Building Trust with Your Congregation

Welcome to the 30th episode of the Hello Church Podcast!  Today, we’re going to be discussing a big question:  How do you get first-time guests to show up, stay engaged, and keep showing up?

The quick answer?  It all boils down to one thing- building trust.

Building trust with first-time guests, just like in any relationships, is a process.  In this episode, we’re going to be discussing some of the best ways to build trust with people in your community.  However, first let’s talk about how long it takes to actually build trust.  

How Long Does it Take to Build Trust with First-Time Guests?

How long does it take to build trust with a person or organization?  How many interactions does an individual have to have with your church before they’re comfortable?

While we can’t give you an exact number (it will vary based on the church, culture, and person), we can tell you this: as a pastor, you’re not starting on a level playing field.  Churches and pastors are more likely to be viewed negatively than positively, because our culture doesn’t see pastors or churches as trustworthy authorities anymore.  (For more information, see these statistics from Barna or read this article from Christianity Today).  

Scandals, individualism, and other things stand as obstacles between people and their desire to connect with God.  So how many visits will it take a new family to develop trust with your church?  To keep them from being worried about their kids?  To be not skeptical about the pastor?  The answer is, “More than you think.”  

At the same time that trust in churches is at an all-time low, regulat church attendees are attending church less.  The average attendance pattern is twice a month- and that’s an average of everyone, factoring in the people who attended every single week.  So if a new family only comes once a month, how many months is it going to take to develop trust?  If it take them ten visits to feel comfortable at your church, are they going to stick around ten months in order to make that happen?  It seems unlikely.

That’s why your digital first impressions are so important.  While you can’t tell what a church is really about by looking at their statement of beliefs on their website, new people are looking at your website and already starting to decide whether or not they trust you. If you can build trust with someone before they ever show up at your congregation, that counts for a lot.  So instead of taking ten months for them to decide that they trust you, it may only take 2 weeks.   

So, the question is, how do you leverage your website to build trust with new people?

Idea #1: Offer Free Resources to Specific Audiences

The gospel is for everyone, but people need to hear that it’s for them, personally.  Likewise, your church is open to everyone who wants to attend, but people need to know that they, personally, are welcome.  So, while the idea of targeting specific audiences may sound like you’re narrowing your focus, that’s not the case.  Instead, you’re letting them know that you care about them and what’s going on in their life- and that God does, too.

Ultimately, it comes down to this question: How can you help people if you don’t know them?

One of the ways you can build trust online is by offering helpful resources to very specific audiences.  It’s one of the biggest opportunities for churches to leverage the visitors on their website and social media pages.  Offering things to specific types of people builds trust because you’re speaking personally TO them and their situation.  It’s a way of opening the doors to build trust before you ever have a conversation with them in person.  

Here’s an example of how this might play out in real life: Your church offers a PDF of “5 Bible Stories to Share with your Kids.”  People have to give you their email address in order to receive it.  We’ve all done something like this to get coupons or join a rewards program. Then, when someone downloads your PDF, you immediately know a few things about them.  In our example, you know that they’re parents that care about teaching their kids the gospel.  Now, you can send them an automated email sequence highlighting your children’s ministry, check-in process, and help answer their questions about what it might be like to attend your church, before they ever step foot in the door.

We get it: you might be thinking, “This sounds great, but would it actually work?”  Think about this: where do you go to get your oil changed?  Where do you buy groceries?  Chances are, you go someplace familiar.  You’re busy, and you don’t want to waste a bunch of time seeking out and trying new things- you’re going to go where you’re most comfortable.  So, when you get people on this email list you start making them feel comfortable with your church.  They’ll know what to expect and, when they’re ready to attend, they’ll come.

If you’re ready to put this idea in action, but don’t know where to start, here are some specific types of people you should be creating resources for on your church website:

  • Parents of teenagers
  • Parents of children
  • People who have questions about God
  • People that care about marriage
  • People who are new to the community

What should your church website be used for?

All this talk of websites brings us to another question: How should you use your church website?  

If you’re like most churches, you use it to disseminate information for you church.  However, the more we think about it, the more we’ve come to believe that apps would be better to use for insiders, and the website should be almost solely for visitors.  Gear your website to your guests, and then create digital resources to help them.  

For example, pay attention to the details: Where should they park?  What do they need to do with their kids? Because you go to your church every week, you know what to do.  But for new people, it can feel highly uncomfortable.  It can even be confusing for new people, even if you have the right signage and materials.

Idea #2: Re-Use Sermon Content 

The sermon is the most underutilized piece of content in the church today.   After you preach it, it just sits there in your files or on Sermonary.  But you’ve  put a ton of work into your sermon- take a few minute to make it go farther.  One great way to do this is to take your sermon series and convert them into a devotional series for specific audiences.  For example, you could create a marriage devotional series, or a devotional about the doubts people have about Christianity.  Now you know what people care about, and can send them messages that fit who they are- even a personalized message from you, as the pastor!   All those connection points go a long way toward building trust. 

What we’re talking about here is called identifying your audience. There are platforms and programs that allow you to do list segmentation (For example: Mailchimp, Active Campaign, Church Community Builder, etc).  You want to be able to separate those segments of your audience that you’ve identified, so that people get messages precisely tailored to them. 

As you do this more and more, you’re going to see people start showing up.  They’re not going to delay, because they know what to expect.   Instead of leaving them to wonder, you’re showing them who you are as a church and as a leader. 

Let’s face it: when we hear about Christians in the news,usually only hear about the extremes.  We hear stories about ultra-saints (like Mother Theresa) or crazy whackos (we won’t name names, but I’m sure you can figure out who they are)!  You have to really teach people who you are, as a church, because they’re probably coming with a lot of assumptions.  So if you know something about someone, send them something they’ll appreciate that’s clear, precise, and Jesus-centered.  Show them that while you may not be a super-Christian, your faith is genuine and centered on the gospel.  

Idea #3:  Write a Book

If you really want to build trust quickly, here’s the fastest (but also most costly) way: write a book.  It’s probably not as hard as you think: use the material and preparation you’ve done during past sermon series, and weave personal stories and the church’s story throughout.  If you talk about what God has done in your life and church as it relates to a specific, helpful topic, people are going to listen.  If someone shows up the first time and you give them that book (or if you send it to them ahead of time), they can literally find out everything about your church.  They’ll feel like they know you and your church before they have a chance to develop those one-on-one relationships with you.  

If you don’t have the time or money to write a book, take baby steps toward it.  Consider doing a sermon series on “The Story of our Church,” making an email sequence out of it, or creating a podcast episode you can share with new people if they want to learn more about who you are.  All these ideas involve one simple concept: helping people manage their perceptions so they can more easily trust you.  

Knowing is key to building trust- you have to know them and speak directly to them, and they have to know you.  If you can share your story in an engaging way, people will feel like they know you before they ever come to your physical building.  When people know you, that puts you in a better position to share the Jesus way of life with them.  With a little bit of extra work, you can help them understand that the gospel is for everyone, yes- but it’s also for them, personally.