Generally, most people have poor results with correspondence courses. Because of this unfruitfulness, the Bible correspondence course, as a method of evangelism, is fast becoming a dying breed. Yet the method works fine. It is how we approach the method that gives poor results. I have worked extensively with correspondence courses over the last five years. The thoughts I will be sharing with you in this article are from my personal experience. I may state things strongly, but the stakes are too high to do otherwise. It is my hope that, through this article, I may revive interest in correspondence courses once again. I am asking you to give this method a second chance because it really works!
In 1986 I had about 150 enrollments and set up 27 Bible studies. That is one study for every six enrollments. In the past 15 years, the church in Lethbridge, Alberta has used correspondence courses several times, enrolling hundreds each time, but with relatively poor results. I say this so that you will not think that the successes I am reporting are the result of a unique local opportunity. Correspondence courses are not new to Lethbridge. What made all the difference the last time we ran the program was the follow-up techniques I will discuss in this article. I believe a secondary factor was the use of a four-lesson Bible correspondence course, called The Bible Course, which I wrote and tested locally.
If you use a Bible course with all the latest bells and whistles but do not use proper follow-up, it will be a failure. On the other hand, if you use a poorly designed correspondence course but use proper follow-up techniques, you will likely be successful. Of course, for the best possible results you will want to use a well designed course with proper follow-up. Follow-up takes time, energy, boldness, tact, and wisdom and help from the Lord, but follow-up is the critical key to success.
Remember, the primary purpose of a Bible course is not to teach them the gospel, but to salt their appetite for further study. A Bible course program stands or falls on the basis of getting personal Bible studies. Personal Bible studies include one-on-one studies, small group studies, and studies using filmstrips. I often hear of churches who have enrolled hundreds of students and spent thousands of dollars but have had very little to show for it. The main cause of poor results is misunderstanding the purposes of a Bible course and poor or misdirected follow-up methods.
Imagine that you hold in your hand an enrollment coupon someone mailed into you. What you hold is a prime opportunity! Perhaps only 1 in 500 people are interested in Bible study, and here one of them falls into your lap the easy way. Consider the hard way: How many doors, how many phone calls, how many hours of work would it take you to find that 1 in 500 who is interested in studying? But you have 50 or 100 of these enrollments and you do not realize the incredible value of that which comes so easy. So, you only follow-up on those who finish the course with a form letter and forget the rest, concluding that, if they were interested in Bible study, they would have completed the course. What a fatal misunderstanding!
A car salesman would give much for a list of 50 people interested in buying a car. He would not passively wait for them to come into the showroom. He would phone them right away. Unfortunately, the sons of this age are more shrewd toward their own kind [the lost] than the sons of light [are towards the lost] (Luke 16:8). We sit back and wait for enrollees to come into our showroom the church building. This must change. It's evangelism or die!
Now notice these facts. Of the 27 Bible studies I set up from correspondence course students in 1986, only 5 had completed the course. The other 22 never finished the course. Fifteen never even sent in the first lesson. Notice, over half never sent in the first lesson! What does that tell you? We not only need a change in follow-up methods but a change in attitudes as well. May the Lord forgive us for the tens of thousands of enrollees who never returned lesson one and we therefore judged them uninterested in spiritual things. Are they interested? Of course they are! They enrolled didn't they? What must they do for us to judge them interested ask to be baptized for the remission of sins? Are they deemed interested only when they visit our showroom? Obviously, other factors (see below) prevented them from returning lesson one.
The only way you are going to set up a Bible study is through personal contact by phone. Phoning is preferable because it saves time, allows you to weed out those who are the victim of a prank, gives you an instant picture of their spiritual interest, and is less confrontational than a personal visit but direct enough for you to set up a Bible study.
There are three situations when you should phone them: First, if a student takes more than one month to return any lesson. On the 32nd day I am on them like a hawk! Second, when students have sent in a least one lesson but have not finished the course. The third time is upon completion of the course.
