The Not-So-Complicated Secret to Getting Guests Plugged Into Your Church

I could charge you $19.95 to give you a secret to church growth, or I could just tell you now for free. It’s not a complicated secret. I never heard about it in seminary. In all my courses of study, in all the conferences I attended, in all the books I read, no one ever touted this secret. But it works. I’ve experienced it time and time again. The reason no one touts it is because it’s simple and obvious. The reason it’s a secret is because people rarely do it.  The not-so-complicated secret to getting guests to plug into your church is to learn their names (boom, drop the mic and walk off the stage).

Close Up Of Businessman Attaching Name Tag

I know it sounds obvious, but we usually approach it from the wrong way. If guests keep coming and decide to plug in, we’ll learn their names. I’ve experienced the opposite: if I learn someone’s name from the beginning, they have a much better chance at plugging in. That means doing the hard work of learning names and faces. And that means learning names as early as possible, after the first time they show up on your radar screen or fill out a visitor card (being an unashamed Facebook stalker helps tremendously with learning names). If you can call a guest by their name the second or third time they show up, you just showed them that you care enough about them to learn their name and you give them an incredible motivation to get plugged into your church.

Don’t believe me? Here are four recent examples:

  • When I came to Mt Vernon three years ago, I started getting to know as many names as possible. It included a couple that sat on the back row during our early service. Nice couple, came almost every week. I started calling them by name and greeting them every time I saw them. They soon joined the church and are now serving. Why is this important? Because they had sat on the back row faithfully for ten years without joining. They joined after I learned their names and got to know them.
  • A median age couple came one time and filled out a guest card. I learned their names and greeted them the next time they came. They commented on how surprised they were that I would know their names. They’re signed up for our next membership class and are planning on joining the church.
  • A new couple came to town from out of state, attended a few times but didn’t show an indication of wanting to plug in. Because I knew their names and because our kids had some sports together, I would see them in town and greet them. Last month, the husband pulled me aside and told me, “I need to bend your ear about something. My wife and I want to join a LifeGroup. We’re not doing a good job planting roots here and we know we need to branch out and join a small group.” He wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking to me if I didn’t know his name.
  • I remember one guest in particular that came a few times and then left. I saw on Facebook that she was trying out another church as well. Since I’d already learned her name, I saw her in town a few times and always greeted her by name. Just recently she’s come back, bringing her husband and son, and deciding that Mt Vernon was going to be her church home. I’m not sure all of the reasons why, but I know that knowing her name definitely helped.

Learn names and faces of your guests. Early. It’s a huge opportunity to help them plug into your church.

QUESTION: Have you ever had a positive experience visiting a church where a pastor or leader knew your name? Comment and share your story!

7 Things The Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People

On Monday I wrote a (surprisingly viral) blog post about 10 Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People. I had no idea the chord I would strike with this post as it’s been shared over 6,000 times on Facebook and viewed over 37,000 times in the first four days. That post was a written version of what I shared verbally with my church in my most recent sermon. Here’s the video version of Monday’s viral post (I had edited it down to 7 Things for time constraints).

How One Church Changed to Reach People

Today I want to tell you the story of the church I have the privilege of serving at: Mt Vernon. It’s a long and arduous story of a church that dared to dream differently and the painful steps it had to take to get to its very happy ending. It’s a story of a church that broke through the 10 Things to reach people.

Mt Vernon logo

A decade ago Mt Vernon under the leadership of the former pastor created a task force called the Catalyst Team to ask the age old question: how do we reach more young families? The vast majority of churches ask this question, because the vast majority of churches do not have an abundance of young families in it. The answers they came up with were similar to most churches’ solutions: new facilities, modernized programming, family-friendly environments, contemporary music to attract and keep young families. What makes Mt Vernon unique is that it had the audacity and courage to actually follow through, to change.

Now, it would be misleading to gloss over these changes as quick or harmless. They were neither. The changes Mt Vernon instituted to better reach young families took years to implement and changed the very DNA of the church. And not everybody liked it. Many members left (although now on the other side Mt Vernon is bigger than its ever been, and yes, overflowing with young families).

Mt Vernon changed just about everything you could think of (besides moving physical locations). We replaced the pews with removable chairs. We ditched the chandeliers. We replaced the choir with a praise band. We removed the pulpit and started preaching from a round table. Those are just a few of the aesthetic changes. Mt Vernon transitioned from Sunday School to LifeGroups (which met at various times throughout the week) to free up more people to serve on Sunday mornings. We cancelled Sunday night services to allow LifeGroups to flourish. We started a Host Team (which now consists of over 50 people weekly) who are out in the parking lots, doors and coffee stations each Sunday morning to create a welcoming environment (none of whom could serve if they were stuck in Sunday School). And we built a new building in the center of our campus, a Welcome Center/Preschool Area for our young families.

The cost to reach people was steep. Not everyone liked the changes. Not everyone stuck around for the ride. I came along seven or eight years into this process as the new pastor. The leadership had seen the vision come to fruition and wanted to continue down the same path. For the past three and a half years, I’ve helped steward the vision of Mt Vernon to reach people, especially the next generation for Christ.

