of the two times per year when they typically try to check out a new church.
That’s a few short weekends to actually get ready. You don’t have to be caught off guard, scrambling to find chairs, begging people to skip worship in order to volunteer. You can actually get ready for the surge, and readiness lets your guests know you knew they were coming and you have a plan for them.
Here are six things we’ve found helpful:
1. Know thy enemy. Your greatest enemy can also be your greatest adversary, and that’s the calendar. Church leaders: track your attendance. Track your trends. Knowing when your natural ebbs and flows occur on the church calendar is one of the best ways to be ready for the rush.
For us, we’ve discovered that the second weekend in January and the third weekend in August are typically our high-water weekends. College students are back in the dorms and families are back from Christmas or summer. If you’re not in a college town or if you’re in a touristy area, you might find your ebbs and flows work a bit differently. We’ve tracked attendance religiously for the last 14 years, so we have a pretty good foundation to spot big weekends and seasons well before they happen.
2. Prep your facility. If you know you’re going to have a larger-than-normal attendance, make sure you have a larger-than-normal plan for handling who will be there. Set out extra chairs, perhaps plan for an additional venue, or add an extra service. We know the maximum number of chairs that will uncomfortably fit in each of our venues, and we shove every last one in there. We also have racks and stacks of chairs on standby in order to fill the lobbies if necessary.
3. Prep your regulars. Use the next few weekends to interrupt the service to ask people to scoot in. Necessary? Not yet. But as you can explain during the announcement, you are mentally preparing everyone for the crowds that will soon be arriving. That includes reminding them to arrive early, park far away to give guests the best spots, and consider serving on the First Impressions Team for a few weeks to help with the rush.
4. Prep your volunteers. We’ve found that simply reminding our volunteers that the surge is coming is immensely helpful in getting their game faces on. We encourage them to make sure they’re there, they’re there early, and they’re ready to bring a five-star experience to guests. Let them know about the ebbs and flows of #1 above, and make sure they know about the plans you have for handling the crowd.
5. Prep your systems. We have an intricate three page document that we’ve put together in the event that a venue fills up. It covers timelines for shutting the venue and redirecting to a secondary location, then opening lobby space, setting out the extra stacks and racks of chairs, etc. All of our appropriate volunteers are familiar with the “Go Team” plan so that when the call goes out, then know how to respond.
6. Prep for the inevitable. No venue has infinite space, and there’s a chance you’ll have to eventually turn someone away. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to do that in over twenty years of ministry, and none of ’em have been fun. The best way to handle it? Extremely carefully. We actually script talking points for those who are posted outside, and we generally post pastors to have those uncomfortable conversations.
We’ve tried different tools to soften the blow: a free CD of that weekend’s sermon, a card listing all of our locations and the less-populated service times, even a list of area restaurants or coffee shops so someone can grab a quick bite and return for a later service. It’s still never enjoyable to turn someone away, which is why we do all we can to make sure tips 1-5 are running seamlessly.
The more prepared you are, the more comfortable your guests will be. Jump in. Get ready!