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Kent Jacobs on Demystifying Church Growth in a Culture Where Churches Don’t Grow

Kent Jacobs on Demystifying Church Growth in a Culture Where Churches Don’t Grow

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kent_jacobs_podcastThanks so much for spending some of your day with us at the unSeminary podcast. Today we have a great guest with us, Kent Jacobs of Epic Church.

Epic Church started in 2008 and is experiencing tremendous growth in Philadelphia. In the northeast part of the country, most people either have no church background or else follow a pretty traditional church experience. Epic Church is a multi-site church that is different from the usual church experience in the northeast. They are multi-cultural, reflecting the makeup of the city, and they always include a practical application as part of their services, which means giving an action step to lead their congregation into applying what they’ve just learned.

The name Epic stands for Every Person In the City and Kent is with us today to talk about that mission to make disciples in this urban center.

  • Strategy and process. // A lot of what Epic does is as Kent describes “five loaves and two fish.” They simply go out and do their work, providing what people need when they need it. But there is also a lot of strategy, process and methodology. When a church is experiencing growth, church leaders tend to be less likely to continually improve their strategies for reaching the lost. But if there is a plateau or even a decline in attendance, they are more motivated to examine these processes. What is not working? What can be done to attract those individuals and new ones back to the church? As Kent explains, some of the mystery of church growth can be removed if we look at the basic processes.
  • Look at your back and front doors. // You need to take a good look at your back door and figure out how to retain who God’s already brought, but you also need to take a look at your front door. Do everything you can to create an inviting culture that attracts people into community. Someone once told Kent that church growth is directly related to the number of first time guests. The more you create an invitational culture and are intentional about interacting with first time guests, the more likely you’ll be to retain some of those people. As Kent notes: “The point of the church is the great commission…we want to make disciples who make disciples, but that all starts by someone attending.” Ask what are the church’s strategies around getting new people through the front door.
  • Connect with guests and regular attendees. // Epic uses connection cards to connect with everyone, not just the first time guests. They have deliberately set time aside during the service when they ask everyone to fill out the connection card. Here people can let the church know where they need prayer, as well as what is the next step they are taking. Connection cards promote engagement, help the staff to connect with people, and demonstrate that the church cares. Intentionally making the connection cards part of the service, instead of something mentioned in passing at the end, encourages everyone to participate in filling them out.
  • Work with the tools you have to invite people. // A lot of churches use business cards that tell a little about the church and where they’re located. Epic has those too, but they also use social media to create a digital version of the invite. One of the action steps on the back of the connection card is to invite a friend to church the next week. This is something that is encouraged every week, and every week the church gives people an invite card to use. The invite cards look the same all year, except when there is a specific event the church wants to emphasize and encourage people to attend. This card, whether in print or online, coupled with someone encouraging their friend to attend Epic Church, is a huge step in helping new people feel welcome and connecting them with the church.

You can learn more about Epic Church at their website epic.church and take a look at their invite cards here.

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Episode Highlights

00:32 // Rich introduces Kent Jacobs and welcomes him to the church.

01:09 // Kent introduces us to Epic Church.

02:40 // Kent explains the church’s vision.

05:15 // Kent talks about Epic’s growth.

09:35 // Rich and Kent discuss Connection Cards.

11:19 // Kent talks about strategy and tools they use to support the church’s growth.

13:27 // Rich and Kent discuss the power of the Invite Card.

14:50 // Rich and Kent discuss the impact of ‘big days’ like Epic Day.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Notability

Ministries Following // Northpoint, Liquid Church New Jersey, NewSpring, Elevation

Influential Book // The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business by Patrick Lencioni

Inspiring Leader // Bill Hybels

What does he do for fun // Family, fishing.

Contact // epic.church

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich the host here and you know, every week we try to gather together great experts, people from various churches that are doing some great things and today I’m super excited that you’re listening in because today we’ve got Kent Jacobs from Epic Church. This is a great church, you’re going to want to hear from, really a church that’s experienced some incredible growth in a part of the country that we don’t normally think of as a place where fast growing churches come from. So Kent, thanks so much for being on the show today.

Kent – Yeah man, thrilled to be here with you, excited to be able to chat a little bit.

Rich – Nice to hang out again for sure. The question I had, why don’t you start with just telling us a bit about Epic, tell us about the church, if people were to show up this weekend what would they experience and give us kind of the story of what’s happened in the last few years.

