Why aren’t people coming back?

In the throes of church planting, I have asked this question many times. I have also heard this question asked many times.

I recall, early in one church plant, standing in the empty parking lot of Menifee Middle School with several other greeters as the tumble weeds blew past. Where is everybody this morning? we wondered.

We thought we were doing everything right! Everybody was working so hard!

Are there any answers to this frustrating quandary?

I believe there is.

If you know me well, you know I spend much of my time writing. In fact, I’m on quite a deadline right now to finish a project. Since our youngest daughter was in diapers, I have been on the journey to figure out how to write a novel that’s good enough to publish. Two full manuscripts have been abandoned and left for dead in the recesses of my hard drive. I have read many books on how to do it right, but it takes mistakes and time, and trying again and again.

Why am I telling you this? Because what I’m learning on the road to publication applies to you. I promise!

There are several key principles which hold a novel together, and which will hold your church plant together, and keep more people coming back.

Keep reading, and then decide if you agree with me…

  1. Use your senses: In fiction writing, it is essential to include sensory details in each scene. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with too much description, but a few carefully chosen images, smells, or tastes can go a long way. People who walk through your doors have senses, too. Think about what they are seeing, smelling, tasting and feeling when they visit. Is it pleasant? Is it worth coming back for? This is why if you’re going to serve donuts, please do it right. Buy big donuts from a great donut shop, and display them as if people were about to enjoy their last meal! By the way, donuts are one of the tastes that help my daughters get out the door every Sunday.
  2. Be in the moment: Every time I begin writing a scene, I have to pause and disappear into my brain for a little while so I can grasp what is happening in the moment. Some of the best television shows are slow and careful about the moments they share with you, and this helps you develop a love for the characters in the story. The same goes for your people in your church. Do you share real moments with a few people every time you have an event? Do you go out of your way to be there with them, and have some kind of experience that goes beyond, “Hello. Welcome. We are glad you are here.” Robots could do a better job than us if that’s all it takes for a person to feel welcome. Get a bigger team of greeters if you are worried about letting people slide by without any kind of greeting, but make the moments count. Maybe it’s not the right time to get into long conversations when the service is about to begin, but you had better seek out some special moments after the service, or you can pretty much be certain the visitors will not feel any desire to return.
  3. Make small details count: In writing a novel, every detail you share counts. If you bring a dog into a scene at the beginning of the book, the dog must have something to do with the main character’s journey. Small details count in your service, too. Make each choice purposeful. Think about how every detail effects the congregation. If details are scattered about from the announcements, to the video shared, to the testimony, to the sermon and songs, your congregation will feel battered around by the time sixty or ninety minutes has passed. However, if you take some time to coordinate details in a cohesive and harmonious way, your people might feel refreshed because of it! And who doesn’t want to be refreshed in this crazy discombobulated world? Think of your service as a short story. Take people through it from the beginning, to the middle, and to the end. Then, they will remember, and want to experience a service like that, again.
  4. Know each word you speak can effect the actions of the others: Have you ever noticed that little comments are planted in books that effect the main character’s course of action? I’m sure you have. If a character asks the main character, “Why don’t you ever think for yourself?” later in the story the main character will think twice before she does the bidding for everyone else. The same is true for our people. Are you speaking truth and love into your people’s lives? Please tell me you aren’t complaining about the music or quality of the sermon. These are negative sound bites your people don’t need ping-ponging through their minds. In the best case scenario, we would be speaking Biblical truth into our people’s lives within the context of a meaningful moment. This, if nothing else, is something to strive for.
  5. Begin with the end in mind: I have learned if you’re having trouble writing your novel, go back to the beginning. Why? Because the beginning sets the story on an ironclad trajectory that will only be changed with major repairs to the structure of the novel. The same is true about your church. Have you begun with the end in mind? If you want to be a church planting church, tell people this is your dream from day one! If you want to be a giving church, start giving the day you begin taking in dollars. If you don’t, it will be much more difficult to change things once the story of your church reaches your first plot twist!
  6. Keep trying: Okay, so I admitted to you I have essentially burned two books. Each of these were over three hundred pages. It hurt, but it was essential to my learning. Maybe you have messed up in one or more of the five keys I mentioned above. We all make mistakes, and no you don’t have to burn down your church to start over. Start fresh. Reflect. Discuss. Be intentional to get back on track with your team. Pray. Pray. Pray.
  7. Pray: I can’t tell you how often I have begged Jesus to help me finish a novel so it is worthy of the reader’s time. I want to show the world, through story, that Jesus saves. So I pray. And He answers. I don’t feel like a rockstar writer everyday, but I see God directing my questions, my edits and the people He brings into my life to help me along the way. Pray about your church plant. Pray for leaders. Pray for direction and insight. He can see everything you can’t see. He knows why Jenny Jean or Billy Benson stormed off during the sermon last week and never returned. Ask Him, listen to His answer, and then make the appropriate changes.

So, what do you think? Are novel writing lessons going to help you in your church plant?

Please, let me know by posting a comment!

And let me pray for you…

Dear Lord,

Thank you for being the hero in the story of our lives. Help us to value the people and their stories when they walk through our doors. We ask that you open our eyes as to why people may have left and never returned. We ask that you would help us not to be angry or discouraged by one person leaving, but to help us make each Sunday the best story it can be in the lives of the people you bring to us.


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