Nine Surprises in Worship Services That Made Guests Return


In a recent Twitter survey, I asked respondents to share with me a singular event that impressed them in a church worship service. In fact, most of the respondents said they were “delighted” or “surprised,” and that the one event made them desire to return to the church.

I am appreciative for all the responses. A pattern developed around nine factors. Here are some representative quotes around each of the issues:

  1. “Someone had an umbrella waiting for me in inclement weather.” This comment was made for both snowy and rainy weather. Some of the respondents indicated that someone actually stayed next to them so they would not slip or fall.
  2. “A member actually invited me to lunch.” I admit I was surprised by the frequency of this response. This invitation had a huge impact on guests.
  3. “The kids area had leaders who were friendly and helpful.” This issue was obviously highly important to young families. I realize more than ever you keep or lose young families at the point you check the kids in or take them to a class.
  4. “There was a time of meaningful prayer.” I continue to be gratefully amazed at how important prayer is to guests. They love the times of quiet when people are asked to pray silently. They also love guided prayers.
  5. “Someone walked us where we were supposed to go.” Every place in a church facility is unknown to a first time guest. They love greeters staying with them and taking the fear of the unknown away.
  6. “There was genuine friendliness outside of the stand and greet time.” I have come to the conclusion that church members tend to like the stand and greet time more than guests do. In fact, most guests see the stand and greet time as artificial, especially if members are not friendly outside that time.
  7. “People followed up with my prayer requests the next day.” Many churches have places on guest cards for prayer requests. If leaders in the church emphasize that people will pray for the guests, many are likely to complete the card. The guests are really impressed if they hear from someone the next day.
  8. “I loved having the opportunity to speak with the pastor.” In some churches, this conversation took place in a reception room after the service. In other churches, the pastor called or wrote a personal email that was obviously not a form email. Guests really love hearing from the pastor.
  9. “I received a gift at the end of the service.” Many guests love receiving a gift for their visit. Their favorite gifts are freshly baked cookies or freshly baked bread. But any gift is appreciated.

Keep in mind, those who responded to our survey noted only one of these nine surprises that caused them to return. They considered any of these efforts above and beyond what they expected.

What do you think of these nine “delights and surprises”? Do you have experiences you can add to the list? Let me hear from you.

Posted on December 21, 2015

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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  • Blanca Mikell Ward says on

    On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, my daughter and I visited a small church in a neighboring town. Not having been in church for three years (long story there), I was actually looking forward to this. My daughter is home for the holidays, visiting from D.C. where she has been attending the National Cathedral regularly. Imagine our surprise and disappointment when not a single person, not one, greeted us, spoke to us, walked circles around us during the Passing of the Peace, etc. We stood there like zombies, waiting for an opportunity to be welcomed. My daughter wondered if the woman in front of us was miffed because maybe, just maybe, we were sitting in her pew. Anyway, it was a sad morning for us. And we wonder why we’re in decline?

  • A few years ago I was looking for a new church and visited about 9 local churches. At each one I filled out the visitor card or visitors’ book. Of those 9 churches, only one ever contacted me after I visited. I got a card in the mail. It was generic but at least they did something. I think follow up is huge for visitors. Welcome them on Sunday, but then call them on Tuesday to tell them about Wednesday evening activities or to tell them you hope to see them again next Sunday. A 10 minute conversation would have meant a lot to me. I think churches need to remember that visitors don’t wake up on Sunday morning and randomly choose a new church. They’re thinking ahead and doing their homework during the week. A church who calls during the week could be the reason someone stops looking and researching.

  • The Rev. Letitia Smith says on

    About the comment about being a pastor’s wife of over 50 years, I have been a United Methodist pastor and since 1999, an Episcopal priest. Please be aware that all mainline and some newer churches (ELCA, Episcopalian, most if not all Methodists denominations, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian Church (USA), Unitarian, Metropolitan Community Church, Cumberland Presbyterian, Unity [in no particular ranking order] and some others have been ordaining women for scores of years–some since the 1800s. It is not just an issue of political correctness, but my identity. I have been a pastor for 36 years.
    Thank you for the helpful article.

