Over the past few months, I’ve spent several days going to Home Depot to purchase items to repair my fence, such as 2 x 4’s, screws, and fence pickets. Between energetic dogs and windy weather, my fence, which is about 20 years old and previously not well maintained, has been requiring a lot of my attention. Yet for all the time I’ve spent at Home Depot, I hate going there. It’s not that I dislike home repair or home improvement stores as a whole, I just despise Home Depot because it seems like each time I go, I spend at least half the time wandering the aisles, looking endlessly for the few items I actually need.
For instance, last Monday I went there to buy a fence post reinforcement, as I have several posts which are leaning and quite wobbly. I first started in the hardware section and walked through each aisle to no avail, then I went over to the lumber section, thinking perhaps what I needed was by the fence lumber. Next I went to the fencing section, seeing several sorts of fencing options, but still not what I needed. Defeated, I wandered to the front of the store and flagged down an associate after seeing a few pass me by. I explained what I needed and showed her a picture on my phone from the Home Depot website—assuring me this product was in stock. The associate pulled out some electronic gizmo and searched to no avail. She couldn’t find it. Finally, she found another associate, asked him where this item was, and he led us to the item in question.
Of course, when I checked out, the cashier asked me, “Did you find you needed today?” What am I really supposed to say to that!? I’m not a fan of big box stores.
In contrast, there is Ace Hardware. As soon as I walk in the door someone audibly welcomes me, then someone else asks if I need help finding something. Then, if I turn down the initial offer, each time I encounter another associate, I am offered assistance yet again. I like going to Ace because it is, like their ads say, “the helpful place.” I like Ace so much I often tell people to go there for their own home improvement needs. I’m constantly telling my wife and her friends, “just go get it at Ace.” When was the last time you told a friend or neighbor about a positive customer service experience, whether it be great food or service at a restaurant, a car mechanic who went the extra mile to get your car fixed on time and on budget, or a sales associate who spent extra time to make sure you got the best deal or the exact product you wanted?
In the business world, this is what’s called a personal referral. It’s the most effective, productive way to build a business. Despite the billions of dollars spent on advertising, referral selling is far and away the most effective sales strategy. People who are personally referred to a business are far more likely to buy a product or service, with some suggesting the sales rate is at least 50% and sometimes as high as 70-90%. Considering that the costs of personal referrals are microscopic in comparison to the price of a full-fledged media advertising campaign, smart businesses do everything they can to maximize personal referrals or word-of-mouth advertising.
Now you might wonder, why am I talking so much about business this morning? The Church is most certainly not a business, at least in the most basic understanding of the word. Churches do not engage in commerce to make money. Churches exist, I believe, to change lives and create followers of Jesus—something we call “discipleship.” Church isn’t about making money or producing goods, and while lots of money in the bank or a lot of people in the building might be the sign of a healthy business, it’s not always true of a church. Yet while there are many differences between businesses and church, there are similarities. After all, both businesses and churches are trying reach people with a message. Churches do well to consider how some basic business principles might be applicable in the church world; for instance, the power of the personal referral.
This morning in our long, long reading from the book of John, we read the story of the woman at the well, the woman Jesus encounters during his trip through Samaria; this unknown woman who Jesus seemed to know actually quite well. After engaging in a lengthy conversation with Jesus about her personal relationship history and her own religious beliefs, the woman abruptly leaves after the disciples interrupt. She returns to her own city and tells the people about Jesus saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I had ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
There are three things that stand out to me from this woman’s testimony. One is that she simply told her friends and neighbors that she had an experience or encounter with Jesus that left a lasting impact on her, it changed her; he “told me everything I had ever done.” The second thing she did is she implied that this guy she met, Jesus, was somebody special. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” she said. She didn’t know who or exactly what he was, but she knew he was someone special. The third thing she did, and this is the most important, is she told her friends to come see for themselves; “Come and see” she said.
In the church world, we sometimes use the big, scary word known as “evangelism” to talk about sharing the story of Jesus with others. What often comes to mind is knocking on some stranger’s door, handing out religious pamphlets to strangers on the street, or asking a friend or acquaintance about the destiny of their soul after they die. These are all big, scary tasks—and I speak from experience, having done all of these things on multiple occasions in the past. While for the most extroverted among us these might be ho-hum and run-of-the mill, for the rest of us, even the thought of walking up to a stranger’s door and awaiting an answer sends chills up and down our spine! Thankfully, evangelism is easier and simpler than this!
I want us to think about “evangelism” or sharing the story of Jesus as simply being like a personal referral or word-of-mouth advertising. Most of us would have no problem telling a friend or neighbor about an amazing customer service experience we had at a local business, or an incredibly good meal we ate at a dining establishment, or a business that just had a “wow” factor and was clearly a special place to be. This is simply what the woman did—and this is really all we need to do too! Again, the three things she did, she told how her experience with Jesus changed her, she shared how he was special, and she invited others to come and see for themselves.
For us, word-of-mouth advertising for the church might be telling a friend about a great experience you had at this church, how the people are kind and welcoming, making you feel valued and appreciated each time you’re here, and how you’re so often challenged and inspired by the music and messages. It might be telling a neighbor how special this place is, how much we do for the community, how long we’ve been here, and how many people we impact whether it be through our food bank, our scouting ministry, or our other various community outreach endeavors such as our coat drive we’re engaging in this very week. And it might be simply inviting someone to come and see this place for themselves. Whether it’s one of these, or all three like the woman at the well, telling others about our church can be quite easy.
Beyond all the religious and spiritual reasons why we should do this, the most practical reason for doing so is that is just plain works! Experts say that 80% to 90% of people come to church because they were personally invited. And more so, about 66% of people say that a personal invitation would be effective in getting them to come to church, yet unfortunately among regular church goers, only 21% of people have recently invited someone to church. This is where we’ve got to think a little like a business; for like a business, an average church loses 10% of its participants a year. Therefore a church of our size has to bring in 12 new people a year just to maintain status quo. And, being that a healthy church averages 7% growth per year, we need to add at least 17 people per year. The good news is that our growth percentage over the last three years is about 35%, or about 12% each year—so we’re already doing a great job.
As we get closer to Easter Sunday, a time a lot of people are going to be looking for a place to go to church, how about engaging in some word-of-mouth advertising of our own, in just three easy steps. First, tell people about a good experience you’ve had at this church. Second, tell people what makes this church special. And Third, tell people that they should come see it for themselves. That’s it! Experts tell us that your personal referral is at least 20 x’s more effective than any other form of advertising! And we’re going to provide some tools in the coming weeks to make it easier, such as social media posts you can share and invitation cards to give to others. The other thing I’d like to do this morning, and this is a bit unorthodox, is I’d like to ask you to make a personal referral this morning. Business experts say that the biggest mistake of salespeople is not specifically asking for referrals. Two weeks ago we welcomed new members who shared why HCC is special to them, and we heard long term member share the same. We know this church is special, we know people have great experiences here, wouldn’t we then want others to benefit just as we have? Let’s invite them to come and see. Sharing your faith need not be complicated or intimidating, sometimes it’s as easy as saying, “come and see.”
 Gary L. McIntosh & Charles Arn, What Every Pastor Should Know (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 39.
 David Francis & Michael Kelley, One Hundred: Charting a Course Past 100 in Sunday School (Nashkville: Lifeway, 2016), 20.
 David Francis & Michael Kelley, One Hundred: Charting a Course Past 100 in Sunday School (Nashville: Lifeway, 2016), 52.
 Gary L. McIntosh & Charles Arn, What Every Pastor Should Know (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 40.