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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  • My Dad was a career soldier, and he believed being late was the eighth deadly sin, so he always kept after us to get to church on time. After twenty-five years of ministry, though, I realize some people simply aren’t wired that way. I knew an African-American pastor who dealt with it rather sternly. He was tired of stragglers coming in at all times during the service, so he finally announced that the service might conclude around three o’clock — the next morning! Naturally, the people gave him some strange looks when he said that, so he replied, “If you’re going to take your time getting to church, I’m going to take my time to preach!”

    Personally, I’m not brave enough to try that approach. I’m more like you: I try to start the service on time, and if people show up late, I figure it’s better for them to be late than not to be there at all.

  • Rob Guilliams says on

    At the church we’ve been attending the pastor has addressed this several times from the pulpit over the past year and a half. He has reminded people of the start times, asked them to show up a little earlier, asked them to sit in the back if they show up late, etc. The problem has only gotten worse. A few weeks ago when the service started (on time as always) there were approximately 100 people in the sanctuary. Over the next 15 minutes the other 400 showed up, many walking all the way to the front row.

  • We open our service with announcements and a call to worship. We then have greeting time. It is after greeting that it seems our attendance increases. I don’t see it as a problem as long as they are there. I agree with “Joe” earlier in the comments.

  • Cotton Mathis says on

    Start on time.

    It is annoying when the service is supposed to start at 11 am, and it starts 15 minutes later.

    Leave the back pews open for late comers.

    SOS in the other pews. “Scoot over some” and make room for late attenders.

    As a senior in my later years, I am not as punctual as I used to be. I would go to another church if someone made a negative comment about an older person arriving a little late.

    Better late than never for anyone who attends church. Just be glad they are there.

    Just make sure they get there in time for the offering :-).

    • Cotton Mathets, I agree. I’m usually early but occassionally just barely make before services begin. If I heard my pastor or elders talk like this article, I’d turn around & go home if I wasa minute late.

  • Eric Luedtke says on

    “Relax and rejoice regardless of the time they show up.”

    In each of three congregations I have served as pastor I have had families or individuals who arrive late. In most cases they are very aware of their nature and most don’t try to excuse it. I’ve been able to build relationships with all of those late-comers to let them know they are valued as part of the community – and that we are more likely to use their gifts in areas that are less time-dependent (they’re often great at cleaning-up after events).

    That said, when 1/3 or more of the congregation arrives late, it can be a challenge to feel like what you do at the beginning of worship matters. To that I simply remind people (as I did in worship yesterday when we had many no shows due to winter weather) “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” – so since God is here, let’s worship!

  • Chronic late arrivers indicate an on-going issue that the pastor should at least be made aware of. Everyone else might fall into the category of “stuff happens occasionally”, with not another thought given to it.
    When I pastored I made it a point to start the service on time, every time. That leaves no misunderstanding as to when does the service start. I love the countdown clock as well. Now, if we could just get people to remember to silence their phones!

  • True confessions, I’m not a slave to the clock except when it comes to worship and meetings. My life and sense of time is relatively fluid, until others get involved.

    With my pastor’s hat I take a different stance. Our parish’s practice has been to start on time. While there may be some who will be late, most are on time. I believe it is disrespectful to start late while waiting for latecomers because that sets up a conflict between on-time and late arrivals.

    In my perspective, having a “throw away” set that delays the start of worship by 5-7 minutes is no better than starting late. If there’s 5 minutes of gathering music it should start 5 minutes before worship start time.

    The irony of a liturgical-based church is with the exception of music (which should enhance the message for the week), every aspect of worship is worship. Or better, each piece of the liturgy plays a role in the practice of liturgy and worship. Because of this, few people feel like it’s okay to be late.

  • Seth Johnson says on

    Three recent conversations and visits to churches:
    1. A missionary friend in the Philippines remarked that the church service began when everyone arrived. The small tight-knit community of believers knew who was coming and would simply wait.
    2. Small church we sent someone down the hall to nudge the sheep who often simply got caught up in conversation. It was not a rebuke but more like a parent calling the kids to dinner!
    3. Larger churches had more to coordinate, sound/AV/nursery/security so a timer in the lobby and politely closing the doors was a gentle way to call people into the service.