    • Christopher says on

      You do realize, don’t you, that Thom is the president of Lifeway, which is the publishing and resource arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Don’t you think it’s a little rude to come into someone else’s house (so to speak) and then get all indignant because they’re not doing things the way you think they should be done? Most Southern Baptists read God’s Word and take it seriously when it says that authority in the church is the responsibility of qualified men. If the Baptist view of the Bible bothers you then don’t read a Baptist blog.

      • Rev. Bette Bond says on

        Hmmmm…. I’m a woman and I’m a Baptist minister…….. Didn’t the prophet Joel say (and Peter repeat in Acts) that God pours His Spirit on all people? Men, women, young, old?

      • Christopher says on

        Well, if you want to get into correct theology and not just cherry picking the passages that suit you…Joel was prophesying about the second coming and according to Peter the day of Pentecost, a unique day in history, was a preview of the second coming as the Holy Spirit was “jump starting” the church. But none of that has anything to do with authority in the local church and who is qualified to lead. Paul spells it out clearly in 1 Timothy with no ambiguity, but I’m sure you have your way of rationalizing all that away.

        But even that is beside the point. The above commenter was clearly offended that so many people were talking about pastor’s wives. It would almost be like going on an atheist blog and being offended that they didn’t believe in God.

      • Dovestar says on

        If you recall from Acts, the disciples were gathered in an upper room along with Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the fiery tongues appeared, they landed on the disciples, however, Mary did not receive one. I think this is noteworthy that the most worthy woman in history did not recurve a fiery tongue was the mother of Jesus.

      • She was commenting on a previous poster, not on Thom Rainer words. Don’t leap to a negative judgement.

        And I’m a Unitarian Universalist. Should I stop reading this blog because my theology is different than Mr. Rainer? I truly doubt Mr. Rainer would think this.

      • Kelly Colwell says on

        Wow. It was my impression that Rev. Smith was just pointing out that not all pastors have wives, let alone wives who can attend services with a specialized role to play. I didn’t hear her saying that she felt the Baptists must do something differently. Although if you’re saying you’re not willing to recognize her as a pastor or her ministry as valid, then perhaps you do have an argument after all.

      • So if the gospel is shared, taught, or preached by a woman, then your salvation isn’t valid?

      • Dr. Rainer is a Southern Baptist and his denomination doesn’t believe it is scriptural to ordain women as pastors. If you are going to post comments on his blogs, it seems to me you should respect his convictions instead of demanding that he respect yours.

    • My husband calls himself “the pastor’s wife.” It is actually a great conversation starter.

      • Victoria Parker says on

        Lol. This woman Pastor reads your post through my email daily. I take some and put in the church bulletin in hopes that people will see themselves good or bad. I enjoy and learn a lot. Merry Christmas and many blessings to you and yours in the coming year.

  • Love the thought behind the article. I’ll be forwarding this on to our 1st Impressions Pastor.

    One small thing we’ve done that has made a big impact is giving away coffee and doughnuts. It made such an impact that on one Sunday we titled “No Show Sunday” meant to show the importance of our volunteers, we didn’t offer coffee and doughnuts. People freaked out that there was no doughnuts and promptly went to Dollar General to buy some.

    I write about some other free things we give away in my post

  • What would cause me to return would be a biblical Bible lesson from the pulpit. The sincerity of the church would be a second more distant factor.

  • Chris Eaker says on

    Quiet prayer time is sorely lacking a most churches. And even when there is an extended prayer time, it’s not silent; there must always be music playing in the background

  • Please don’t take this as negative, but I am surprised by the push to ask visitors to lunch. I have never been asked before. If I would have been I would turn them down because it would make me feel very uncomfortable not knowing the people. It would also make my family feel uncomfortable and present an awkward situation for us. As a matter of fact the probability of my returning would drop dramatically. The only time I have been taken out to lunch is when I started as a staff member, as the new pastor or as a visiting preacher.

