How Churches Deal with the Challenge of Latecomers to Worship Services

By Thom S. Rainer

The attendance will really be low today. 

I looked around the worship center two minutes before the service was to begin. The number of people seemed to be about half of the usual attendance. Really strange, I thought.

Then it happened. In about fifteen minutes, the number of people present was triple the number of on-time attendees. The worship attendance ended up being higher than usual.

A similar discussion took place at Church Answers, where we have 1,600 church leaders in a constant exchange of questions and ideas. The responses were great. Here is one of my favorites: “We lock the doors at service time so no one can come in late. Everyone has learned their lesson, so we are packed out when service begins.” 

He then added, “Just kidding.” 

Outside of locking people out, how have churches responded to this challenge? Here are some of the more common responses from the Church Answers’ community:

  • Have a countdown clock. It serves as a reminder of a definitive beginning time. Many churches put the clock on their screens somewhere between five and fifteen minutes before the service begins.
  • Start on time. If the service does not start on time, you can’t expect members to be there on time. 
  • Ask leaders to set the example. Have an honest conversation with many of your leaders. Let them know your church has the common problem of latecomers. Ask these leaders to be in your worship services ten minutes early. Others will notice.
  • Close the doors to the worship center. That sends a signal the service has begun. But make certain you have someone to open the doors as people enter late. You don’t want the mom with three children in tow trying to manage getting everyone through a closed door.
  • Begin a worship set about five minutes before the service begins. Some people aren’t looking at a clock. They are waiting to hear music. 

More than anything, don’t stress out about latecomers. Celebrate the fact that they came to worship with others regardless of the time. Some people are more time-conscious than others. I am time obsessed. I can’t stand to be late for anything. My wife thinks any timepiece is evil and unnecessary.

Latecomers are better than no shows. Relax and rejoice regardless of the time they show up.

It’s really a better alternative than locking them out.

Posted on February 10, 2020

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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  • “Latecomers are better than no-shows.”

    Thank you, and amen. Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, but the lineup of gotta-be-there’s can make Sunday the busiest day of the week. Having an usher comment about being a few minutes late is not helpful or encouraging. I already know this and I don’t need to be reminded or lectured, least of all in the place where we’re not being measured by performance (presumably). In my experience the first 10-15 minutes of a service consists of singing and announcements anyway, so one is not really “late” until the choir or the pastor gets started – especially if he/she sits in the back. ;).

    For us the most helpful element of punctuality is adult Sunday School, so that even if we’re running late for that we’re still on time for the service. Yes it’s earlier so it’s counter-intuitive but it does have a buffering effect with a more casual and conversational atmosphere which lessens the awkwardness. People who wouldn’t show up 15-20 minutes late for the service might still show up equally late to a small Sunday school class.

  • The notion of “time” also has cultural differences. For North Americans and western Europeans the event begins when the clock says so. For many African, First Nations and Asian cultures, the event begins when everyone has arrived. I serve a congregation with a mix of cultures and, therefore, a mix of understandings of “time.” We’ll joke about whether we’re gathering on “African time” or “White person’s time” but extend grace, rather than guilt and shame. And it works for us!

  • Donna Cullen says on

    As a church leader of over 50 years, it astonishes me that ‘late-comers’ to worship are considered a challenge. Amongst our congregants are farmers who milked herds before dawn – who perhaps lingered over their breakfast in a rare moment of calm. There is a worshiper whose edema requires hours of treatment before she can squeeze into her shoes for worship. There is a woman whose body is bent by the fear that her toddler granddaughter will succumb to cancer. The youth sculks into a pew burdened by a weekend of verbal abuse. The widower arrives last minute with little energy left from his solitary life. A recovering drug addict convinced God could never love him, comes with hope despite his sense of unworthiness. The young single mother, having scraped together some semblance of a breakfast, looks forward to having her kids lovingly cared for while she savors a cup of welcoming coffee she can’t afford to buy.

    Lateness pales in the myriad of reasons why someone does not walk in the door according to a predetermined starting time. Rejoice that the choice is to worship and the opportunity to minister is there.

  • Worship, and how we ‘do’ it…… one of my biggest laments. I’ve seen this crowd behavior in half a dozen churches I’ve attended/been a part of for 20+ years. It spans denominations and regional cultures. At its very core is the quite obvious fact that worship as we know/do it does not seem to hold a high value or priority for what is actually the majority of attenders. Yes, well more than half of the attenders come in after things have started. Many (most?) of those already there are watching and not even trying to move their lips.

    But it should! we cry. Really? We all have a variety of love languages and pathways in our relationship with the Father, why should we presume that 4 songs on a Sunday morning should be the measure of our ‘presenting ourselves to Him’? (Rom 12:1,2) Perhaps the biggest disservice we’ve done has been to directly or indirectly equate 4 songs on Sunday morning and listening to a monologue with Worship. It simply isn’t so.

    Complaining, looking down our noses at others, lecturing, imposing our standards on others–all are un-Christlike behaviors. Let’s let our gatherings be places of love and grace giving-yes, even for the late arrivers.

  • Our church has a video countdown and does begin on time. The doors to the auditorium (sadly, no one calls it a sanctuary anymore) are closed when the music starts. Even so, there are still quite a few late comers: those who have children to check in at the Kid’s Building, those who are waiting for their coffee orders from the cafe in the lobby, those who had a hike across the parking lot, and those who are chatting or just running late, etc.
    My issue is that as the service begins, the lights are lowered to create almost blackout conditions! This does not help those folks to find their seat, to find their family or friends, or to find a welcoming atmosphere! I have questioned this practice and have been told that it is “to set the mood.” (Mood? Really? That’s a whole other topic.)
    There will always be late comers. Always. Please allow them to feel welcome at any point of the service and to find their place quickly and safely.

  • Thank you for this post. It helps to see that other churches also struggle with this issue. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone!

    I have personally struggled with late arrivers since coming to the church I currently shepherd. There are Sundays where I have (the same) people come in halfway through the sermon (45 minutes after the service starts). They know they are late, but don’t care.

    Part of it for this church is a culture that values relationship over timeliness. But at the same time, the only thing we start on time are the meals! It has definitely been a refining process for me personally.

    One thing that I hope will help is adding a pre-service prayer time. We started this yesterday. My hope is that some will join us to pray, and therefore more will be on time. At the very least, the prayer time helps focus those that do come and helps this pastor trust God to meet those coming to the service…whenever they show up!

  • Bill Pitcher says on

    We make every effort to begin at 9:50 with the organ prelude–something that is probably not done in a lot of churches any more. Then the announcements by a deacon, then a meet and greet–yeah, we still do that as well….
    By 10 AM MOST people are in place in the pew. Do I like it? Not really. Can I deal with it? Yes. It’s better than it was a couple years ago.

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