As other pastors have commented on Mt Vernon’s growth and success, here’s my candid advice to them: getting to this place will cost more than most churches are willing to pay. Go back to that post 10 Things. Any one of them could have thrown a wrench in Mt Vernon’s revitalization. But for those churches willing to pay the price and embrace change, the other side is beyond worth it. Our church is overflowing with young families. Lives are being changed on a weekly basis. We’re in the midst of a movement of God. It took years to get here, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Jesus I See in the Book of Mark

As part of our new sermon series The Jesus I Never Knew Sunday I challenged Mt Vernon to read the book of Mark in one sitting and share their thoughts. It took me about 45 minutes this morning to read through the book of Mark. Here’s what struck me:


  • The crowds were quick to materialize. The poorest of the poor, it must have been a region and people desperate for any good news. I think Jesus would have had a tougher time gathering a crowd if he came today and had to compete with football, movie premieres, and ball practices.
  • It seems like Jesus intentionally ticked off the religious leaders. Or at least that’s how Mark records it. Every chapter seems to have something else Jesus did to make them mad. Jesus grew up in that society and he well knew the rules. He just chose to break them.
  • It’s amazing how quickly the religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat. Even from the opening pages they were figuring out ways to get rid of him, a threat to their way of life.
  • The story of Jesus commanding the waves to be still has always been an odd one to me. How could he have stayed asleep if the waves were engulfing the boat? What’s odder to me is the disciples reaction when Jesus calms the waves. They were afraid. They’d seen him do miracles before, but something about this one was different.
  • I’m always amazed at the death of John the Baptist. Here he was, God’s messenger, devoted to God since birth, and this is how he dies? Beheaded by the whim of a girl? It’s proof that God’s kingdom is not of this earth. If John’s end was this lowly, who are we to demand any better?
  • Jesus seems to turn a corner in Mark 7 and starts laying into the religious leaders. He’s no longer just breaking their traditions, now he’s dressing them down publicly and rebuking them. There’s no way they would stand for this.
  • I don’t know what was a stronger motive for the religious leaders to kill Jesus: the fact that they were threatened by Jesus’ teaching, or the fact that they were insanely jealous of Jesus’ following. The crowds loved him in a way they never loved the religious leaders.
  • How hard must it have been to include Mark 8 and 14? The writer of this gospel is Mark, who was not one of the twelve apostles. But scholars believe that he got all his information from Peter. This is Peter’s telling. And yet he chose to include those two chapters, where Jesus calls Peter Satan and Peter denies Jesus. It takes a strong man to include those low points.
  • It always seems to me like Jesus is a little harsh to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10). This guy just wants to follow Jesus, and Jesus makes him sell all his possessions first? My selfish self wants it to be okay to pursue Jesus and money at the same time, but Jesus would not allow that.
  • I’m always astonished by the crowds. Jesus had the crowds. But he never sought the crowds. He was focused on his disciples and his mission. What does that mean for churches that simply seek the crowds?
  • Jesus doesn’t give his disciples a sunny picture to look forward to. They will be persecuted, tried, and killed for their faith. What keeps them devoted? They cannot deny that Jesus is from God. What will you give up for God?
  • Mark 15 doesn’t make sense from a human perspective. Jesus has shown miraculous powers now for fourteen chapters. Nature, the human body, the spirit world, all under his command. And yet he allows himself to be tortured and executed without fighting back?

That’s what stands out to me. What stands out to you?


Dodgeballs and Slinkies

Growing up church sanctuaries were hallowed, untouchable places. From the stained glass to the pews to the chandeliers, the furniture makeup was unchangeable. I could never quite find the Bible verse that said that the church sanctuary had to look like that, but I always assumed it was somewhere in the book of 2 Opinions. In contrast the meeting rooms for kids and youth were always spartan in comparison. Cinderblock walls, a few posters or bean bags if we were lucky. It was apparent quickly where ministries lined up on the organizational hierarchy. Those were the churches I grew up in. But that’s not the church I’m a part of now.


Over the past two weekends we’ve had two major outreach events, one for youth and one for children. The youth had a blacklight dodgeball tournament and the children had KidZone Live. In both instances an untold number of volunteers came together and contributed hundreds of hours to pull off an amazing event. In both instances we had more teenagers and more children than we’ve ever had before at our church.

The reason we were able to have these amazing events? Because we broke through the taboo of a sanctuary as an untouchable space and made it a functional environment. Every Sunday morning our Fellowship Center is a worship venue for The Gathering. But two Friday nights ago that large space was turned into blacklight dodgeball heaven, with 300 teenagers crammed in there to spend their Friday night. Every Sunday morning our Worship Center hosts two worship services, but last night it was transformed into a kids paradise as 300 kids and parents filled the room for KidZone Live.

In both instances the worship venues were filled with something you normally wouldn’t see in a church sanctuary: dodgeballs and slinkies. Growing up this never would have happened. Children’s and Youth ministries were important, but we couldn’t touch the sanctuary. So why do it now? Because Christianity is always one generation away from extinction. Because there’s nothing more important than reaching the next generation for Christ. Because a church that fails to reach kids and teenagers is a church that actively digs its own grave. That trumps traditional taboos about what’s respectable in a church sanctuary. That’s why we let our teenagers tear the place up with a bunch of dodgeballs. That’s why I preached yesterday with hundreds of slinkies hanging down over my head from the ceiling. I did it for the kids. Reaching the next generation trumps my personal preferences. From my perspective, our ‘sanctuaries’ were more hallowed when filled with hundreds and hundreds of young people than when ordained with the finest stained glass and chandeliers. People are God’s treasure. The rest is just furniture.