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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  • I chuckled at the brother’s comment about having music notation and harmony; I’m the worship arts director at our church, so I’m certainly not opposed to that! I think that may be a generational preference as well as other specifics because there is certainly no scriptural mandate for it, but I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words that the body of Christ should sing in unison because singing different parts puts the emphasis on “how good do I/we sound?” and takes the focus off God. Of course that did not dissuade us from singing choral music, but we do strive to maintain an attitude of humility in our singing.
    However, what strikes me as the most welcoming is the congregation that demonstrates Jesus’ words: “By THIS will all men know that you are My disciples, that you have love one for another.” This is not to the exclusion of visitors, of course, but little is more off-putting than to hear one church member speak unkindly of another. There is a big difference between feigned friendliness and genuine love.

  • Chip Northup says on

    I like to walk around the church and greet as many as I can before the service. I can tell people appreciate and it seems to create a more jovial spirit. I think the joy spreads.

  • People arrived prior to start of the service (instead of arriving late,) actively participated in singing, responsive readings, prayer, communion, etc. (instead of just being a passive audience,) and did not cause distractions (instead of chatting among themselves throughout the service.) The pastor was enthusiastic about Jesus, preached from the Bible, and respected the church body’s time and intellect. The mutual dedication to and care for for Christ, the church, and its leadership is what caused me to return.

  • When we moved to a new city, we of course looked for a church that taught the Word. There were several, I’m glad to say. But the church we chose to stay with also had several unique, creative, memorable elements in their services. For example, one Sunday the sermon was about how God gives us grace to live one day at a time. The pastor intoned, “One day more…” and began to sing the song “One Day More” from Les Miserables. Next thing you know, another church member joined in the song, and then another… and a “flash mob” (who had clearly had several rehearsals) sprang up from among the audience. It was amazing! (Grace Life Community Church in Bristow, VA)

  • Yes, these nine things are positive, but they are exceedingly trivial and most quite self centered: how did they treat ME. One thing should matter most, and it was not mentioned: was the presence of the Holy Spirit of God evident in power. Without that, I would conclude that I had wasted my time, which is why I do not ever attend a corporate church. Since coming to that realization, my life has been filled as never before with blessings, fruit, joy and true revival.

  • I love how non of these really require a program of any kind or even a budget. Just people being kind and spending time with someone who is looking for a church family.

  • Phil Hoover says on

    I remember visiting a certain congregation, many years ago.. The greeter had no idea where the restroom was, and no one ever spoke to me before, during, or after the service. I never returned.

    • One summer I lived near a little country church, and I was interested in visiting it. Someone advised against it. He said he’d been there once and not a single person spoke to him. I thought he was being too sensitive. I’d attended little churches like that many times and always found them quite friendly. I finally visited there one Sunday, and he was right: not a single person spoke to me, either.

      I’ve read comments on this blog from introverts that complain about churches being too forward. I’m an introvert myself, but I can’t stand a church where no one speaks to me. As far as I’m concerned, such churches might as well hang a big sign over their doors that says, “Visitors not welcome. Go away.”

  • It is a shame that no one responds “The preaching of the Word of God struck my heart” or “The Lord really spoke to me through the minister” or anything of the sort. That is the problem with the churches today. There are so many “programs” to appeal to the people. Please show me where programs were set up in the church in the Bible? If someone is drawn to a church because of a program, or something that the church does then they are there for the wrong reason. You know what drew people to come back when Paul preached? It was hearing the Word. They didn’t have to receive presents to want to come back to church. Paul in no wise appealed to the people with “wisdom and cunning” like what goes on today. Paul did not try to appeal to the people, he preached the Word.

    Churches in our day have become nothing more than social lodges and rock concerts. What a shame.

    • You are right, of course! Feeling welcome and making contact with others is essential for those who are new. If this is done well, they will continue to attend and benefit from the sermon message. However, if the message is trite, without conviction and at least a little bit of passion, they will lose interest.

      I once heard that every sermon should include, at least one, “AH HAH!” moment. I try to make sure there are as many “Ah Hah!” moments as possible in my sermons. I feel it is essential to deliver significant facts, new perspectives, exciting possibilities and, most of all, hope! There is plenty of depth to draw from, in the bible.

  • I read your comments with great interest. I just finished my Sabbatical where I visited churches that were noted fr practicing Radical Hospitality. Over the course of three months, visiting churches of different denominations, as a Visitor, I have to say how disappointing it was to have so many churches not practice as they preach. Of the 12 visited, only one responded with a follow up email the next day or two. Several fund the Pastor to be so busy they didn’t even mingle at Fellowship, several churches where members did not extend themselves outside an occasional Passing of the Peace Moment. We have three minutes to make an impression on our visitors, if they do not feel warmly greeted or welcomed (outside of being invited to lunch or given a gift, which we do not do) the chances are they will continue to look for a spiritual church home. My wife always tells me “I am not the Minister, but i do minister” in her interactions, but she considers herself a member of the church and not one whom people necessarily go out of the way to meet, outsideo f regular activity.

    • With all due respect, I think that is expecting too much (an immediate warm inclusion). For a visitor to be totally unacknowledged is sad, but an introverted visitor will be observant of many things about the church without being glad-handed or contacted the next day. Churches need to be careful about promising too much. A grace-centered sermon, unveiling the beauty of Christ in the Word, means everything to the spiritually hungry.

  • When we moved to a new town, we visited ONE church and decided it was for us. The -teaching was Biblically sound, the music was a wonderful mix of the old and new – but the surprise? A married couple and their marriage counselor went on the platform to report. “You have been praying for the Smiths for the past year during this tough time in their marriage. We have come to report that they renewed their vows on Friday. Thank you for your care and support. Please continue to walk with them through this.” We were so impressed because so many people back away from the church when things are hard (or life isn’t “looking perfect”, or someone is struggling with sin). Instead of demanding a perfect image or being judgmental, this church welcomed, supported, and prayed for people who were struggling.

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