So—new people showed up on your Zoom or your Facebook Live! Hooray!
No, really—hooray! Let’s stay in the celebratory moment before going on to the questions. This is amazing. People have discovered your faith community in a time when many people are desperate for connection…to God, to their fellow humans, to hope, to faith. And if they’ve kept coming, that means that your faith community was giving them something that they really needed. Good job. Thank God. That is fantastic news.
I wonder what brought these new people to your faith community. I wonder how they found you. I wonder what they found in you. Do you know? Have you asked? Have you considered how to welcome them? Are they ready for further involvement? Do you know how to support their belonging?
We used to have a sense of rules and pattern and predictability about newcomers. For example, I used to tell faith communities that the people most likely to visit their congregations were people who lived within twenty minutes’ travel. They might get someone who drove forty-five minutes, but this was statistically unlikely. That meant that congregations could get a sense of potential newcomers by just studying their local neighborhoods.
Not so much anymore.
So what does evangelism look like now? For faith communities that intend to continue as hybrid or online worshiping groups, we don’t know what the new rules are yet. We have no idea—no good data—about why somebody shows up on your Facebook Live from three states away when they could just as easily have shown up on somebody else’s. The only person who knows is the person themselves, which makes me think that you might want to ask them. Why did you come to us? Why have you stayed? Obviously (I hope), you don’t want to barrage people with these sorts of questions on their very first visit, but if you do have relative newcomers who’ve appeared online and stuck around for a while, they’re the people you want to engage as you start to explore your new approach to evangelism.
Asking what brought these new folks to your community might give you a sense of who you are perceived to be. If what they say feels true, you can lean into that identity. You can also talk (both online and in person) about the various ways in which your congregation is distinct. “Welcoming of online participants” is no longer unusual, and you probably won’t continue to receive new visitors for that reason alone. But being deliberate and specific about your identity as a faith community will encourage visitors. They’ll be clear about what they’re invited to, and some people will hear your description as a direct answer to what they’ve been seeking.
It will also be important, as visitors come, to be aware of how you welcome them. Are you prepared to greet visitors of all ages, whether online or in person, warmly but not overwhelmingly? Have you figured out how to welcome a new person individually without putting them on lengthy display? In person, this is relatively simple; you station a greeter in the hallway. Online, you might want to make use of a tech host with strong social skills or assign somebody to greet people in the chat.
Do you have simple information about your faith community that’s easy for visitors to find? In person, this means a good pamphlet table. Online, this is a great website, or—if necessary—a simple link made readily available to a well-curated denominational site.
Do you follow up with visitors by phone or email within a few days of their first visit? Some visitors—especially shy ones—might find this kind of follow-up intimidating, but they tend to self-select. If visitors are invited and encouraged to write their contact information in a book (or put it in a private chat box), they will decide for themselves whether to offer an email address, a phone number, a mailing address, or none of the above. Within days, they should receive a friendly follow-up—“I’m so glad you came. Here are a couple of upcoming events you might want to know about . . . can I answer any questions for you?” This kind of contact makes a visitor feel seen.
After the first visit, newcomers will need help finding a sense of belonging. Can you invite the newcomer—whether in-person or virtual—into a formal or informal small group? Sociological research tells us that it’s easier to enter a group in formation than it is to enter an established group. Established groups have unwritten rules and norms that can be tricky to learn and follow, but a small group that’s just being established is a lot easier to enter. The newcomer can be part of the creation of the social norms.
Does your faith community have fun, preferably multigenerational activities—again, online, in-person, or hybrid? Having fun together brings a community together in ways that nothing else does. For many people, social time is where trust-building happens. Even neuroscience supports the idea of community play. Laughter stimulates chemicals in our brains that cause us to experience a feeling of bondedness to the people we laugh with.
And are you prepared to respond positively and supportively to newcomers’ suggestions, including those newcomers who appear online? It’s about establishing a permission-giving culture: a place in which the default answer to newcomers’ ideas is “yes, and how can I help?” unless there is a compelling, Spirit-led reason to say otherwise. Newcomers develop a sense of belonging when their ideas are taken seriously.
And eventually, your newcomers won’t be new anymore; they’ll need to become fully integrated members, experiencing religious formation and journeying with other community members. Are you providing regular opportunities for religious formation and religious education for everyone—all ages, and all levels of experience? If not, it’s tricky for newcomers to move out of their status as “new” because they don’t experience the group as one where everyone is growing. When you’re all gathering together (in person, online, or hybrid) for discussions and religious formation opportunities, members of the congregation have the chance to journey together in their walks of faith. It’s important to include talking about how each person’s faith influences their daily lives—otherwise, there’s danger that these gatherings will become intellectual exercises, which works okay for some people, but not for everyone.
Evangelism has been functioning a bit like catch-as-catch-can for most of us in the last couple of years. That’s reasonable; the tried-and-true predictable patterns keep shifting, and we’re just trying to cope. But there are some things that will always be the same: bringing people good news, welcoming newcomers into communities, and walking together in faith as congregations. We do this whether we’re gathering in person or in our jammies online. Are we ready now to resume doing these things more deliberately?