Interview with Pastor BJ Rutledge of Grace Fellowship Church About Church Growth!

Our guest is Pastor BJ Rutledge, a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Paradise, TX. Who knew that paradise was actually located in Texas? That’s awesome!

Pastor BJ: Everybody wants to be in paradise, man!

Patrick Steil: That’s right! Just a little introduction about Grace Fellowship and BJ. Grace Fellowship was started in 2003-2004 with about 10 core families. There are about 50 people in this core group who were looking to start something a little bit different. This is a very strange place. You’re basically out in the country; there’s really nothing else out there. It’s in Wise County, where the population of the whole entire county is only 62,000, and apparently, the town of Paradise has a population of 459. That’s all fine, but then when you realize that Grace Fellowship Church worships about 1,400 per Sunday, that’s pretty crazy. I did the math; you guys are worshiping about 390% of the town population and about 2% of the county’s population. Usually, it’s the other way around. People worshiping have an attendance of 2% of their town. So that’s pretty impressive.

Pastor BJ: A little crazy.

Easter Worship Goals

Easter worship at Grace Fellowship

(Photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship)

Patrick: So this past Easter Sunday, my family attended church there at Grace Fellowship. We were invited by some friends, Beau and Chelsea Taft, who have been attending for a while. We had a really good experience at Grace. Basically, the big thing was that the service itself, I felt, was very friendly to a first-time guest. We did come in late, so we didn’t really get the full experience of a first-time guest in terms of how we would have been greeted as we walked in the door. But as I sat down in the worship service, it was very obvious to me that you and your team have done a great job of preparing everything to make it very inviting and welcoming to the first-time guest. You actually welcomed us into the service. I’ve mentioned this previously, but never heard of a church actually do it. I love the fact where you actually said, “If this is your first time with us, when that offering basket comes around, just pass it on by.” I thought that was fantastic because people have this big issue about the church being just after our money. I think you did a great job with that.

My first question for you is: Was there an overall goal or focus for the Easter worship service?

Pastor BJ: We’re very focused in reaching people that are un-churched or de-churched or have never been to church …  pretty intentional about inviting un-churched people to attend. Our goal on a weekly basis, including Easter, is really to help. We have such a great variety of people from every kind of religious background or where they are on their spiritual journey, if they have started a spiritual journey. Our goal at Easter, and every week, is to help people take the next step toward Christ or their next step with Him. So that’s pretty much an overriding goal every week.

The win for us is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus; that’s our goal. We know that people are in every different kind of place. We want to see a lot of people who visited for the first time. We want to see a lot of people who don’t normally attend church, so they would hear the gospel and then hopefully they would be engaged enough to want to take the next step, ask a question or build a relationship. So that’s pretty much the goal for us.

Patrick: Right, and that’s exactly what I experienced and what I saw in your Easter service. One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview was to find out just how much of a focus that was for you guys. So it’s really encouraging to hear. As you and I discussed earlier, I think that’s something a lot of churches are missing: the focus on bringing people to know Christ and making disciples of people who have not previously had a relationship with Jesus. So I really applaud you for that.

Now I want to ask you about your program, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. I always look through the program and see what the church is trying to communicate to folks. Generally, what I see is a long laundry list of all these different events that are happening in the church. What I saw was your program had none of that; everything that was in that program was something that would be attractive or pertain in some way to a first-time guest. I think you might have a questionnaire that targeted someone who had been coming for a while, but hadn’t plugged into a small group. But pretty much everything else was about that first-time guest and what is the next step. Let’s give you three or four or five different first steps that you can take as you’re getting involved with the church.

Is that the way your program looks every Sunday or was that specifically for Easter?

Grace Fellowship Church

(Photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship)

Pastor BJ: No, that’s how our program looks like every week. Our focus is on making sure that people, especially first-time guests, can come into the church and feel welcome in an authentic way. We want them to feel like we appreciate the fact that they’re there and that we’re interested in them.

We try to offer a variety of connection points, other places where they can connect depending on where they are in their life — whether they have children or are empty-nesters, single or married, whatever their situation is. We do not announce a lot of church stuff other than something that may really catch their attention and would be a good connection point for them. Most of our announcements, as far as the church is concerned, is done on social media, on our website, and during the church service itself. We’re pretty streamlined. We will usually announce one or two things, which are relatable to everybody who’s coming.

Patrick: A bigger event that everyone might be interested in?

Pastor BJ: Yes.