Remember, no matter how many lessons or even courses they finish, until you talk to them personally, your chances of setting up a study are about nil. Rarely will a student ask you for a study, and the ones who do will try to convert you! Actually, I prefer that they never even send lesson one in; then I can personally contact them much sooner. This is because the main function of a Bible course is nothing more than a stepping stone to a personal Bible study. The only purpose of the two minute recorded messages is to get a name and number, which you get by offering a Bible course during every message. So too, the only reason you advertise a Bible course in the newspaper is to get their name and number. Then you wait for your first opportunity to contact them personally.
In fact, I always ask for their phone number right on the enrollment coupon or taped Bible messages. However, in those very few times that they do not volunteer their phone number, here are some ways to getting it. First, check the phone book. If unsuccessful, try to match the address under the same last name. Usually, the wife and children are listed under the man's first name. There may be 300 Smiths, but only one at the address on the enrollment coupon. City Directories are also useful for this. If this fails, and there are only a few listings under the surname, I will phone each one and ask for the person by first name. If they say wrong number, I say Oh, sorry, I must have dialed the wrong Rudd family. Do you know which of the Rudds in the book is Loreen's? Chances are that they're related! This method often works very well. As a last resort, check directory assistance. They may be new in town.
If I can't locate their phone number, I will personally visit them at their address. I will spend a few evenings a month visiting overdue enrollees. When I visit personally, I usually won't go in the house. I stay no longer than five minutes if I do. Always ask for their phone number when you visit so that next time you can call. If they won't give you the phone number at the door, they are not a seeker. Forget them. If they do, you have a good prospect. Now, do you understand why I always ask for their phone number on the enrollment coupon: I almost always get it. What a timesaver!
If I cannot find their phone number and they have a box number for an address or some other situation which does not permit me to visit them personally, only then will I write a reminder letter. Follow-up is hard work, but the results are proportionate.
I have phoned or personally visited almost every person who enrolled in the course. If you are getting more enrollments than you can personally follow-up on, scale down your advertising to a level you can maintain. I know of several churches who have 50 to 200 enrollments a month. It would take several full-time men to properly follow-up on that many. Quality, not quantity, is the key to success.
In order to efficiently keep track of enrollments, I created a 31-day file by gluing 31 standard file folders together. For example, when I get an enrollment on the 16th of the month, I write that date on the coupon and put it in the file marked 16. I take out any enrollment cards from last month in file 16 and phone them.
At the back of this 31-day file I add three extra file folders. The first is for those who turn out to be pranks. I call this file "Comedians". I have consistently found that 1 in 6 enrollments through a mail-in coupon and 1 in 3 enrollments through the two-minute recorded messages are pranks. The second extra file is for those who enrolled but are not really interested. I called this file Tire Kickers. The third file is called, Out of Towners. I usually refer out-of-town students to the nearest church. If there is no church within a reasonable distance, I will write them a reminder letter only.
I also have one master record book which contains every bit of information for each student who returned at least one lesson. When someone returns lesson one, I go through my 31-day file, pull out their enrollment coupon, and glue it to the back of a master record sheet. Each student has his own sheet.
In each lesson of the four-lesson correspondence course I wrote, I asked important information about the student, such as their age in lesson one. I request their salvation experience twice once before and once after they study the plan of salvation to detect changes in their thinking. I ask their church affiliation as well. I also record on the master sheet which key questions they missed so that I know their theological biases. If they gave any referrals or asked any questions, I record them. I also record dates of enrollment and when each lesson comes in. All this information is recorded on one master record sheet that I designed to be used with my course and it only takes about two minutes per student to grade and record all this information for each lesson. It is very efficient. Just before you phone them, review all the information on their record sheet and pinpoint in your mind their greatest point of resistance to studying with you. It really helps a lot.
I prefer manual to computerized record keeping because I believe it is much faster for anyone but a computer buff. However, using a computer word processor for generating personal form letters with each lesson you return to them is incredibly efficient and versatile.
