The hard work of affiliation

Until the day your congregants get biblical about tithing, your stewardship efforts will depend mostly on membership development. Grow your congregation and thereby reach more people with your mission and ministry.

(That’s also good gospel, of course, not just good fund-raising.)

Membership development isn’t magic. It’s hard work. Self-sacrificial work. Strategic work.

A day did exist when a church could grow and thrive by opening its doors on Sunday and welcoming whoever arrived. Knowing how to welcome regulars and visitors was as much membership development as a congregation needed to do.

That day ended long ago. Nowadays, most churches don’t have enough visitors to offset the inevitable attrition that happens when people die, move out of town or lose interest.

To some extent, this is a “Sunday problem.” People are busy on Sundays and no longer see Sunday morning as “church time.” The smart church is learning how to offer worship at other times of the week.

To some extent, this is a “worship problem.” More and more people find worship too passive, too busy and, to be honest, too boring. The smart congregation is learning how to offer more than worship. Those offerings can include small groups, mission teams, online studies, retreats, single-generation ministries and social/fellowship events like church suppers.

And to some extent, this is a “marketing problem.” Most churches are functionally invisible. Other than owning well-maintained property, it isn’t clear from the outside what a congregation actually does. Non-churchgoers aren’t motivated to inquire. Attending church once was normative for all age groups; now it is unusual among the young and middle-aged.

Just opening the door on Sunday isn’t accomplishing much. People need to be touched, informed, gathered and sold.

Here are four stages of an effective development program. You need to do all four.

Touches. These are people whose lives you touch. Their children attend your preschool, they shop at your annual fair, they play softball on your field, they attend dance classes in your basement, they know the pastor from community activities. You reach them mostly by email — not email announcing church events, but messages building bridges to their needs and interests.

Prospects. These are touches who have expressed an interest in something the church is doing. They are open to knowing more about you. Chances are they don’t care how you worship. They want to know what you do in mission and ministry – where your heart is.

Leads. These are prospects who have expressed a solid interest in “buying your product.” They have attended an inquirers’ class, or requested a meeting with the pastor, or signed on to a mission team. A lead isn’t yet a ”customer.” There’s work still to do.

Constituents. These are leads who have affiliated. Attending Sunday worship isn’t a measure of affiliation.

It takes thousands of touches to yield a few hundred prospects, and several hundred prospects to yield several dozen leads, and maybe 100 leads to yield 50 new constituents. Hard work.

Tom Ehrich newTOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. His new Fresh Day online magazine offers fresh words about faith and life, fresh voices, fresh ideas. For a free trial go to