Why visitation doesn't work


This Saturday night I am doing a dinner and a movie. We will have a potluck dinner at 6:00 and watch Sea Biscuit at 7:00. I got a list of members and prospects from my church and have asked a few friends to make some phone calls. If all goes well, we will have a house full of people who will enjoy an evening of dinner, fellowship and a movie. Some of them will be outsiders or peripheral members of the group. I will make an announcement about a couple of Bible studies that they could be involved in. One or two will start coming. It doesn't happen every single time. Sometimes we do this and the turn out is poor, or it is just insiders. But, if we do this consistently, we can double every two years or less. And, hey, this is not so bad. It is dinner and a movie.

It works far better in my experience than traditional visitation. In this article, I want to explore some reasons why.

Visitation often assumes people have enough foundational knowledge to make a decision.

This issue is explained in the book by James Engle, What's Gone Wrong With the Harvest. He introduced a tool that has become widely known as the Engle Scale.  (If you would like to do some additional reading on the Engle scale, do a search on Engle Scale at your favorite search engine; there are a million articles out there.)

The gist is this. In the old school, we thought of evangelism as purely a decision. The Engle Scales helps us to see it as a journey, moving people from no knowledge or awareness of God to becoming fully devoted followers of Christ. We have often seen the back end of this journey--discipleship--as a process, but failed to see the front end of the journey as a process as well. Well, enough talk, let's look at the scale itself, or at least a modified version of it, taken from this web page.

LevelDescriptionGod IsMan's Task
-12No God frameworkConfirmingPrayer
-11Experience of emptiness  Presence
-10God frameworkRevealing  
-9Vague awareness and belief in God   
-8Wondering if God can be known  Preparation
-7Aware of JesusGuiding  
-6Interested in Jesus   
-5Experience of Christian love Proclamation
-4Aware of the basic facts of the gospelConvicting  
-3Aware of personal need  
-2Grasp the implications of the gospel  Power
-1Challenged to respond personallyConverting  
0Repentance and faith   
+1Holy Spirit and baptismTransformingEncouragement
+2Functioning member of local ChurchEmpowering  
+3Continuing growth in character, lifestyle and service   
+4Part of Team Leadership  Support

If we are in a culture where people are in the -3 range: aware of personal need, then visitation works real well. We go tell them the words about grace, they respond and all is well. But, generally speaking, the culture is not -3 anymore. If someone is -12 (no God framework) then the best we might expect is, "Huh?"

I got a new book for Christmas, Tom Rainer's new work entitled, "The Unchurched Next Door". In this new work, Dr. Rainer describes "The Rainer Scale" which is a simplified version of the same idea. He lists five stages from "not interested and antagonistic" to "very interested and open." (He has some other ideas I want to explore next week, but that is another day.)


This is one of the reasons the seeker model has been so successful. It allows people time and multiple exposures to the gospel to make a decision. And it is one of the reasons the fellowship-driven strategy works. It gives people time.

One of the great things about my approach, (inviting every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month), is that you can do it over a long period of time. Some people need a long time to move from -12 to 0 and to +4. Inviting every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month gives people time to move.


People don't like it

Someone said that believers and non-believers have one thing in common: they both hate evangelism. Well, they have a second thing in common: they both hate visitation.

It took a while for me to pick up on this. I knew I didn't like to do visitation, but I didn't realize the feeling was mutual. When we used to do visitation, we ran into a lot of situations where people were not home and we would spend the whole evening and talk to no one. So, we asked a guy to call and set up appointments. One night, he didn't have any appointments for us. I thought he had dropped the ball and I pushed him a bit. So, he went person by person through his list of prospects and said that everyone of them did not want a visit.

Well, I thought he just had bad people skills. "I can get them to want a visit," I thought, confidently. So I called them. They didn't want a visit based on my invitation either. It is not true of everyone, of course, but lots of people don't like the idea of us knocking on their door unannounced asking to come in and talk. They don't like it much better if you call ahead of time.

The opposite is also true. Most believers don't like doing visits. I thought about writing a book with the title, How To Grow a Church Without Visitation, mostly based my my distaste for visitation. And, these are not freshman jitters. I have done a lot of visitation. I spent a whole summer during seminary where my primary job was knocking on doors hoping to get a church started. I spent a lot of time crying.  I have gone through numerous evangelism training classes and done lots of it, and I still don't like it.

I have to assume I am not the only one who doesn't like visitation. I can't prove this, but my belief is, the vast majority of believers do not like visitation. Well, you might be thinking, it is not about what we like, it is about getting the job done. True, but because we don't like it, this leads us to the third reason visitation doesn't work.


We don't do it

Because we don't like to do visitation, we tend to not do it. Let me be clear. Churches that do visitation are getting some results. (Not as much, I think, as if they put the same amount of time into "Giving Friday Nights to Jesus" but still some results.) I have a pastor buddy in El Paso that has doubled his church twice and a primary reason is an aggressive visitation program. Every staff member is required to spend half of his working life knocking on doors. Visitation can work if we work it.

But, let's face it, that is pretty rare. Most church leaders I know will reel at my article title, "Why Visitation Doesn't Work" and would defend the idea that it does. Many of these same churches, however, are not doing it. That is the real reason visitation doesn't work: we don't work it.

I had a conversation with Dr. Ken Hemphill once where he scolded me at this point, "The last thing we need is someone running around the country telling people visitation does not work. Some of the strongest, most evangelistic, fastest growing churches in the nation are doing it through strong visitation programs." I have found that to be true. There are churches that are growing using visitation programs. But, there are also many who are floundering and have tried visitation many times and it hasn't worked. They need another way. Happily, we can also point to many churches that are growing and reaching lost people that are not using visitation. Willowcreek and Saddleback would be the most notable examples.

Still, I want to underline the point that visitation can work if we work it. Almost any plan will work if we get excited about it and work it. Ultimately, plans don't work anyway. People work. And, when people work, things happen. (More precisely, God works, but he works through people. Show me a great move of God and I will show you a person that God worked through.)

I was in sales for a while. I noticed a direct, one-to-one relationship between the amount of time I spent on the phone talking to customers and the amount of sales. Lesson from the land of DUH!

There are a thousand ways to grow a church. One of the smartest things Rick Warren ever said was, "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people." If you love visitation and it works for you, go to it! May the Lord richly bless your ministry.