Some think it is not proper to phone them or visit their home without any warning. What is the difference between this practice and random door-to-door or telephone soliciting? I have never given any forewarning when I do follow-up. Forget the etiquette or else you will be entangled in delays, cost, inefficiencies, and lost souls. Jesus often conducted himself contrary to social custom. (Woman at the well, John 4:7-9,27.) Jesus also said to compel them to come in (Luke 14:16-24). Of all the people I have phoned or visited, I can't remember anyone who gave me any indication of negative feelings for calling. Most of the time, they thank me for calling. If they do hang up or slam the door, what have you lost?
Every time you call, ask them for a one-on-one study. If you don't ask, you will never get a yes. So remember as you talk that this is your main purpose for calling. If they will not commit to a Bible study, bluntly ask them, Are you interested in continuing with the Bible course? How they answer will tell you much. Listen to, but never believe, any of their excuses. Chat with them a while, be friendly, find common ground, but in the end always ask for a study such as a Bible discussion group in the home, Jule Miller filmstrips, your own study sequence, etc. Be polite and sound enthusiastic but natural. Be positive and make Bible study sound fun. And be flexible to meet them on their terms day or night. Once you have interested them in a specific type of study, you need to arrange a specific time to actually get together. Use the alternate choice method. Ask, Are mornings, afternoons or evenings best for you ? They respond, evenings. Ask, Thursday or Saturday ? They respond, Saturday. Ask, 7 or 8 p.m. ? They respond, 7 p.m. Always give them two options. Then it is a choice between two study times rather than a choice between studying and not studying.
Generally, the standard practice of follow-up is to offer the student a second course upon completing the first one. This, in my opinion, is very wrong. Let me explain why. You have a student who just finished the course. You give him four options for continued study. They are Jule Miller filmstrips, individual home Bible study, home Bible discussion groups, and another correspondence course. Ninety-nine out of 100 will pick the course, and you will then be no closer to getting a personal Bible study than when they first enrolled. They will always pick the correspondence course when given a choice because that is the lowest commitment level of the options you gave them. And, that is the choice you don't want them to make. So don't offer another course! People don't like trying something different and unknown. They already know what to expect from a Bible course, and they don't want to venture out into something new. Offering a second or even third course is very common, yet you're probably just wasting your time. Only in very rare circumstances will I offer them another course. In the last lesson of my four-lesson course, I do not offer them another Bible course. I do offer them four continuing studies which require face-to-face contact. One in 3 who complete my course will check one of these continuing studies. Talk about falling into your lap the easy way! So don't offer them another course. Do them a favor and force them to make that jump to a higher commitment level study. Isn't that what it's all about?
Now what do you say when you phone them or knock on the door? I have reduced the whole thing to the following sequence. At each stage you are trying to probe for spiritual interest.
Let's say you are phoning Karen, but you reach someone else. I always begin by asking, Is Karen in? But do not identify yourself and what you want until you know you are talking to Karen. If they ask, Who is this? , answer Steve Rudd, is Karen in? If they are nosey and ask, What do you want? don't tell them. Just say, I'm a friend, is Karen in? Then when Karen comes on the line tell her, I'm Steve Rudd with Bible course . . . . If Karen is not home, just say, Thank you, when is the best time to reach her? Take notes, write it in your diary, and then phone back at that time.
Karen, I'm Steve Rudd with Bible course. I received your name for enrollment about a month ago for our Bible correspondence course . . . did you mail the enrollment coupon in? The first thing you want to know is if they sent their name in or if someone else sent it in for them. It may be a prank. If they didn't send it in, then play the martyr and ask, Karen, do you know who would do such a thing to us? Then joke about the poor taste of the prankster. This disarms them because they will obviously think you enrolled them. It makes them feel sorry for you, and you will get them on your side because they see that you also are a victim of the prankster. After I have broken the ice, formed a bond with them, and joked a little, I lower my voice, become serious, and say, I understand you didn't send in the card, but are you interested in studying the Bible? Then say nothing until you get their answer. If they say yes, forget the correspondence course and set up a personal Bible study. I have actually set up two studies from pranks in this manner. God works in many ways!