  • My wife and I are never late to anything! We used to get teased in small group because the kids in the other families made it a game to see if they could get there ahead of our family. However, we intentionally arrive late to worship to skip “the first set.” The first set is not even remotely our cup of tea and it doesn’t prepare us for worship, but we love everything else about our church. We know that this issue is ours…. and there is a reason for “the first set” to be the way it is. So we don’t bother anyone about it – and we don’t raise it as an issue to anyone. We slip into the back, usually about 7-10 minutes after the “first set: has begun. All is good. So please don’t think that all of your late arrivals are slugs that just can’t get out of bed. 🙂

    • William Alan Secrest says on

      Jeffrey, I do not even know where to begin so I will just say this to you. You admit that your family shows up to church “intentionally” late because the “first set”, which I assume is music from a band, is not your “cup of tea.” So what are you communicating to your family and others that know you? Your behavior is passive-aggressive. I am curious to know what the “second set” of songs must be. I have worshiped in churches with just praise music and I have worshiped in churches that sang nothing but traditional, hymn music. An attitude of worship should not be influenced by what is happening on stage at your church. You should come prepared to worship regardless of what is front of you.

      • Easier said then done. Jeffrey already said “it doesn’t prepare us for worship”. I too have lived through praise band type worship and Hymn singing. I like both but we know music affects us all differently. In Jeffrey’s case it does not prepare him to worship. Be grateful he comes, doesn’t make a fuss and leave it at that.
        I’m a member of a church that changed it’s style of worship 10-12 years ago and lost, many, many members in the process. Jeffrey, thank you for staying where God has planted you.

      • I’ve seen churches people either arrive late or sit in the lobby until after the music. I myself have left auditoriums during the music portion of a service, always because the music is just too loud. I grew up on loud music but the 100+ dBA at some churches is actually offensive to me.

        If you want people to be in the room when the service starts, be sure you’re not doing something that pushes them out.

      • Roy Johnson says on

        I have visited a church with some 25 people waiting until after the praise music to enter the worship center. So, what was going on inside? Spectators standing in place for five songs. I know, the theory is that everyone should be involved, moving, singing along with full participation. But, was that happening? No, people on stage were performing and the audience was standing doing nothing. The church can stick with what is supposed to be ideal or they can deal with what they are seeing every week.

      • Hi William, I am sorry that I must take Jeffery’s side on his reason for late arriving congregants. Some latecomers have given me the same message. I am always early, but not happy with any “new” music that has no theology or fails to mention God or Jesus by name. Instead, that music could be sung by most 10 step groups. I would not want our congregants only alternative to be – leave the church. Late comers falling to Jeffrey’s category are gently there to hear God’s word, take communion, absorb meaningful messages, fellowship following the service, and perhaps evangelize to newcomers that are seeking. Requiring lockstep attendance to the music seems to be a non-biblical requirement to worshiping. I doubt if the Sermon on the Mount had music accompanying before or after. Personally I am open to new worship styles, new music, and love drums.

      • Apostle Andrew says on

        Amen to this,Powerfull words of winsdom indeed

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Some music in churches is a distraction that has to be avoided or endured until you get to the real worship – the preaching and teaching of God’s word.

      • William Alan Secrest says on

        Craig, what kind of music needs to be avoided or endured? When we gather to worship music, prayer, and yes, preaching are all aspects of worship. It breaks my heart that the responses I have seen are about catering to the laziness and preferences of church people. I have had people leave my church because the music is too loud or the church is “changing.” God forbid that we are trying to reach younger people in our area. We sing three praise songs that are played by video and our second set of songs are usually two hymns. And to Charles, “being grateful” for people who show up to church just to sit in a chair or pew is not my idea of a “healthy church member.” Until we get people to learn that church is not about them, they will never serve Jesus the way that they are supposed to for his kingdom.

      • It takes two to fight. I have no quarrel with blended worship, but I do have a quarrel with churches that sing nothing but contemporary music and essentially tell everyone else to like it or lump it. People who take that approach have no business labeling others as “selfish”. Furthermore, to play any kind of music at a deafening volume is just plain rude and inconsiderate.

      • Apostle Andrew says on

        God bless you for this response i love your wisdom and understanding of ministry

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Whatever you reach people with is what you’ll have to do to keep them with. The idea that you reach people (lure them in) with something that appeals to their flesh with the hope of then slipping in the gospel is one of the main flaws of the evangelical church. If you use entertainment to reach people you will have to entertain them to keep them. The church is the place where the body of Christ is built up and strengthened through the preaching and teaching of the word of God. As the body of Christ matures it is better equipped to go into the world and reach the lost with the truth of the gospel.

      • I will admit this is dithering of a sort but it has been my experience that we cannot separate body and soul. Throughout history there were heavy fights about dualism regarding our humanity and our sacredness.