    As you can guess my family and myself are rather introverted and this would make us feel far more uncomfortable than a stand and greet time in the service because everyone is involved. Eating a meal is one of the most intimate things people do together and on a first meet I feel an invite into that level of intimacy is not necessarily warranted. It may push people away just as easily. Not everyone, even pastors like myself, are comfortable asking or being asked to lunch as strangers.

    My only hope is that I am not seen or depicted by people as unfriendly or unwelcoming because I am a pastor who is not comfortable with this practice. All the other points are key, vital, and important points and practices with visitors.

    Thanks for you articles. I really do enjoy them. I learn a lot from them and the many comments.

    • David –

      Your comments are not negative at all. I appreciate the good input.

      • Rev. Paula Wells says on

        Thom — thank you for your affirmation of this comment. I am married to an introvert and my daughter is one, and it is exhausting for them to have to meet a lot of new people. Well-intentioned church folk can sometimes be overzealous in their greeting. I have told my folks to inquire about the person’s personal space before overwhelming them with an embrace (“are you a hugger?”). But you do have to let people know you are interested. Maybe after time spent chatting lightly with a new person, you can say “Hey, would you like to grab coffee some time?”

      • This makes sense. The church I am attending now, made a big mistake, in my opinion, by handing me a paper folder filled with information and a lengthy questionnaire on my first visit. This questionnaire seemed to assume I was ready to commit to all kinds of opportunities to serve.

        I considered this to be rather presumptive. Furthermore it required me to divulge a great deal of personal information to the staff of a new church, I knew very little about. I considered this to be quite intrusive.

        In every church I have regularly attended or joined, I have taken an active role in their ministries participating in choir, teaching, substitute preaching, organizing services, etc. However, I did so only after becoming committed to the church and its ministry; not on the first visit! I responded to this questionnaire by tossing it in the waste basket.

        Because there were some other aspects of this church’s worship service I liked, I have continued to attend, but remain loosely attached. Simply put, I don’t know anyone there. I have no friends at this church. The people I have met are friendly enough, but you don’t get to know anyone in three minutes or less, during the stand and greet session.

        As the saying goes “Americans are very generous, they will give you anything but their time”.

    • Thank you. I was looking at the “follow up” surprises thinking that they would send me running after a single visit. While I have never had to church hunt, my sister frequently felt stalked by some of the churches she tried out.

  • Interesting that only one of these (#4) is actually a comment on the worship per se. Are people more interested in the other aspects surrounding the worship (important, yes)? Do they seek,want,find remarkable biblical, godly worship practices and content? Or is that assumed or even irrelevant?

    • I am surprised too. In this day instant messaging any social media has taken the place of face to face friendships. They do happen, but with less frequency. Doctrine and Bible knowledge seem to be secondary to kindness and meaningful connections. I think doctrine and biblical messages are associated with an out of touch church.

    • Since this survey was a poll about pleasant surprises the guests found, I am not surprised at the nature of the responses.

      • The assumption of the author is that a church IS continually keep the main thing the main thing, the centrality of Jesus, worship of Jesus, and foundational equipping teaching.
        I believe he is simply saying, “These simple additions could allow your guest to want to come back a second time which doubles the chances they have to encounter and come to know Jesus personally.”

      • Exactly. Thanks, Andy.

  • Sarah Stockton says on

    I also think it’s important that the Pastor’s wife makes herself know to the guest. As a Pastors wife for 54 years I found the people seem to appreciate me telling them —-hello I am the Pastors wife, most would say I was wondering who you were,!
    I also made a mental note of all the names, Dad, Mom and each child. When they came back I met them and called each by name, telling them I was happy to see them. I was told later they liked that I remembered them, especially their children.