Kent – Yeah, so the church started in 2008. We are in Philadelphia, so the north east part of the country and here in this part of the country people either usually have no church background, or if they do it’s pretty traditional, Catholic, something like that.

So if someone were to walk into church at one of our locations, we’re a multisite church in the city, they would experience… probably the best way to describe it would be something different, different from what they’ve known, different from what they’ve experience or thought a church would be like.

Some of the differences are, we [Inaudible 00:01:41] young professionals, young adults, young families, so that can be different. We’re very multicultural as a church and in a lot of ways it’s just a reflection of the city, but that’s different in church for sure. We teach the application, there’s always some type of ‘to do’ or action step, “What are you going to do with what you’ve just heard?” Let’s not just be hearers, but let’s be doers.

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – So that can be a little different that’s applicable. Then probably the biggest thing though is I think there’s this general sense that we’re doing something big together. I love that we just get to invite more and more people on our mission, you know, we believe that every person matters and we want Epic to be a place where anyone can walk through the doors and discover Jesus and the difference he can make in your life. So we’re trying to do that together, every person in the city.

Rich – Yeah so tell me about that, tell me about the name Epic, every person in the city. Do you real mean every person? Come on, that’s crazy, that’s a crazy mission.

Kent – Yeah I hear someone say that you’ll go far chasing… what did they say, “You’ll go far chasing something you know you can’t reach then go after something you know you can attain.” So we know that we as a church can’t reach every person in the city, it’s impossible, but we can be part of reaching every person in the city and I think that includes all the other churches doing everything they can as well.

So we’re going after that and where the name came from it’s fun. We were initially looking for a name for the church, I was walking around downtown and asking people, “Hey if there was a new church what do you think would be a good name?” And I had this list of names and one of them was Oasis, and we were like, “Man, how about that, it’s a place where people grow in and all refreshed,” that type of a thing, but it turns out there’s a gentleman’s club in Philly called Oasis.

Rich – Oh no.

Kent – So everybody was like, “No, just not that.”

Rich – Yeah, that’s funny. Maybe people would be confused.

Kent – But the name EPIC stands for every person in the city.

Rich – Right.

Kent – Really it just goes back to our vision; see every person in the city and make Jesus the forgiver and leader of their life. So that’s where it came from.

Rich – Well why don’t we kind of jump in and break apart how it is that you’re taking steps towards that mission of every person in the city getting a chance to kind of connect with them? Your church has seen some incredible growth over these last few years, you’re a humble guy, I know you don’t want to just focus on the number, but give us a sense of some of that, kind of what does that growth curve look like in the last few years?

Kent – Yeah, we started in 2008, so we’ll be 8 years old in October. We’re excited about celebrating our birthday and the church is about 1500 people across 4 locations now.

Rich – That’s so good.

Kent – We’re a multisite but we’re not mega multisite, we’re like small multisite, I don’t know what it’s called.

Rich – It’s good.

Kent – It’s a reflection of trying to do the best we can to go further faster in the context of the city.

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – That’s just kind of how it played out, how it’s played out for us.

Rich – Well that’s interesting, to highlight for people who are listening, that’s rare, like a church of that size, in a city, that most church and you know this, that most churches are in decline, all of those statistics, those kind of depressing statistics out there about how bad the church is doing are only worse within urban context, they only look more negative for the most part, but I love that Epic is really pushing that, going in the opposite direction. What is it that you think God has used to see some of that take place and to see your ability to reach so many people?

Kent – Yeah, you know, a lot of us have been fortunate and to some degree it’s been five loaves, two fish, nothing but what we do is sexy, it just kind of, “Here we go, we’re going to go and do it,” try and reach people and choose people to Jesus. But there’s also a part of it that just comes down to like strategy and process and all of that kind of stuff and I think that’s in interesting thing because church growth, a lot of times can be so mystifying and it’s like this mystical thing like how do you grab it? You grab it, you’ve got to hold onto it and that type of thing and when things are like up and to the right and you’ve experienced rapid growth, you’ve got to be careful because it’s in those moments you can think, “Man, this is the next creative awakening,” like it’s happening right now.

Rich – Yes.