        With that said, the hard part of pastoring is finding a balance of message and worship – feeding both body and spirit. If pastors focus on one exclusively they discount the humanity that is the person who is in need of the good news.

      • George HALTIWANGER says on

        Worship is our response to a our loving God and Savior. I prefer looking
        at corporate worship services as Sören Kierkegaard in his “Purity in Heart” where those on “stage” are not “performer” but “prompters”. The congregation or “audience” are the “performer” to an audience of “One”. . . GOD. That why I like to avoid words like stage and audience when talking about worship. It’s more than just singing to “prepare” for worship when a preacher shares the spoken word. Our prayers, our offering, our singing, our scripture reading, our choir &/or praise team presentations, even our media presentations & announcements, along with the sermon and any items in a “worship service” should glorify God.

      • Vicki Townson says on

        Thanks for this. I’m with you – when the terms “perform – 1st set – stage – audience” are part of the language around worship, we’ve gone way off the rails in our thinking about the purpose of worship. I find thinking about worship as a dance between creator and creation helpful.

    • To this I would add not to assume that being a “lazy slug” is the only other explanation…over the years we’ve modified and re-modified our get-ready-for-church routine to make it more streamlined, from having my husband cook breakfast while I’m getting in my run/bike ride, to eliminating Sunday workouts altogether, and even the fortuitous move of our church body to a location half the drive from our house. The immediate result was always a timely arrival for the first few weeks, followed by a gradual lapse into our previous rush-out-the-door as any saved time was mysteriously consumed by that black hole that causes tasks to expand to fit the time allotted. Getting up earlier might help, but a) again this would be temporary and b) it’s only as realistic as an earlier bedtime the night before, which is dictated by multiple interlocking factors of Saturday projects and dinner-prep and cleanup.

      Then there are the mornings when getting to church at all is a feat in itself. Recently I elected to drive myself separately after taking my 74yo mom to a concert the night before and arriving home at 12:30am. A couple of songs into the service the usher at the door greeted me with, “There you are! Late to church I see!” We all have lives outside the doors of the church building, and assigning or impugning motives or excuses is discourteous and, dare I say, judgmental.

  • Mike Shipp says on

    I served at one church where people would stand around in the lobby until the pastor got up to preach, then they would come in. With multiple services, we could count the people in the lobby and the people in the worship center and come up with a number.

    To combat that, we changed the order of the service. We began with a song, did a brief welcome, then the pastor preached. We would move worship after a time of invitation. When we started, we caught people off gaurd. They soon learned that they needed to be in the worship center when we started.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Isn’t preaching worship?

      • Mike Shipp says on

        Your right. Would have been better to say, music…maybe.

      • Robert G Cleveland says on

        Craig, did you know what he meant, the way he wrote it?

      • Nope.

        It often occurs during what is commonly called a Worship service. But certainly LISTENING to preaching is not worship.

        Preaching is proclaiming the Gospel, mostly to those who have not heard.

        Church gatherings should primarily be for teaching and sharing, otherwise known as Equipping the Body.

        Paul’s comments on ‘outsiders’ being among us is to remind us to be aware of how we come across to them while we are equipping one another.

        (now I’ve really gone and ‘done’ it this time!)

        Part of our problem is trying to do everything in a 1-1.5 hour weekly framework and ending up not doing much of any of it very well as a consequence.

  • My pastor starts right on the dot, even though our church had a history of delaying the start because of chronic latecomers. It’s a disservice to those who make the effort to be on time.

  • “Latecomers are better than no shows. ”

    We have several people who are sick, elderly, and have other challenges – some who this is the ONLY time in the week that they leave their homes. We celebrate their arrival, open the doors, and welcome them. Some have to leave the service a few times to visit the restroom, have trouble breathing, and other issues – they are welcome and we open the doors. There are areas open for wheelchair integrated with the other seats; not separated – they are welcome.

    It’s not about the numbers, it’s about worship. This isn’t a play or concert, it is worship and we try to welcome them just as God welcomes us when we come to worship Him.

    • Shorten the church service, especially long boring sermons. Preach for 15 minutes, you probably arent nearly as good as you think you are.
      Set the church up for lots of real interaction ministry time
      People vote with their feet

    • Child of God says on

      Perhaps we should stop judging those who are not there at the start of the service and just engage in worship and welcome them when they arrive. There may be lots of reasons for people not attending the whole service. That’s between them and God. If you want to grow the kingdom try stop treating church as a timed event and welcome all who come, at whatever time, to worship. The way to heaven has nothing to do with being in church ‘on time’, or even coming at all!!

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