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How do you measure the success of your children’s ministry outreach events?

Lots of churches sponsor programs that are at least partly designed to attract children who are not currently part of their fellowship. Vacation Bible School is a prime example. Churches put herculean efforts into drawing unchurched kids to their VBS programs. If that’s one of the purposes of your VBS, how do you measure whether you accomplished the goal?

At New Song, we have four distinct goals for our summer Bible camp:
1. Disciple the children of our church in an intensive, week-long program.
2. Develop leadership and ministry skills in our youth and adult volunteers.
3. Deepen our unity by asking members of every generation to serve together that week.
4. Attract unchurched families and enfold them into the family of God.

We accomplish our discipleship goal by holding a great VBS. We accomplish our leadership development goal through a good VBS staff training program, coupled with the on-the-job experience gained during the week of camp. We accomplish our intergenerational goal by recruiting teens, twenties, thirties, parents and retirees to serve. But how do we retain the unchurched families who attend our VBS? This requires multiple capture strategies.

The Key: Building Relationships

In my experience, many churches put on stellar VBS weeks and hope that the fourth goal (of retaining the unchurched) will take care of itself. The truth is, most unchurched families aren’t thinking about attending your church when they enroll their kids in VBS. They’re either looking for an enriching place to send their kids during a busy summer, or they’re letting their kids hang out with their friends at your church for the week. Church attendance may not be the last thing on their minds, but it’s close to the bottom for most of them. So wooing the unchurched back after the VBS is over will take more than a great summer program. Here’s the key: The majority of your unchurched VBS attendees will only return if you build a relationship with them.

Building relationships requires multiple contacts. Here are eight strategies we use to capture as many unchurched visitors as possible:

1. Greet parents every morning.

As parents arrive to drop off and pick up their children each morning, we station staff members in the lobby to casually introduce themselves and make parents feel welcome.

2. Give them an excuse to stick around.

We set up coffee carts and refreshment tables out front, so parents who want to linger can do so.

3. Give them a reason to attend your church.

We combine one of our weekend services with the final session of VBS. At this session (which, for us, is our Saturday night service), we have the children perform songs they learned during the week. Then as I get up to speak, the children are dismissed for one last “special time” with their VBS leaders. The kids receive a camp picture, a big hug, personal prayer, and encouragement to return for church the following week. (Note: Be sure to have the kids return and perform one more song at the end of the service. Otherwise, some of your unchurched parents will grab their kids after the performance and leave, and you’ll miss the opportunity to bring them the Word of God and fully sample your service.)

4. Preach a relevant message.

While the kids are with their VBS leaders, I preach a biblical message on parenting. I want our visiting parents to know that God, the Bible, and the church can provide them with practical help. Make sure to have everyone in the service complete your “Connection Card”; this will help you gain contact information for your guests without making them feel singled out.

5. Exceed their expectations.

At the end of the service, we offer a free copy of The God Questions Gift Edition to all newcomers as a way of saying “thank you” for coming and trusting their children to us. The God Questions Gift Edition is a simple, 45-minute read that answers the questions they may have about God. The book is valuable to them, and at $1.99 per copy, it’s inexpensive for us. Since it’s a gift book, I offer to sign it on the gift page for them at the end of the service. This gives me a chance to meet each parent, get their name, look them in the eye and ask, “So, do you have questions about God?” I then say, “This is a really good place to get your questions answered. I hope you’ll come back next weekend.”

6. Exceed their expectations again.

Immediately following this service, we hold a party in the lobby. The tables full of finger-food slow the guests down and entice them to munch and mingle. We make sure plenty of staff and volunteers are there, graciously introducing themselves.

7. Add them to your newcomers list.

Since these new guests have filled out a Connection Card during the service, we are able to send them our usual first-time-guest letter and follow-up with them like we would our other weekend guests. Being part of our database means they’ll begin receiving weekly emails from me about what God is up to in our church—another step in helping them feel like part of the church family.

8. Provide a reason to return.

We offer an incentive to return a second time by scheduling a family-oriented event a few weeks after VBS ends. Then we’ll promote the event during the service and send them a personal invitation ten days ahead of time.

None of these steps happen by accident. They require thought, prayer and planning. VBS is such a fruitful harvesting opportunity for us that we ask our whole staff to participate in some way. We try to refine this process every year, and every time we do, we see a higher percentage of unchurched families return, give their lives to Christ and join the church.

A few guests begin attending the very next week. A larger number return two to four weeks later. Most unchurched people can’t fathom attending church every weekend, so this pattern is normal. Still others come the first time I do a series on family, marriage or parenting, which can be months later. This spring, a family walked up to my wife and said, “We came for VBS last summer. Now we’re back for church!” It took them nine months, but today they are now fully engaged Christ-followers, growing in their faith and looking forward to inviting friends to this year’s VBS.

The Principle: Thinking on Two Levels

A gifted speaker can get dozens of children to raise their hands and pray a prayer at the end of a good week of camp, but that shouldn’t be the goal. Jesus desires fruit that remains. Therefore, whenever possible, build systems that attract people to not just attend your programs but to become fully participating members of your church. To do this, you’ll need to think on two levels about your outreach events. Level One is coordinating and presenting the event itself; Level Two is capturing the unchurched who attend the event. You will change the paradigm and approach of all your church’s event-planning if you measure an event’s success not by how many pre-believers show up for it, but by how many of them become regularly attending members of your church six to nine months afterward.

Dr. Hal Seed is founding pastor of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, CA. In the past five years, New Song has seen over 5,000 people make first time decisions for Christ. Hal is the author of Future History: Understanding the Book of Daniel and End Times Prophecy,  Jonah: Responding to God, I Love Sundays, The Bible Questions,  as well as The God Questions. Each of these books is being used in small groups and church-wide campaigns around the country.

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