Wal-mart does a better job of greeting people than most churches, author says

Most church members don't realize is that there is an invisible sign on their front lawn that reads "members only."

"You don't get a second chance to make a good first impression," said Mike James, a church development strategist for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. "Wal-Mart does a better job greeting people who come into their buildings than most churches."

To help change that, James — who served as pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Lexington from 1999 to 2006 and served previously as youth pastor for Immanuel Baptist Church — co-authored V.E.L.C.R.O. Church with Ken Hemphill, founding director of the Center for Church Planting and Revitalization at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C.

What the men discovered is that 80 percent of churches in America have membership that has either plateaued or is declining, James said. He became interested in the trend when he was a pastor at a church in Nashville. Over five years, the church gained 541 new members. From those numbers, he said, it looked like, "that was a church that was blowing and growing."

Unfortunately, on closer examination, the church had lost 535 members during the same five years — a net gain of six.

"This is happening in denominations across the country," he said.

That revelation set James on a mission to research what keeps members from sticking with a new church. Most churches he works with don't realize that they are sending subtle signals that can turn visitors off, he said. While most churches will contend that they're plenty friendly, church members are often friendliest with each other, he said. And they assume that someone else will reach out to a guest, he said.

"Sometimes the attitude is 'we are here, why don't they come?' " he said. "That's not the attitude that Christ had. We need to go and get them."

The real test of whether someone will stick with a church is not only whether a church is friendly, but whether people actually make friends and feel connected with the rest of the congregation, he said.

The book, a Bible study guide, is filled with specific strategies to help churches attract and maintain members.

Here are some of the findings from James' research and suggestions to bolster membership:

■ People decided whether a church is for them within the first seven minutes of walking in the door, long before they hear the pastor's message.

■ Seventy-five to 85 percent of people who leave a church leave within the first year. Peak times for leaving are at six and 10 months. James said he's not sure why.

■ Statistics show that after six months a person who feels that they know two people in a church will leave. If they know seven, they will stay.

■ Engage every guest to the church, intentionally, James suggests. Have a plan and train greeters how best to make people feel comfortable. Greeters should wear name tags and the person should feel welcome "from parking lot to pew."

■ Rotate Sunday school groups, adding a new group on a regular basis.

■ Have a process in place for follow-through that is inviting, but not intrusive. Many people don't sign guest cards, he said, because they don't want a church member showing up on their doorstep unannounced.

■ Have a way to let the new person get plugged into the church either through some kind of service work or fellowship with a like-minded group.

■ Be willing to ask difficult questions. If someone leaves a church, respectfully ask them why and use their comments as a way to improve the church for others.

■ People don't like to walk into church alone, so the best thing you can do is invite someone to your church and be by their side when they attend.

■ Be willing to try new things and to give up traditions that are no longer working. "If the horse is dead, dismount," James said.