Communications

Patrick: That was going to be my next question: How do you communicate to your members if there is an event coming up? But you just answered that you use social media. You also have an email newsletter I would assume?

Pastor BJ: Yes, we do. We send out an email blast periodically, mainly for big events. But we constantly train our people to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and then we have the website. The website has ongoing events and events that are coming up. It’s a constant deal of which we have to remind people. Sometimes new people who come in may not know, so we usually say something at the very beginning of the service. Typically, we’ll say, “You can connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram,” then we’ll reference those things. So even if you’re new, you’ve got another touch point there.

Patrick: I can’t remember specifically if that was brought up. I think it was. I also want to mention that your worship attendance on Easter Sunday was basically double what it normally is — 2,800 or 2,900 total, which was very impressive. Was that pretty much what you guys expected the attendance to be?

Pastor BJ: Yes, pretty close. Typically, on Easter Sunday, we are packed at both services. This year, we really stressed to our regular attenders, members, and volunteers to come on Saturday night to make room for all the guests on Sunday. We also requested our members and attenders to come back and serve on Sunday because we needed a lot of extra people. This was the first time on Saturday night that we actually were packed; the whole auditorium was packed and we had to have an overflow, so that boosted the attendance. We’re used to having close to double; the attendance is always up on Easter.

Patrick: I’ve heard a lot of pastors talk about the Sunday after Easter being called Humble Sunday, because you come off that big high and it usually dips down. So what did last Sunday look like?

Pastor BJ: I don’t have the numbers for that Sunday in front of me. I was gone, actually; I was out of town doing a wedding. I think they probably dropped back down to about 1,500. We had another 10 first-time families or something like that. Typically, we do have Humble Sunday, where it drops way down after Easter. We had a major drop, but then the Sunday after that, it’ll kick back up. I’ve been seeing that for years and years; no way to figure it out.

(Photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship)

(Photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship)

Patrick: I think that’s true of all churches. You’re going to have those folks who come in for their obligatory Easter Sunday worship, but I think that you did a really great job of presenting the gospel that they needed to hear on Easter Sunday. What better of a Sunday to present the gospel and the story of Jesus’ resurrection? I think you did a great job with that.

I could tell your upbringing was Baptist, and so it was sort of a Baptist call, but it was a very gentle call. It wasn’t, “Hey, we’re going to wait for 20 minutes for you to come down to the front.” I think it was a very gentle call that you’ve done very well. I applaud you on all that. Like I said, it was a great experience for us as first-time guests. It was nothing that you all did that turned us off or anything like that, so that was great.

Pastor BJ: We like to hear that!

First-Time Visitors

Patrick: Do you have a sense for how many people registered as first-time guests on Easter Sunday?

Pastor BJ: Well, that’s a great question. I don’t have the exact number. I’m trying to remember what the numbers were, because I was gone the next week, so our staff was following up on all those.

Here’s another deal. The ones who actually register are different from the number. Some people do not register. In fact, we have a young couple in our LifeGroup right now where for the first three weeks they came to the church several years ago, they didn’t want to fill out our form. They’ve been to churches where they’ve been bombarded. They were afraid we’re going to call. I’m guessing it was probably 100 families or so that filled out first time — there were multiple pages of first-time guests.

Patrick: In general, what is your church’s follow-up process with those folks?

Pastor BJ: If you’re a first-time guest, you’ll get either a handwritten note from me or one of the pastors. Sometimes when it’s like Easter, because there are so many, I can’t write a personal note to every one of them. So we’ll prepare a printed note, but then I’ll hand sign everyone of them, and I’ll think about who they are.

Every single guest is given a call within the week by a pastor. Primarily, it’s not anything other than, “Hey, we’re glad that you’re here. If you have any questions or anything that we can answer for you, or if there’s any way we can pray for you …” That’s pretty much it. And then, based on their response, we’d go from there. If they don’t really want to talk, that’s fine. If they want to talk, then we’ll talk and start a conversation. In that conversation, we usually find out things we didn’t know, like if they had children or a particular need. If they want to talk to one of the pastors, then we’ll give them email addresses or numbers, or if they want us to call back, we will.

We’re not just going to show up at your house. The way I grew up, people would show up. We just tell them, “Hey, we’re thrilled you’re here. Nobody’s going to show up at your house uninvited. We just like to get to know you.” We’re very intentional about trying to build some relationships; and in this culture, we build them based on trust. We don’t push. We’re here, we’re relatable; we’re not pushing ourselves on you. We definitely want to have a conversation to build a relationship.