    • Your are an asset to the church for sure, Sarah.

    • Or the pastor’s husband.

      • Steven Smith says on

        My spouse isn’t employed by the church.

      • Rev. Paula Wells says on

        My husband is a pastor — and so am I. We are at different churches. My husband’s congregants do appreciate it when I make an appearance at their functions and vice-versa, but we really do need to recognize a paradigm shift that a pastor’s spouse is not necessarily part of the package. When they are willing and able to be a part of the presence there, that should be welcomed — but when they are not willing or able, that should not reflect badly on them or the pastor. My husband doesn’t show up at my law firm every day, after all….

    • Shirley Maddox says on

      Love this! I did this when I was a pastor’s wife. People really appreciate it when you remember them, especially their names!

  • Joe Elvis, Rev. says on

    As a minister myself who was congregational care Pastor, then senior Pastor and now go out and minister in diffrent churches on how to have a multi-cultural church, how to outreach, invite and service a community in and outside the four walls of a church, these nine points are very important among many others. Visitors want to feel like the church leadership has been waiting for them for a long time, like they have a reserve seat in the santuary. Many, many visitors have been hurt by the church, and many are giving it another try. That first smile, that first hand shake, that first welcome is extremely important in order to ease that visitor. But for all this to happen you need a Christ centered staff. A staff, paid or volunteered needs to leave their personal ordeals outside the church, they need to have a Christ centered mind, remembering that we are to be Christ smile, arms, embrace, voice and ears. That we are to do first and foremost represent that God we serve. I visited and local church with my family, the serviced ended at 11:30 am, at 12:20 pm that same Sunday I had three individuals from the welcoming team knocking at our door, introducing themselves, presenting us with a welcoming bag with gifts and a basic information of what the church is about and the business cards from the Senior Pastor and key ministry people, also kids ministry information, adults ministry, mens ministry, woman’s ministry, prayer time and so on. They offered as well a prayer. I was very impressed. Every little thing regardless if we think it won’t matter, it will in the long run. Much Blessings.

    • Charlie Henry says on

      Amen! My wife and I just changed churches seeking to seek God’s will, and to seek a church that worships or immutable Abba Father God. What changed our world view – Dr John Snyder Bible study Behold Your God

    • I understand what you’re saying, but I also fear too many visitors are coming to church with a consumer mentality. They’re asking, “What does the church have to offer me?” instead of “What do I have to offer Christ through this church?” Jesus did not establish the church to pander to our every desire. What ever happened to self-denial and servanthood?

    • I was most impressed when, the day after our visit (Monday) a “visitor” came to our house with some freshly baked bread and an information packet about the church, its’ philosophy, goals, and worship. This “visitor” had the time to sit and chat with us over coffee and answered all the questions we could think of. This pleasant visit established an instant connection with the church, because we felt that we had at least one friend at this church!

      For a first time visitor, making friends is difficult but it is essential if repeat visits are to be expected. I learned later that “visitor” is an official designation in this church and the people selected are volunteers, noted for their willing and cheerful service. They are typically retired so they have time, during the week, to “sit and chat”. That is very important to me. Pastors are notoriously busy and I find I refrain from asking the Pastor to spend time with me. However I feel it isn’t too much of an imposition to call and talk to a friend.

  • Joe America says on

    None of the points are a surprise to myself. The only surprise is “opportunity to speak with the pastor”. This of coarse is a manifestation of service to political correctness and reduction of liability to breaking the rules of political correctness. Its no secret that churches are bastions of political correctness. But something to note is the fast rise in popularity of Donald Trump who is notoriously unpolitically correct. I think most pastors will choose on the side of caution and avoid real interaction, I see no reason why this will change.
    All the other points focus on the real value, direct positive social interaction of the attendees.

