The 36 Hour Rule

27 Mar 2022 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Improving Welcoming and Connecting Visitors – The 36 Hour Rule

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures 

Last year we were introduced to a presentation about how we can improve welcoming and connecting visitors into our church community. The presentation was arranged by Rev Mat Harry (New and Renewing Communities Catalyst with the Vic/Tas Synod of the UCA). You can watch the full presentation here:
One aspect of the presentation was about “The 36-hour rule”. This rule looks at what happens when a volunteer makes personal contact with a visitor to a church worship service within 36 hours.  The research shows an outcome of 85% returning to worship the next Sunday. When delayed to 72 hours, only 60% return. 5-7 days, 15% return. If it is the minister who makes the contact, you can half these percentages. This is not to say the minister is no good at this. Rather, it shows the power of the volunteer lay people. If a volunteer does this follow up, it says I love this church so much that I want you to be a part of it. The most powerful testimonial for the church comes from the lay people. When the minister does it, that is lovely, but in the back of your head you are thinking they are paid to do this.
Mat has been doing some further work in his Synod with people who want to implement the learnings from the presentation. One of these people decided to put the 36-hour rule to the test. In the intervening weeks they had the opportunity to test the rule six times. Their approach was to have themselves or another lay person make personal contact with Sunday newcomers before the Monday night (ie, within 36 hours). They reported that all six of these people were continuing to engage with the church community. You can watch Mat talking very excitedly about this here: Welcoming Church | 36 Hr Rule - YouTube
In the video Mat goes on to consider some of what might be holding us back from making personal contact with newcomers in this way. He suggests that we hold ourselves back because of our fear that a new person will feel overwhelmed by such an approach. However, the statistics from the research indicate that newcomers are not overwhelmed because they actually come back and continue to engage. Why not take up the challenge, and put the 36-hour to the test!
As you think about putting the 36-hour rule to the test, it would be good to talk it over with other interested people in your congregation to figure out how to get the welcome “right” for new people. In Real Good Church, Molly Phinney Baskette talks about pitching the welcome in a way that is “neither too eager (the smell of desperation! Creepy stalker!), nor too diffuse (yes, even in our church sometimes we just smile thinly at newcomers from afar and consider that ‘welcoming’)”.
It may be that your congregation already has guest cards as part of your welcome that newcomers are invited to fill in to pass on things like prayer requests and contact details. If a newcomer passes on contact details in this way, you are all set to make personal contact within the 36 hours. That personal contact is probably best done in a way that doesn’t put the newcomer on the spot. They could feel on the spot if you call them on the phone or turn up on their doorstep. A better approach might be to send a brief text message thanking them for coming to the service and letting them know they are very welcome to connect further with the church. Another approach could be a handwritten note left in their letterbox or doorstep.
If your congregation doesn’t yet use guest cards (suggest you do this even if you do use guest cards), why not connect with the newcomer right after the worship service, invite them to morning tea, introduce them to people who share their interests or life stage (which means you have listened to them to get a sense of their interests!), and let them know if they would like further contact from church, you are happy to take their contact details.
Molly has some other great suggestions for what to take into account in getting your welcome “right”. Well worth accessing a copy of her book. Uniting Mission and Education (UME) of our Synod also has newcomer resources that you might find helpful. You can access them here: Newcomer Resources - Uniting Mission and Education