Patrick: I think there will be some churches that will read this and say, “I’m just too scared that people will be put off by us even calling them.” What percentage of the time are people negative about the fact that you’re calling them?

Pastor BJ: I’d say there’s a small percentage. I moved here from The Woodlands, down near Houston, and so being a metropolitan area, you may have more of that. We live in a fairly conservative, rural setting. People are pretty friendly, by and large, and they’re not too put out. We don’t try to call them when they’d be having dinner, late at night or early in the morning. We usually call in the middle of the day. If they do answer, sometimes they’re a little guarded, but we just say, “Hey, we just want to let you know we enjoy having you here. If you have any questions, I’m just here to answer.” If they don’t have any, we say, “God bless you, and we hope you’ll come again.” You let it go from there. I think that kind of diffuses a little of that tension.

There are some people who just don’t answer, or they don’t give us their phone numbers. So if they give their information, we feel like we have the freedom to call. I do say that in the note that I send out to our first-time guests. I say, “One of our pastors will try to contact you during the week,” so they know that’s coming. We’ve not had any major push back … the couple that’s in our LifeGroup, the young couple in their 20s, the man did not fill out a slip for weeks because he was afraid somebody would call. Then we did an interview with him later (Michael Ramirez is one of our pastors that called him), and I asked, “Well, how did he respond?” He said on the follow-up that when he picked up the phone, he was saying “oh no” in his mind. But he was put at ease real quick because Pastor Michael wasn’t pushing anything. He just said, “Hey, man, it’s great to have you. Do you have any questions? And can we he help you in any way?” And he said he got shocked. I think it gets diffused pretty quickly.

Patrick: I think the thing that people think about is when you get that annoying sales call right before dinner, and it’s from the guy that wants to sell you a magazine or a vacuum cleaner or what have you, and the only thing that that guy is interested in is making a sale. But if you call with that person in mind rather than your own needs as a church, then I think you’re going to come off fine and people are not going to be threatened by that.

Pastor BJ: Yes, I think so.

Patrick: Pastor BJ, we have a question from John Tang, “Are there less threatening ways to contact newcomers? Maybe using digital?” You already did cover one of those issues, saying that you guys write a letter to them and tell them that you’re going to contact them … that somebody’s going to be calling them, so you set up that phone call, so that’s good.

Pastor BJ: Another action point for us is we have a thing called Next. It’s where we invite people after the service, “If you have any interest or have some questions or maybe want to know what your next step is, we’re here.” They’re free to come by and stop by, meet some pastors, and they can ask what their next steps are. We’re always evaluating that. They can always contact us in a digital manner. For us, in our culture right now, the phone calls still work. I would say — I’m just going to guess, because I don’t know — I would say we probably don’t make more than 50% … a lot of messages are left. Not a ton of people answer. I’m the same way. When I get home at night and the phone rings, I typically don’t answer. If it’s an emergency, they’re going to leave me a message and I will definitely get back. I think people today, if they don’t answer, they’ll wait to see who it’s from and if they want to call back, they will. We get a lot of answering machines or voice mails, and then we leave a message and go on from there.

Training

Patrick: Is there something that you guys do specifically to train your members on being welcoming to people?

Pastor BJ: Absolutely. We didn’t really do well with this on Easter because we were flooded with people. We have orientation for our greeters, for our parking lot greeters, for our ushers, for our first-time guest greeters — we have a variety of different greeters at different stations. Our goal is for every person to be touched, to receive a hello or a glad you’re here, or a handshake a minimum of three times before they ever get into the service or before they get their kids to wherever their kids need to go. That’s intentional, so we talk about that on a regular basis as a whole church. We just keep that before our people. We have some cue words that we use. If you hear this in a conversation, it’s an opportunity to respond and invite them to Grace.

Community Involvement

(Photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship)

(Photo courtesy of Grace Fellowship)

We’re also very involved in the community itself, in community projects. Constantly telling people, “We need to be about the community, not always thinking they need to be about who we are.” In other words, we want them to feel like they belong, and so we’re very vested in the community. We do a lot of community service, and we contribute to a lot of community causes. We want them to know that we’re here to help and to be a part of what’s going on in our community. So we kind of keep that before our church. Because of our age at this point now, it’s really easy to get inward focused, and so it’s a constant battle to remind our people that we can never do that. We don’t exist for the people who are here; we exist for the people who are not yet here.

