Eleven of the Most Common Mistakes Churches Make

I was recently in Arkansas speaking with a pastor who is a daily reader of this blog. He expressed gratitude for all the free content, but then he made a kind plea. He said that the blog has so much content that it can be overwhelming at times.

He then asked if I could write some posts that summarized several issues I covered in multiple articles over many months. I asked him to give me an example for clarity. He said, “Maybe you could write an article on the ten most common mistakes made by churches.”

His request is proof positive that my readers are much smarter than I am. Why didn’t I think of that?

Thank you, pastor. Here is my response with one added to the ten. These are not necessarily the most important issues (I think theological heresy would outrank them all), but they are the most common.

  1. Failure to have a informative, easy-to-use website. I cringe when I see some churches’ websites. That is now the first place a prospective guest visits when he or she is thinking about attending a church. Websites are incredibly affordable today, and they can be updated easily. A church website should be updated at least once a week. It should be one of high quality. And it should contain good and accurate information for guests and members alike.
  2. Failure of pastors and staff to be actively involved in social media. That is analogous to a missionary in another land failing to learn how to speak the language of the people. 
  3. Failure of pastors and staff to understand they represent the church when they are involved in social media. When I see some of the blog posts and Twitter and Facebook communication of pastors and staff, I am often left speechless. Even if it is a personal blog or Twitter or Facebook account (or almost a dozen other social media entrants), church members read them. The community reads them. Pastors and staff: you represent yourself, your church, and, most importantly, Christ. Please be careful with your words. 
  4. Failure to urge people to be a part of groups. Groups are key to healthy assimilation, ministry involvement, evangelistic intentionality, biblical accountability, and community connections. Church leaders should regularly encourage members and others to get involved in a small group, home group, Sunday school class, or some other ongoing group. 
  5. Failure of leaders to be actively involved in influencing the content of groups. Can you imagine a pastor asking a random person to preach on Sunday morning without any idea what that person would say? That’s how many leaders treat their groups. Some have no idea what is being taught, studied, and discussed. 
  6. Failure of church members to be considerate of where they sit during a worship service. I can’t tell you how many guests told me they had to climb over church members who arrived early and got an aisle seat. I can’t tell you how many left no room for others because they used space for their coats, Bibles, smartphones, and other items. 
  7. Failure to have parking lot greeters. This ministry is a church’s opportunity to make a positive first impression. However, most churches do not have parking lot greeters. 
  8. Failure to have clearly marked guest parking. Most churches have guest parking places. The problem is most guests can’t find them. 
  9. Failure to have clearly marked entrances to the worship center. Ask a person who has never attended your church to do so. Then ask them how difficult it was to find the worship center. Because we know our own church well, we often don’t comprehend the challenges a first time guest may have. 
  10. Failure to have clearly marked entrances to the church offices. This issue is, of course, more of a problem during weekdays. 
  11. Failure to have adequate restroom facilities. There should be an adequate number of restrooms. They should be clean. And guests should see clearly marked signs that tell them how to find them.

This “top ten plus one” list is not comprehensive. It simply represents the most common mistakes I see. I look forward to your responses and feedback.

Posted on February 10, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • The least friendly church we ever visited was on in which NO none greeted us. We had to stop someone to ask where our children were to go for Sunday School, Then the pastor taught the adult class, led the singing, led the choir, preached a sermon (we expected him to also collect the offering! )), and he was the ONLY one who spoke to us after the service. Needless to say we never went back!

    The eleven points listed are OK for large churches, but the average small town church does not need some of them. However friendliness and whatever one can do to welcome visitors is key!

  • Thom,

    I have extremely benefited from your books and blog posts. As a result, I have implemented much of your principles laid out in “Simple Church” and the response has been wonderful. Our new mission is to Love God (Sunday morning worship), Grow in faith (Small Groups), and serve others (Ministry Teams). I did have a quick question, and it relates somewhat to number five in the post above. In implementing our simple three fold model for discipleship I feel there is still a lack of solid biblical teaching that small groups can’t fill. While I believe wholheartedly that small groups create a wonderful place for relationship building and a sense of community, I don’t know if it will develop a venue for good solid teaching that could come through say a wednesday or Sunday night teaching class. Do you have any helpful suggestions? Do you think adding a weekly Bible class for our congregation would be too much? Do you think small groups alone can accomplish the goal of laying a solid biblical foundation for the church? Thanks for taking the time to respond, you’re so appreciated!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Will: I wish I could give you a precise response, but the type of questions you are asking could only be answered if I knew your context more fully.

  • Great list! I’ve visited about 100 of the largest churches in the country this year and am amazed at how difficult it is to find the church office sometimes.

    I’d love to see a series of posts like this. Common mistakes that impact church members, mistakes that impact “transplanting” visitors coming from other churches and mistakes that impact visitors that are in-churched.

  • Eric Robertson says on

    I feel as though this just makes the church seem like a big seeker friendly initiative to join some cool faddish club.

  • Dr. Rainer, I am curious about the lack of clearly identified guest parking. Do you think that guests want their own parking, or do most not want to be singled out that way? We are a new church plant, and I am working through this issue for when we get up and running with public worship services in the near future. Thanks!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Matt – Most guests prefer guest parking. Those who don’t will simply park in the regular spots. I am in the latter group when I visit a church.