Kent – But then when things slow a bit you can think, “Well, has God left us. Are we doing anything right? What’s the deal here?” But I think we can take some of the mystery away if we look at some basic processes in approaching that.

So I think to some degree, sometimes it’s just a growth barrier deal, you’ve just got to look at where you’re at and there’s lot of [Inaudible 00:06:20] online, lots of people have written a lot of things about that. So you just need to change some of your strategy or change some of your methods or some of your processes.

Sometimes it’s about closing your backdoor and writing up a big one. As it relates to money I heard someone say that the fastest way to find new money is to stop spending everything you have.

Rich – True.

Kent – So for church growth I think sometimes the fastest way to keep moving in a growing direction is to look at where you’re losing people out of your backdoor and figure out what you need to close that back door, so you can retain what God’s already brought, be more efficient with who God brings, that type of thing.

But I think another way of looking at is looking at your front door and I think a big [Inaudible 00:07:09] to church growth can be making sure that you’re doing everything you can to create an inviting culture.

So someone told me this one time, they said that church growth is directly related to your number of first time guests, the number of first time guests who come through your doors. So if you take that thinking and start to kind of play that out, essentially it comes down to, alright, if I want the church, over the next year, for example say I want the church to grow by a hundred people and our retention rate is 10%, we retain 10% of people who walk through our doors and I want the church to grow by a hundred people then how many new people do I need to have coming through the doors in order to grow by a hundred people over the next year and the answer is a thousand, right?

Rich – Right.

Kent – So it’s just math and not that I’m saying church growth is just math, but…

Rich – That’ll be the tweet, ‘church growth, just math’.

Kent – Church growth just math, boom!

Rich – Yeah, yeah.

Kent – No, that’s not the case. But to some degree there is some math to it.

Rich – Yes.

Kent – The point of the church is the great commission. The point of the church is, we want to make disciples who make disciples but that all starts by someone attending.

Rich – Yes.

Kent – They’ve got to come in the first place. I think that’s where you’ve got to ask yourself, “What are my strategies around getting new people through the door?”

Rich – Yeah I love that and first of all I just want to underline that, that I think there are folks that are maybe listening in and they’re thinking, “Man, how do I get my church growing?” and they may not even be aware, they don’t even know how many first time guests come to their church, so it’s hard for them to even wrestle, to understand, “Okay, well how many of those are staying and then how are we going to grow from there?” Apart of this is being a good steward of what is already coming, so some of that is getting a sense of, what does your sticky rate look like? It is 10%? If you saw a hundred people come your church last year and 50 of them stayed, I can tell you things are going amazing at your church.

Kent – Yeah.

Rich – That’s amazing, right? It’s probably not that, it’s probably closer to what you’re saying, that kind of 10 to 1, it might even be 20 to 1, we see that, that’s pretty typical for churches that wrestle through that.

Now how at Epic are you tracking those two sides of the equation. So number of first time guests and then how many of them are sticking, or what does that look like for growth?

Kent – Yeah, so we do a couple of things. One is, we use a Connection Card every week and we encourage everybody to fill it out, it’s not just a thing that’s in there like, “Okay, if you’re a first time guest, grab this thing, it’s just you, everybody pulls a thing out and everybody fills up the front and then on the back we have our next step, so an application, it’s, “Okay, how can we pray for you this week and what’s your next step?” all that kind of stuff. So it’s like a big group activity, every single week, when we go through our Connection…

Rich – Do you actually pause the service and fill it out, like do you actually say, “This is the moment now when we’re all going to do that.”

Kent – We’re all going to do it and we pray and we’re saying, “Hey, fill out your Connection Card.”

Rich – Do you have ‘fill out the Connection Card music’ you know, the whole thing?

Kent – Connection Card music, the whole deal.

Rich – That’s important. Just to underline that, I think there are a lot of church leaders who try to do the Connection Card thing and they just mention it at the end of the service, they’re like, “Oh yeah, hey we’ve got this thing, if you could fill it out…” No one’s going to do that, right?

Kent – Nobody fills it out.

Rich – Yeah, why is that? Because you’re not stopping and pausing and taking some time in the service to actually making it a part of the experience, a bit deal for sure.

Kent – Yeah with our location pastors, those Connection Cards are like gold.

Rich – Yes.

Kent – People are giving you information, they’re saying, “This is how you can pray for me. This is my first time here or my second time here, I’m a returning guest…”

Rich – Yes.

