Five Key Steps to Reach and Retain Guests

We are living in a world of post cultural Christianity. Our churches can no longer expect guests to show up just because we have the doors open. We have to be prayerful. We have to be intentional.

This post is, by its nature, very practical. But it can be a positive step in Great Commission obedience as you seek to expose people to the gospel and create more gospel conversations.

These, then, are five key steps to reach and retain guests. Most of these can be implemented in your church right away.

  1. Create a culture of inviting. One of the primary reasons our churches do not have guests is straightforward: We are not inviting people to come. In my research for the book, The Unchurched Next Door, we found that nearly eight of ten unchurched persons would come to church if we invited them and accompanied them to the worship services. If we invite them, they will truly come. I will address this issue more fully next week.
  2. Make certain you have a positive “guest flow.” Nelson Searcy, in his book Fusion, created this guide for the number of first-time guests each week in our worship services. If the number of first-time guests in your church is fewer than 5, you need to find out where the challenges reside.
  • 3 first-time guests for every 100 in worship attendance: maintenance mode
  • 5 first-time guests for every 100 in worship attendance: growth mode
  • 7 first-time guests for every 100 in worship attendance: rapid growth mode
  1. Be prepared for the guests when they arrive. The studies we have seen indicate we have between five and seven minutes to make a good first impression when the guests do arrive. Again, I will elaborate on this issue more in future posts.
  2. Find a way to get contact information from guests. Ask guests to complete a guest card, but remember less is more. If we simply ask for an email and a name, we are likely to get higher responses. And if we say we will make a contribution to a local ministry (such as $5 for every card turned in), we will get even a higher response.
  3. Contact guests within 24 hours. If you have their email address, send them a quick but personal email. If you have their mobile number, send them a text. These contacts can be brief, but they almost always increase the likelihood of a return visit. Your goal is not only to reach guests, but to retain them as well.

As you have requested of me, I am being more intentional about suggesting practical resources to accompany these blog posts. A good resource is “How to Retain Guests More Effectively.”

Reach guests. Keep guests. Have gospel conversations.

See what God will do.

Posted on November 27, 2017

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.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • David Chapman says on

    Positive guest flow is crucial! Dr. Rainer presents it as weekly, but another way to look at it is in the bigger picture of yearly. Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn in their book “What Every Pastor Should Know” reveal that a church needs the same number of annual visitors as their weekly average attendance. For example, a church of 100 needs 100 guests each year. Assuming a 10% attrition rate of that 100 (normal) and a 15% retention rate of the guests, the net result will be 105, an increase of 5 members. Obviously, more guests and/or less attrition will improve the number, as will increasing the retention rate.

  • Jason, reality for us has been that every town usually had several churches that actually preached Jesus and loved people. And the by far most soul winningest preacher we ever had constantly drilled us SS teachers that “if you cannot distill it to say it well in 20 minutes you cannot say it well in an hour.” It takes real discipline to preach or teach excellently in a limited time frame. It is sheer laziness not to edit oneself and instead ramble on while folks eyes glaze over and backsides go numb. That and hubris.

    We lived once where we were part of an excellent soul winning church. We had traditional and contemporary services in English. But many in our community spoke Navajo and Spanish. We were wrong in offering or supporting ministries in those languages? We also discovered a rodeo element very wary of church. We were wrong in offering services another night of the week that did western music, dressed in jeans and shirts, met at a time and location convenient to the rodeo folks and competed well for their time against the bars? Many folks were saved that way that moved on later into incorporation with the rest of the church activities. It was “starter church” for the cowboy unsaved. Souls were changed and lives saved.

    And yeah, wasn’t about to leave my infants in a filthy nursery with unvetted untrained volunteers, or my teens with some “youth pastor” with a sketchy background, or come Sunday after Sunday to a building that smelled of sewer backup.

    Important as love and good preaching are, they are not the only things a church must do well to win the lost and recruit the saved as workers in the kingdom.

  • Forumula’s, startegies, experts………books, resources…….not one mention of teaching the truth about Jesus. The truth. All He did was of the will of the Father.

    Parking, childrens room, the decor, greeters, and every other nuance. “txt-messages” and sermons under 30 minutes, and the Christian light show for another 30 minutes. A few minutes of welcome of how “awesome” their church is.