    • I’m not sure what this means, or what it has to do with “political correctness” or Donald Trump. I’ve never been to a church where the pastor was not available to greet people after the service, if not at a coffee hour following, then at least shaking hands and speaking with them as they are leaving. If anyone wanted to have a longer conversation, the pastor either asked them to wait until he had greeted the bulk of the attendees, or gave the person contact info to set up an appointment.

      • Joe America says on

        In smaller churches, less than 150, yes pastors do shake hands, talk with, share coffee, etc. But in larger churches I have never seen this.

        Donald Trumps popularity reflects peoples exhaustion with political correctness, its a current social shift, maybe a short term thing.

      • Uh, I have honestly no idea how whether or not the pastor is available to talk after church has anything to do with political correctness.

      • I agree with Sean. Many times it has to do with the size of the church. Pastors of megachurches don’t usually greet their people, and who can blame them? If they stood at the door shaking hands with everyone, they’d be there all day.

      • I was very impressed when visiting FBC in Jacksonville, FL a few years ago. There were thousands of people in worship, but Dr. Jerry Vines was at the main exit at the end of the worship service shaking hands and speaking with everyone who came out that way.

      • Craig Zastrow says on

        Joe – We are a church of 2000 and our pastor goes through the congregation before he speaks and greets and prays with people and then invites them to come to the front at the end of the service to speak with him. I know this is unusual for a large church but it is happening in at least one. By the way – we were one of the Breakout Churches in Dr. Rainer’s book. Come and visit us – Central Christian Church Beloit, WI

  • I would have said “I did not hear partisan politics from the pulpit” and “the sermon had relevance.”

    • Mark, YES! (to the partisan politics comment in particular).

    • I don’t know what you define as “partisan politics”. The Bible teaches that life begins at conception and that marriage is between a man and a woman. If people think I’m “partisan” to preach these things from the pulpit, that’s their problem.

      • Michael Friday says on

        Not that I want to shift (or continue shifting?) the focus from the substantive issues in the article, but tomorrow I intend, in a sermon based on Isaiah 9:2-7 (“For unto us a Child is born…” etc); to say, among other things, that this Child is the gift of life. I will say this in passing: “I wish that the people who lament the number of abortions in America also lament the 33,000 gun deaths; and I wish that the people who lament the 33,000 gun deaths also lament the abortions.” Would that be partisan, since it challenges “both sides”, or would it be fair “prophetic utterance” in the spirit of Isaiah, who left nobody feeling smug with themselves?

      • Michael Friday says on

        Oh, and to Mark: won’t that comment qualify as relevant too?
        By the way, Thom, thank you for “Breakout Churches”. I certainly hope that by now, there are far more than 13 (or was it 14?) such churches in all of America. Sadly, the one I was at when I shared the book with the key elders, didn’t turn out to be one.

      • I wouldn’t call it partisan, but I would call it bad exegesis. What does that text have to do with guns or abortion?

      • Michael Friday says on

        Well, doesn’t a sermon include BOTH exegesis AND application? And doesn’t the application arise from the “sitz-im-leben” in which the text is exegeted? And doesn’t that text address life issues (“land of the shadow of death”…”every garment rolled in blood” – which allows for fair application in the way I have applied it)? Interestingly, we probably are making Mark’s point even clearer, aren’t we? Yet, it comes down to how the preacher addresses certain points which, though necessary in his/her context, might be uncomfortable, yet tastefully communicated, as I am confident I did, yesterday.

      • eric ives says on

        as a gun owner and former serviceman, i am equally concerned about abortions and ANY murders. but i am also concerned about ANY preventable deaths. this country needs to back up and look at our attitudes toward lives. ALL lives matter and should be valued.

      • Chris P. Bacon says on

        Seems that you’re comparing apples and oranges to draw attention to yourself. You say 33,000 gun deaths, but don’t say the number of abortions. So I will – 1,000,000. Of those gun deaths, how many were helpless, innocent children murdered by the very ones they relied on for life? And you REALLY see a moral equivalence there?

      • duane dunham says on

        You’re 100% correct!

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