Kent – What we can then do with it and on so many different levels, it just promotes engagement, connects with people, shows that we really care and love them and are welcoming. It’s huge, it’s an invaluable tool I think if you use it correctly.

Rich – Well let’s talks about some of the strategies. What are you doing to open up that front door, what does that look like for Epic?

Kent – Yeah. Part of creating an inviting culture for us is kind of having that out in the forefront, like even our name Epic, it’s every person in the city. Like God’s heart beats fastest for those that he doesn’t know yet, or don’t know him yet.

Rich – Right.

Kent – Who don’t know him yet. So we want our church to feel that, to know that, to hear that, you know? We’ve heard from another place, “Are you just about the numbers?” “Yeah we’re just about numbers in that every number has a name, every name has a story and every story matters to God.” We say things like that and that’s part of our DNA, is that people matter and every person matters. So you want every person to be able to come to a place like this and discover Jesus.

You give people tools, one is a basic… like an invite card.

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – Just like a business card, I’m sure you’ve seen that type of thing before, with the information of the church, just so somebody can use it as a tool to say, “Hey, are you coming to church with me this weekend?” That type of a deal. Now we’re toying about with more of a digital version of that, because the business card is so 1980s, I think.

Rich – Right, yeah.

Kent – But if we can do some type of digital invite and leverage social media in that way and we do it every single week.

Rich – Right.

Kent – Every single week one of our next steps on the back of the card is our, ‘invite a friend to church next week’.

Rich – Okay.

Kent – Every week and every week we say it and every week we get people with Invite Cards.

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – Every week.

Rich – Okay, again I want to underline this here people. So you’re telling me, power of the Invite Card, how often are those changed, are they always the same, what do they say on them? Again this is a strategy, I’ve seen in our context that works consistently, it’s one of those things that if you talk to fast growing churches…

I was talking to a guy that was in the low single digits, one of the fastest growing churches in the country, I said, “What did you do the year you ended up on that list?” And he said, “Listen, it was very simple, we gave everyone an Invite Card every service.” I was like, “What? You’re kidding me.” No, no, as crazy and as simple as it is, there is something to giving people that physical or having a digital equivalent.

So kind of talk us through those cards, what do they look like, how often do they change, that sort of thing?

Kent – Yeah, so they’re the same most of the year except for whenever we have some special events coming up, so we’ll change it up, so tied to the event to give a specific invite for that particular thing. So we’ll change it for Easter, we’ll change it for something we call Epic Day, we’ll probably talk about that in just a second.

Rich – Yeah, totally.

Kent – And we encourage people to use it and use it around that time. For Christmas we do the same type of thing. But on the card is just the basic information for the church. It’s a good piece of marketing, it’s not done poorly, it’s done well, it looks good, it represents the church well and the back of the card just has like a short little paragraph about, kind of dispelling some of the ideas that people have about church. I think it starts with something like, “Hey there’s a lot of [Inaudible 00:14:09] out there about what church is and we’re working hard to try and change some of that and we’d like you to come and be with us, wear your jeans, and we’re going to have a good time together.” That type of thing. That couple with somebody saying, “You’ve got to come to my church,” it’s something different.

Rich – Yes, it’s huge.

Kent – Would you give us a copy of that, a digital copy so we could see those cards? We’re going to put it in the show notes, that would be great, people could take a look and see.

Kent – Yeah man.

Rich – Yeah that would be really good. You passed over it, I want to talk about Epic Day, because when I heard about this, this was one of those like lean forward, “They do what?” I’d love to hear about Epic Day, tell us about that. This is a big day strategy that you’re employing at your church.

Kent – It is, it is essentially a big day. So one of the questions you have to ask as you’re creating and inviting culture is, “What events on your calendar do you have that promote inviting?” We say every Sunday is the best Sunday to invite somebody to church and then we throw in, “But really, this one is.”

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – So Epic Day, honestly we just kind of made up our own holiday.

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – Essentially where it came from is, we love Easter, Easter is great, a big day, people invite to Easter, people come back to church on Easter. The challenge with Easter though is that it comes on the front of summer.

Rich – Yes.

Kent – So all of those new guests, those first time people, second time people, once in a while people who show up, you have an opportunity to connect with them but then you’re right into summer and people are off with their plans or whatever it is.

