Q&A: How Can We Help First-Time Guests Know Their Next Step?
How can we help our first-time guests know their next step, whether that step is a part of their spiritual journey, or simply their next step of connection with our church?
[from the 2023 blog survey]
We all know the old saying that we don’t know what we don’t know. (And if you don’t know that saying, thank you for proving the point.)
For first-time guests (FTGs) to our church, there is a certain amount of hand-holding and step-by-step guidance we have to go through in order to help them connect. To use a phrase coined by my friend Greg Curtis, we are simply sherpas enlisted to help people up the mountain.
So what can we do to help our FTGs know what they don’t know? I think there are at least five steps:
1. Know your own map.
We can’t lead someone to a place we’ve never been, and we can’t easily get them there if the destination isn’t clear in our own mind. So step one involves a bit of soul searching and process-examining: do you know where you want a new person to go? Is the map clear? Is the destination compelling? Is the journey understandable? Are the steps simple?
I fear that many church leaders – much less congregants – couldn’t clearly define their process. So whether we’re talking about a practical step of connection like getting involved in a small group, or a spiritual component of their journey like coming to faith or completing a new believers class, we have to know it if we expect them to participate in it.
2. Narrow their focus to the next right thing.
Just because you understand the map, the milestones, and the final destination doesn’t mean that you have to throw it all at them on the first visit. I believe that we can be guilty of explaining our total discipleship process to a first-time guest, when all they really want is to know where the bathrooms are.
So focus. Instead of giving them all the steps, give them a step. Point them to the next thing, and the next thing only. In our context, every single bit of our FTG process nudges them to Explore the Summit, which is our monthly newcomers class. In the FTG process, we don’t talk about baptism or tithing or short term trips or serving. We’ll get to all of that eventually, but our big win is simply to get them to show up at Explore the Summit.
3. Give them a peek at the final destination.
Now, a caveat to #2: just because you’re narrowing their focus doesn’t mean you hide the destination. Early in the process, you should show your cards and tell them what you ultimately want for (not from) them. But you can keep that at a 30,000 foot level, knowing that different people are going to hit different milestones at different times. For us, Explore the Summit is the place where we give a peek at the peak, but we don’t get bogged down in details there. If ETS is step #2, the win coming out of that is simply to get them to step #3.
4. Help them track progress.
If you have a map and milestones, a visual guide is helpful for them to know where they are. You should keep up with each person’s progress via a simple spreadsheet or a complex database, and you should celebrate completed steps along the way.
Now, this is a bit easier to do with a standard assimilation process than with a discipleship process, because you don’t want discipleship to feel like just another box to check off. That’s why #5 is crucial.
5. Know the difference between connected and committed.
Assimilation connects. Discipleship commits, or maybe we can even use the word cements. If we simply attach people to our church but we never introduce them to Jesus, we’ve failed them and we’ve missed our mission. If we get them involved in lots of activities but never help them become self-feeders in their walk with Jesus, we’ve just created dependents who always need feeding and never learn to feed others.
And this is where the hard work begins and where the real question stands: how do we know when someone is finished?
To be clear, when we’re talking about discipleship, we never are. We should continue to grow as disciples until the moment we see Jesus face-to-face. But when it comes to connection, I think we’d agree that there is a point in a person’s journey where the hand-holding can cease and we know they’re not going anywhere. Does that mean they never again falter, never again slip away, never again drift? Of course not. It just means that they’ve taken all normal steps to connect to the larger body of believers, and we can change our focus from keeping them to equipping them.
Again, this is hard work populated by hard questions. Every church will approach this answer a bit differently. But knowing our map allows us to help them know what’s next, and it helps us keep the same end destination in mind.
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