Now if they say they did enroll in the course, you must determine why. Are they a tire kicker just checking the competition or are they genuinely interested? You can usually determine, very easily, those that are not interested. Every student I phone I ask what church they attend. Tire kickers are usually very active in their church and they are quick to let you know! They also tend to be evasive of your questions, while asking you many of their own. They enrolled not because they were seeking but because of curiosity. I will usually throw out a few chunks of curiosity bait and see what response I get, e.g., How do you feel about having one Bible but 500 different churches all claiming to be the one true church? But, generally, don't waste any further time on these. There is no set question that you can ask to weed out those that are not interested. You will, however, have a pretty good idea who they are after you hang up the phone. Your wisdom and insight are needed. This is one of the few times in religion I recommend that you trust your feelings.
Once you have weeded out the pranks and those that are not interested, what you have left is a high potential list of qualified prospects for Bible study. This is where, as the gold miners say, you hit the pay dirt.
Did they receive the first lesson? You would be surprised at the number of people who never receive the first lesson. There could be several reasons why they did not receive it. It was never delivered because of an address mistake, a post office foul-up, or it was delivered properly but someone else either innocently or deliberately did not give it to them. Jesus said, And a man's foes shall be they of his own household (Matt. 10:36). I ask, Did you receive the first lesson? If they didn't receive it, I reconfirm their name and address and tell them I will send them another lesson. I then try to set up a personal Bible study.
This is tough to deal with and usually requires long-term follow-up. But don't underestimate your potential influence. I have gotten many studies from people like this. I have baptized several people who required over two years of follow-up. I ask them if I may call them in a month or two. They usually say yes. I call them every month just to chat. The key is to develop a trust and friendship. Invite them out for coffee or lunch, etc. After about six months, they have completely worn out their excuse that they are too busy. At this point you have developed enough of a rapport with them to bluntly say: Studying the Bible by correspondence isn't for everyone. If we could just arrange a time together next week, it would force you to stop putting off studying the Bible. The difficulty here is trying to determine if the too busy line is genuine or if they are not interested and just can't say no. If they are negative at all about you calling them back, forget them. But as long as anyone says they are interested, I will keep phoning back forever! Be persistent!
There are two kinds of illiteracy you must look for. First, grade two illiterate where they actually can't read. Second, Bible illiterate where they aren't familiar with the Bible. They don't know Genesis from Revelation or they can't decipher King James Version language. With either form of illiteracy, studies are often very easy to set up. Here you have a true searcher like the Eunuch. How can I [understand], except someone shall guide me (Acts 8:31).
Perhaps the problem is that they just aren't the type to learn by correspondence. In these cases, I view their enrollment as a symbol of their spiritual interest but the correspondence course did not satisfy that interest. Asking them for a one-on-one study is very natural and often fruitful.
It is best for the evangelist or some other professionally-minded person to do all the follow-up. I think it is a poor choice to involve the average member. Instead of training the members for follow-up, train them to teach the gospel effectively. Then give most of the studies you have set up to those who are willing and able. You help, support, and advise them behind the scenes like a sales manager supports his sales staff. Take the driver's wheel when it comes to follow-up but the back seat when the studies start rolling in. I have found a 2-to 4-month lag from the time you first advertise to the time you really start setting up a lot of studies. This gives you ample time to start training the faithful few in leading the Bible studies. Be careful that you don't neglect this urgent matter and get swamped with all the studies!
Follow-up is tedious work. It is time consuming. I have had to phone some people up to eight times before I got through, only to find out it was a prank!! On the other hand, one night I set up three personal Bible studies in one hour! But I have found that, in the end, I will set up one study for every six enrollments. Don't overlook God's providence. Pray for help!
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