Rich – Yes.

Kent – So we played around with the idea of like, “Okay, what if Easter was on the front side of a growth season and we know the growth seasons for our churches are beginning of the fall, and also the beginning of spring. So winter, spring. So we created these big days and strategically placed them at those times, knowing that we would then have several weeks after that to really connect and try to bring people into the life of the church.

So Epic Day, like I said, it’s our own holiday. That’s the day that we say, “Hey, if you call Epic your church home, you need to be here on that day.” There’s an internal marketing component to that where we get everybody who part of our church to be there at the same time, but then also there’s the external part where we’re saying, “We want you to make it an Epic Day for somebody else.”

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – Like, “We want you to bring your family, your friends, you co-worker,” that type of thing. And we also tell them, we say, “Hey, you know that message that you hear?” and you’re like, “Gosh, if I didn’t know you were going to say that, then I would have brought so and so, or I would have brought so and so.”

Rich – Yeah.

Kent – So we tell them, “Hey, on that day we’re going to teach that message.” Kind of like, “I’m telling you now so you have no excuses.”

Rich – Yes.

Kent – “So bring them on that day.” We usually do some type of swag. I tell you what, I don’t know what it is about t-shirts.

Rich – It’s so true, I know where you’re going.

Kent – Something about t-shirts. People will knock over small children just seeking a t-shirt.

Rich – So true.

Kent – But it’s cool too because it creates a sense of unity and identity and, “Hey, we’re all part of this big team together.” So we’ll do a t-shirt or we’ll do some other type of swag, sunglasses or something like that, so it says like ‘For Philly’ or something like that on it. It’s just a big day, we celebrate, we have a lot of fun and they’ve been great, I think, growth catalysts for us throughout the year.

Rich – Yeah, a couple of things to pull apart there. I think one of the things about big days like Epic Day or Easter or Christmas, don’t ignore the fact that a part of this is getting people who are on the fringe of your church, who maybe, even if you were to ask them what church they do to, they may say, “I go to Epic,” but you know and I know they don’t show up all the time.

Kent – Yeah.

Rich – You know and I know they’re just not there all the time. So creating an excuse to call of those people back in, kind of like a recall, it’s like, “Hey you need to be here for that day,” that is a part of this equation, that’s a part of growing your church and that’s a part of closing the back door, it’s a part of creating a great experience.

There’s something around, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, there’s a big part of creating and inviting culture, typically people who are on the fringe, they actually have the most number of relationships, active relationships, that they could use to invite to come into the church and there’s this weird thing that happens, as you’re journeying with the church longer, over time, your social network gets filled with people from the church, which is really positive, which is wonderful, that’s great, but what it can do is actually hamper your ability to invite people to come in, because you’re like, “Everybody I know is in my small groups where I serve and I’ve got those four people at work and I’ve invited them all and they’re not coming,” so really drawing in some of those fringe people for sure.

Then I think the whole idea, the swag thing, the t-shirt thing. I feel like I’ve so that so many times in unSeminary, but it’s very true. There is something about, particularly t-shirts, there’s a disproportionate value to them, the cost, what they actually cost versus what people think… how much they’re valued, is way disproportionate. So people will do crazy things for t-shirts, it’s amazing.

Kent – Yeah.

Rich – It’s great.

Kent – Something you said made me think about this. This lady walked up to me and she literally, she has this crowd of people behind her and she says, “Hey Kent, this is my row.” Like she brought a row.

Rich – That’s great.

Kent – But you know, it was an Epic Day thing, it was like, “This is my row.”

Rich – Absolutely.

Ken – So many stories and on those Epic Days, I think what’s really important too, or really as much as possible, part of creative and inviting culture is reminding people that when they invite, that’s like one of the most spiritual things they do in a whole week.

Rich – Yes, yes.

Ken – That God has tapped them on the shoulder and has invited them to be part of what he’s doing in this city or in that part of the world in a really special way, you know, that possibly no one else could have done because of that relationships.

So when someone comes to Epic, we don’t take that lightly, we want to make sure that we’re celebrating life change, you know? So we’re telling stories of life change and showing stuff on video about what God has done. There’s something about seeing that that makes you go, “I want that for me. I want that for everybody I know.” That helps to kind of build and create that culture.

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