      • Thank you so much for the response, and the great article. I will make sure I work on this for when we are up and running.

      • Torie N Pendleton says on


        If I may add, Moms with children and no one accompanying them usually LOVE guest parking. It is hard to carry two or three young children and a baby through the parking lot by yourself.



      • We added “family first” parking (spots for parents with strollers, carriers, and little ones) alonside our guest parking. HOME RUN!!!

    • More important than guest parking, is handicapped parking that can be used by those with accessibility needs.
      Ideally, it can hold between five and ten paratransit vehcles used by the local transit agency, with people getting on/off at the same time, and not interfering with other vehicles, passengers, or pedestrians.

      Whilst on a11y issues, have a tour of your facility by somebody who is:
      * In a wheelchair;
      * Blind;
      * Deaf;
      *Uses a walker;
      Fix all problems, and issues that they encounter.

  • Thom, going to share this tonight at my leadership meeting with team leaders and directors to encourage them that we are working at the right things! What you give us pastors here is a great encouragement and added tool for us to lead our people. Thanks.

  • After living in the same town for 29 years and being a part (members) of 2 different churches for those 29 years we had to relocate to a city about 3 hours away. Therefore this has meant that we must find a new church family. We have spent 4 months checking out new churches in the area. We have been amazed at the reception (or lack of it) from the churches we have visited. At the 2 churches we came from (they were both attended by about 100 people) I can truly say that there were at least 6 individuals at each church who would always make sure that visitors were welcomed. They would ask if the visitor was new in the area and enough questions to show that they were really interested but not too much to overwhelm the individuals or families. The visitors were quite often asked to come to a members home for dinner or join them for a meal at a local restaurant and sometimes pay for their meal. Well we weren’t expecting to find the exact treatment however we have walked into almost every church and we were never greeted by the pastor and barely had anyone really show any interest in who we are or anything about us. We have only had one church that has really reached out to us but that interest has mostly come from the pastor. We are finding that most of these churches don’t really care if we are there among them but don’t want to reach out to include anyone else in their “group”. I think we are going to have a few more months of searching and may have to drive a little distance to find the church (with our religious convictions) and a sincere group of believers to fellowship with here in our new hometown. This has been a real eye opening experience for us and I have shared this story with our home church and thanked them for reaching out to visitors and continue to do so.

  • First, keep the website up to date. Out of date events on the calendar are not acceptable. Describe your services if you have different types, i.e. contemporary, traditional, classical, etc. Also, if you are conservative and want to be known primarily for that then state it multiple times on your website. However, you need to know just what conservative can be taken to mean: 1) we don’t allow female leadership, clergy or participation in the service 2) we are opposed to contraception 3) we are neither open nor affirming. Sometimes conservative just means that we believe the whole bible to be inspired. You have to say what you want.

    Also, please don’t save more than one or two seats. If your parent, child, spouse, etc is on their way in then by all means say you need to hold them a seat. However, saving an entire row for your friends who may not come or because you don’t want anyone sitting near you is not “cool”. This just reminds us that cliques are alive and well.

  • Warren Watkins says on

    Thank you, Thom, for your wisdom and for the fine job you’re doing at LifeWay, producing the best theologically sound materials. However, I do want to disagree with one word in this list, in that these are not the “most” common mistakes made by churches. Your list appears to be written from the business model of church work (reread the list, asking how a business would benefit from the same advice and seeing what is or isn’t absolutely unique to the church). I don’t know if this is what you meant by theological mistakes being at the top of the list, but here are my thoughts: The most common mistake churches makes today is preaching a neo-prosperity Gospel in which church members are not challenged with the Truth: Christ requires us to give ALL. Tithing is presented as the norm, not the minimum beginning place, and churches give a sliver of their donations to world missions (SBC churches receive $12 billion a year and the IMB gets 0.8 percent). In administrative things, as you focused here, the most common mistake by churches is that pastors (compensation) and palaces are the priorities.

  • Amanda Aciu says on

    Also, regard #6

    I have actually heard church members tell visitors they were sitting in “their” seat, as if they actually own a seed in the church…..

    • There are only a few churches left where members can own a box. Very old ones in New England still have them, though I am not sure how strictly it is enforced.

  • Amanda Aciu says on

    When church leaders, especially the Pastor, claim they are not a”people-person”. This is very sad! My family has visited a certain SDA church many times w/ no greeting from the Pastor…. Doesn’t make you feel very welcome at the church.

    • My family does not attend church. We choose to worship the Lord at our home, together, in our own way. We practice our religion the way we feel to be best for us. We do however, ALWAYS, allow our children to attend any service they want to. They need to learn and make their own decisions regarding religion. They have attended many different churches and have liked most of them but still prefer to worship at home with us. The worst thing that has happened so far beyond the typical overzealous recruiting practices, was a Pastor who moved his family to our town. My friend who attended his church asked my kids to befriend his kids and show them around school, town etc. My son and his became quite good friends at school. The problem arose when his son invited mine to spend the night. The pastor told my son this “You and your family are not Christian enough for you to be allowed to stay in our home”. I was mortified. That is NOT a Christian way to act if you ask me. If you believe my son needs more Christianity in his life then shouldn’t you, as a Pastor, work to help him not turn him away??

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