    How about compassionate, caring people who want to be there and grow friendships, walk, heal, and see first hand God’s transformation of people.

    THAT would actually take work! Something few want to do. It’s easier to market to “Becky” and “Jake”

  • We have transferred many times. I will share what kept us returning to a church in a new town, and what did not. Your mileage may vary, and remember we hunted a church as committed Christians determined to find one.

    Suppose we moved to a county with 30 churches listed in the phone book. (Yes, we used and still use yellow pages listings as a start.) 10 of those we might either consider cults or too different in theology from our beliefs. So we look at the 20 left. Of those maybe 12 are in our “faith family.” An example would be all are evangelical. But maybe we are Baptist and only 8 are Baptist. Revise the list for who we visit first to 8. If we are SBC we eliminate the 2 independent fundamentalist and the 1 IFB. Now we are down to 5 on our short list.

    A few phone calls later and I know 2 are Calvinist, 3 are connect3:16. 3 are blended music, 1 does hymns, 1 does only contemporary. One let me know quickly their target demographic–and it does not fit my family. So now the short list is down to 4. A quick poll of the family on theology puts us at either 2 or 3 to visit (depends on your theology.) From those 2 or 3 we find 1 does music we can live with or blended and 1 doing what we prefer.

    So we rewrite the list in order of what sounds like what we would like. If none of these are a good fit we will revisit the “all Baptists” and “all evangelicals” lists and then the “all Protestant churches” list. And the visits begin.

    I guarantee you if our first visit the pastor spends the sermon flogging the flock instead of preaching Jesus we won’t be back. Ditto if he tells time with a calendar and drones on for an hour and 15 minutes of chasing rabbits. If the music is too loud, whatever kind it is, or if the physical plant and people seem depressed, or if the service lacks organization, or if the people are unfriendly, we will probably scratch that church from our list.

    You only get one chance to make a good first impression, so if you are serious about wanting repeat visitors every service has to be done well. That may be sad but it is a fact. Once we eliminate doctrines that would have us preferring to home church if need be (cults, etc) and target demographics we might not fit, it really will pretty much come down to personal preference. If I’m SBC and 2 churches seem equally good, I’m going to pick the hymn singing one. You might choose differently, and that is ok. Neither choice is right or wrong, just a preference.

    So understand you cannot please everyone and that is why we don’t need a one size fits all church in any town, but several churches that can reach different age, race, ethnic, culture, and theological groups.

    But if you want repeat visitors, keep is short and do it well. Committed Christians may sit through or even enjoy long services (did not work with our kids) but the unsaved are probably pretty uncomfortable being in church, and it isn’t the church’s job to make them even more uncomfortable. Or as one I know used to put it, prolong the torture.

    Hope this helps to know what a frequent transferee might be thinking when they visit. Oh–and don’t waffle if I ask on the phone regarding music, theology, or length of service. I’m not asking to argue but to fact find.

  • I truly enjoyed Key Step #4 – Find a way to get contact information from guests. Ask guests to complete a guest card, but remember less is more. If we simply ask for an email and a name, we are likely to get higher responses. And if we say we will make a contribution to a local ministry (such as $5 for every card turned in), we will get even a higher response.

    Has anyone tried using the Registration Pad, where the worshipers fill out the info and pass it along. You can keep the required info to name and phone or email address.

    (Attendance Registration Pad
    Ideal for registering both visitors and members in each service. Simply place the Attendance Registration Holder (with pad of forms inside) on one end of the pews, and instruct worshipers to fill in their names and pass it down.)

  • Jervetta Burns says on

    Really great comments, thanks for the engagement. I am having a hard time with recruitment of volunteers. This is the most high impact ministry, yet the commitment/ effort is low. Any suggestions?

    • Les Ferguson says on

      One way we helped highlight how easy it is to invite was to actually talk up an “invite a friend to church Sunday.” We made simple tickets to give to the members and about 4 weeks to target someone to invite. We also did 4 weeks prep before handing out tickets. The success wasn’t in the total number of attendees but in the response from the members who said -“I didn’t realize how easy that was.”

      The focus should be that an invitation doesn’t have to be high language but an expression of what touches you at church.

  • Robin G. Jordan says on

    I received a email about the video training resource. It looks like it would be helpful resource. Unfortunately I am on a shoestring budget and have no discretionary funds.

