I was recently walking through one of those two-acre, we-have-everything-you-will-ever-need-plus-ten-thousand-things-you-won’t, megaplex type stores. Strolling down the endless aisles of shiny trinkets, I found myself thinking about all of the processes and management that goes into creating a place for me to get dog food, a pair of jeans, and new tires for my truck. The neighborhood big box is an example of a marvel of logistics. Even with all the systems that have been put in place, the store owners know that a certain percentage of their merchandise will be lost, stolen, or broken.

In retail, this is known as shrinkage. Of course, the owners want the shrinkage to be as low as possible, but there is also an acceptable loss that they are willing to concede. The total shrink percentage of the retail industry in the United States is 1.52% of sales according to a University of Florida study. Shrinkage is so acceptable that it is a common accounting term used to write off the losses.

Much like a shop, our local church has shrinkage. Each week we have many visitors walk though our doors. What percentage of them fall through the cracks? How many of those people never visit again? The difference is that writing off a pack of gum that wasn’t paid for does not have the eternal consequences that allowing visitors at your church to slip away unnoticed does. What is our acceptable loss percentage? How many are we ok with writing off?

If that number is zero—and I believe it is!—then your connections process is one of the most important processes in your ministry. You can’t afford to leave it up to chance. You need an intentional philosophy and process about how you go about connecting people to your church, and you need tools to support it.

Here are three practical principles of connecting and retaining church attenders:

1) Greeting and followup go hand in hand.

The reason connections is so important is always people, first and foremost. It’s not about attendance numbers or giving records, and we all know that. It’s about connecting real people with real people and creating community. But the best way to show people that you care about them is by knowing them. Everyone wants to be known, and collecting and recording what we know about the people who walk through our doors communicates that we care. Greeters are essential for making people feel welcomed when they walk through the doors, but the presence of greeters doesn’t negate the need for connection cards. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re forgotten when service is over. Follow up with guests; thank them for visiting and invite them back.

2) Technology helps you implement a process toward a goal.

Getting someone to come back to your church a second Sunday is a start. Where’s the end? What is your ultimate goal? Is it to see someone plugged into a small group? How about serving in a ministry that connects with their gifts and passions? Whatever the goal of connections is at your church, at the end of the day, it’s about people’s spiritual growth … and spiritual growth doesn’t happen by accident. You need a process. Start by defining your goals and the in-between steps people can take to get there. Then look for ways you can invite people to take those steps. Don’t leave anything nebulous and ill-defined; if you’re not sure how someone would take the next step in getting connected, your visitors certainly don’t know! Define your process and always make the next steps clear and simple. Technology can be a great help in this, enabling you to track individuals’ history and engagement and see just who is and isn’t taking steps toward deeper connection.

3) The need to connect people never ends.

The truth is, even when someone has gotten to the end goal you defined for your connections process, it isn’t over. People can disappear suddenly or start drifting away gradually … and in either case, you may not see the signs of disengagement until it’s too late — unless you’re still tracking what you know about them. If someone has been giving faithfully for two years, and suddenly stops, it’s a sign — perhaps they’re distancing themselves, or perhaps they’re going through a rough time financially. In either case you can’t reach out to them if you don’t know. And the people who’ve gone through your process aren’t the only moving parts you need to keep watching — so is your process itself. Tracking data about individuals helps you not only see what’s going on in their lives for you to minister to them, but also spot trends in the overall connections process of your church. The numbers will tell you what is and isn’t working so you can iterate on and improve your process. It’s vital that you take the time to check in on and maintain both your connections process and your relationships with the people who have been through that process.

We all want to create a place where no one feels unwelcome or invisible, where no one is just forgotten in the busyness of life and ministry. It takes solid practices and smart use of technology to come alongside that vision and make it a reality.

How are you ensuring that people don’t slip through the cracks?