For the greeters, there’s a specific training. Make sure you’re a people person and you like people, and you can shake hands and say “Hi” and ask somebody how they are. We need to do a better job, I think. We need to do a better job of connecting with people beforehand and then that same guest being connected with a greeter after the service. We’re looking at that. We were going to establish a green room, a kind of a location where if you came as a guest, you could come back to that afterwards and that person that greeted you would be there. We don’t have to have a green room to do that, but it’s something we want to do. We’re always looking for ways to improve and learn from somebody else. We’re still learning. We’re still trying to figure this thing out. But we do have that process in place.

Patrick: Awesome. Pastor BJ, this has been great. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. And I’ll let you get back to planning your worship for this Sunday.

Pastor BJ: Thanks so much, man. Appreciate it very much.

Patrick: God bless you!

Grace Fellowship Church Takeaways:

Tips for being welcoming on Easter when attendance doubles, and every Sunday.

Easter goals:

  • Reach people who are un-churched or de-churched or never been to church.
  • Primarily, lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus, and help them take the next step toward Jesus, regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey.
  • Have visitors hear the gospel, be engaged enough to want to take the next step, ask a question or build a relationship.

Reaching first-time visitors:

  • Have a process in place.
  • Connect with people before the service, and connect again after the service.
  • Printed program should contained information that pertains to a first-time guest.
  • Make first-time guests feel welcome in an authentic way.
  • Make them feel like the church appreciates that they came.
  • Let them know that you are interested in them.
  • Have a variety of connection points depending on their stage of life: have children, empty-nesters, single, married, etc.

Communications:

  • Only announce things that would catch the attention of a first-timer.
  • Remind everyone that most announcements are on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and the website.
  • Be sure website has ongoing events as well as upcoming events.
  • Announce one or two things that relate to everyone coming, including first-timers.
  • Have email newsletter.

Members:

  • For Easter, encouraged regular attenders, members and volunteers to attend their Saturday night service to make room for guests on Sunday, which also enabled these members to return on Sunday and serve as greeters to welcome guests.
  • Do not be inward focused.

Follow-up with first-timers:

  • Have first-time guests register (not all will).
  • Send first-time guests a handwritten note (if address provided). For Easter, Grace Fellowship created a printed note, but pastor hand signed each.
  • Say in note that a pastor will try to call during the week.
  • Have pastor call guests the week after visiting (if phone number provided).
    • “Hey, we’re glad that you came.”
    • “Do you have any questions?”
    • “Is there any way we can pray for you?”
    • Follow up on their responses … have a conversation.
  • Do not just show up at someone’s house. Don’t be pushy.
  • Be authentic. Be intentional. Build a relationship.

Other steps:

  • Invite people who are interested to come by after the service, meet pastors, get questions answered, find the next step in their journey with Jesus.
  • Train members to be welcoming:
  • Have a variety of different greeters at different stations.
  • Have orientation for greeters.
  • Have orientation for parking lot greeters.
  • Have orientation for ushers.
  • Have orientation for first-time guest greeters.

Goal:

  • For every person to be touched, to receive a hello or glad you’re here, or a handshake a minimum of three times before they get to the service or get their kids to wherever the kids need to go.

Be involved in the community.

  • Participate in community projects.
  • Be about the community, not thinking about who we are.
  • Be vested in the community.
  • Do community service.
  • Contribute to community causes.

Don’t exist for the people who are already at the church; exist for the people who are not yet here.


My name is Patrick Steil, and I’m the owner of ChurchBuzz. My wife and I started ChurchBuzz about six years ago. We’ve actually been in business for ourselves more than 21 years now. We started ChurchBuzz with the idea of focusing on helping churches with the technology behind their websites. So that has doing into a whole lot of different things to help churches optimize their websites.

We have six children — six boys total. The oldest four are now in college or working, and our two youngest are 9 and 11. We knew that this was going to be a time in our lives when if we were going to make some big changes, it would be the time to do it. We initially talked about moving. Then we finally came up with this grand idea to spend a year on the road, traveling around in an RV, with the two young boys with us. So that’s what we’ve been doing since August 2015.

Once we really got serious about traveling in an RV, I had this idea: “Every Sunday we’re out, let’s go visit a new church and let’s be first-time visitors.” So we’ve been doing that. If you go to ChurchBuzz.org, you’ll see a bunch of blog posts and a couple of videos on our Facebook page. I hope to get all this material on our website and also on our YouTube channel as well.

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