    When I have talked about the need for raising the visibility of the church in the community with members of the church after the service, I was told in so many words that it was pointless. They had tried a number of things and they did not work. They even went on to joke about what they had tried.

    However, in my conversations with key church members, I gather that they did not understand the purpose of what they were doing, what it was supposed to accomplish, how often they were supposed to do it, or how long it would take before it yielded any results. They simply did what they were asked to do and when it did not yield immediate results, they concluded that it did not work.

    A number of the things that they were asked to do such as what is sometimes called “kindness evangelism” requires a long term commitment and does not produce immediate results.

  • The 3 guest / 5 guest / 7 guest guideline is that for each Sunday / per month?

  • Les Ferguson says on

    Engagement by a member or two is important. In my experience as a clergy, if someone from the congregation (non-clergy) is willing to engage the person with real attention there is a greater impact on the visitor. When I invite, engage, greet a visitor it’s “my job” but when a member does so that speaks volumes. That doesn’t mean the pastor doesn’t engage: greet, set up an appointment to chat, visit, pray with; simply that the onus should be on a “real person” to reach out. On Sundays when I’m out of town I am more impressed by a person in the pew greeting me than a clergy.

    • Ferguson, I couldn’t agree more! I think the same can be true of greeters. Visitors expect a friendly greeting at the door but judge the friendliness of the church by what happens when they get inside. This year I tried something new as part of our Greeters Ministry. I wander throughout the sanctuary each Sunday searching for unfamiliar faces. I introduce myself & strike up a conversation. This also allows me to greet our members who sit alone. I also stand in the foyer after church in case they have any questions (many do). It has been a blessing to me getting to know our visitors & it is encouraging to see a large number of repeat visitors – especially for a church that is currently without a Pastor.

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      Well said, Les.

  • Maybe these contacts are too old to be of value, but these worked for me. 1974 I visited a church on Sunday and a husband/wife couple visited at my home with me on Tuesday. I expressed a desire to sing in the choir. They let the choir director know and my 2nd Sunday there I was a member of the choir.
    1997 My wife and I were between churches looking for a good place to raise our son. We attended a church about 15 miles from our home a couple times, then our son got terribly sick and spent about a week in the hospital, about 35 miles from that church area. Again a husband/wife couple came up to visit us at the hospital. We didn’t know who they were but they said they saw that we had visited their church and they just wanted to know how we were doing.
    Though doctrinally we disagreed a bit, I bet you can guess where our church home was for the next 9 years of our lives. We became very active in several areas of ministry.

    • Just a footnote to my comments above. In neither case were pastors visiting me/us. These were lay couples who took an interest in visiting new people to their church(es).

    • Charles, I agree with you. People are drawn toward the love of Christ (people living out the great commission and showing grace and compassion to those they come in contact with). I never joined a church because they had clean bathrooms, good parking or a great Facebook page (etc.). I have joined where the faith and kindness was genuine.

      I wonder how many guests end up feeling like an object/target as a result of all of these “tactics”?

  • And don’t forget that their First Impression is critical….starting at the website…to the parking experience…to the greeters…to the wayfinding through the campus…to the kids drop off experience…to the cleanliness of the restrooms…to the condition of the overall facility.

    We have a very short window to make a first impression…we need to be intentional about every aspect of their guest experience.

  • Keep your service times to about 60 minutes and your sermons to about 25 minutes. Do not have a “say hello to someone next to you” time in your service – this is a turnoff to many guests.

    • 25 minute sermon, interesting. Growing up we had 20 minute sermons. I’d tell people the first 10 minutes he’s tell us how bad we were and the last 10 minutes he’d tell us how great God was/is. It got so I wish he’d stop telling me how bad I was and just preach a 10 minute sermon. For me that shorter the better.
      Nerve the less, at my present church sermons are 30 to 45 minutes and the growth of our church is exceedingly well. In 7 years (approx.) 800 to 2200.
      I’m thinking sermon length has less to do with it then simply being faithful to God and doing what he is calling you to do.

      • I would add if your communication style is engaging and spirit-led church-goers/guests will thrive from a 25+ minute sermon. But there’s a reason TED talks are shorter and by-in-large a successful model for effective public speaking.

1 2