Seven Great and Seven Bad Experiences of First-time Church Guests

October 21, 2015
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If you want to make an immediate difference in your church, read these fourteen brief experiences. The readers at ThomRainer.com responded to an informal Twitter survey about their experiences as first-time guests in churches, both good and bad.

I chose seven from each of the good and bad experiences. My decision to choose those in this article was largely based on what I see and read on a regular basis. In other words, these “7 + 7” represent issues that are common in many churches. The good experiences, in particular, represent some of the best practices of healthy churches.

After each of the fourteen experiences, I cite a lesson to be learned. I hope these lessons can have specific application in your church. Most of the quotes are verbatim. Some have been slightly modified without changing the essence of the comment.

Seven Great Experiences

  1. “They went out of the way to make my children calm and happy.” Lesson: Many guests are looking for something in a church for their children. Go out of the way to make the children happy and safe.
  2. “A lady befriended us and took us to her small group.” Lesson: Assimilation and discipleship are highly effective in small groups. This church member was on target.
  3. “The pastor offered to take us to lunch.” Lesson: Connections with the pastor are highly effective in getting guests to return. Churches should consider including in the budget a meal fund for their pastor to take guests to lunch.
  4. “A church member wrote our children a letter after meeting us.” Lesson: Personal and individual attention can go a long way toward reaching guests.
  5. “The church was clean and had great signage.” Lesson: First impressions are very important to connect with first-time guests. Cleanliness and signage communicates: “We care.”
  6. “A church member invited us to lunch.” Lesson: Churches need to make certain their friendliness is more than a perfunctory greeting. This action by the church member was great.
  7. “We were greeted in the parking lot and walked to where we were supposed to go.” Lesson: Well-trained parking lot greeters can be a huge factor in guest retention. These greeters did it the right way.

Seven Bad Experiences

  1. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was a lot of internal language and acronyms.” Lesson: Don’t expect guests to speak your churchy language. Expect them not to return if you do.
  2. “No one spoke to us.” Lesson: Most churches perceive they are friendly, but they are not. Members only speak to those they know.
  3. “We were given ear plugs when we walked in.” Lesson: Know what you’re communicating by your actions. In this case, they were saying the guests were too old for the music, or the music was too loud for everyone.
  4. “My wife and I are a mixed race couple. The greeter suggested we might be at the wrong church.” Lesson: Don’t be stupid.
  5. “The friendliness seemed contrived and fake.” Lesson: If the members are only friendly during a time of greeting, it can actually be perceived more negatively than no friendliness at all.
  6. “They asked us to stand up and introduce ourselves.” Lesson: Such a request is terrifying to many people. Don’t do it.
  7. “The greeter gave me a children’s bulletin and told me I could color on it. I’m twenty years old.” Lesson: Some greeters have no business being greeters.

Share with me some of your experiences. Let me hear from you about your feelings about these fourteen experiences. Let us hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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27 Comments

  • Whenever I have entered an unfriendly church, I have always given feedback of my experience before leaving. This way, they have some insight of a newcomer’s perspective of them and, hopefully, start being more outward looking.

  • Sammy-Lee Abel says on

    Do you have any advice for a middle school ministry of 80-110 for creating an effective first time experience?

  • May I use a portion of this article for my church’s newsletter? I certainly will give full credit and provide a link to the original article.

  • anonymous says on

    Excellent experience: After visiting a church for the first time, we rec’d a handwritten note (not a typed form letter) from the pastor, saying he and the church prayed for us during their mid-week prayer meeting. It was also signed by 6-8 other church members. When we did not return for a few weeks while visiting other places, we rec’d another handwritten note saying that we had been missed and they were praying for us…and again – it was signed by 6-8 church members.

  • I am a Christian who has attended the same church since a week after I was born and have attended the same church for all of those years. Recently we have retired and started traveling. I find different churches the weeks we are gone were I am not known. I have been shocked at the different responses we have gotten upon entering the churches. In the majority we were never spoken to. In some if I had not been a dedicated to going to be in church I would have left. It has been an eye opener as to how much our congregations need to improve in making outsiders feel welcome.

  • Pat Taylor says on

    Visited a small church near a big university. What was welcoming: A greeter outside the front door cheerily said Good morning and told us we could go in the main door to the sanctuary or follow a sidewalk to a door on our right to get a cup of coffee first in the fellowship hall. A woman there was quite friendly; chatted for several minutes.
    What was not good: In the service the pastor instructed everyone to open their Bible or a Bible from the pew rack to read the scripture passage he’d be preaching on. He expounded upon the importance of reading scripture for one’s self (so far okay – but now the not okay part) Next he said he hoped everyone had a “real” Bible- The King James Bible. He said people should not read watered down versions of the Bible or translations that played fast and loose with the very Word of God. “The King James is the Only reliable translation that you can buy in our country today!” I with my NIV bible and my uncle, who’s taught Sunday School for 40 yrs., holding his RSV felt like heathens.

  • I had three different experiences visiting the same church (was visiting family and this was their church). The first one was extremely warm and friendly ( a youth service where I took my children); the second was cold and unwelcoming (a women’s service!); and the third one wasn’t cold but felt distant or aloof (regular Sunday service). I am still confused as to how I encountered three entirely different experiences at the same church. We should all try to be consistent on trying to send a message of warmth, love and inclusion. Thank you so much for this article.

  • Been living abroad for a couple years and attending various churches of a particular ancient & traditional type, shall we say, and there is mostly no welcoming or fellowship whatsoever. I *was* asked by an older woman at one church to help close a window; at another place, I was asked if I’d like to go in a line to receive oil anointing. No greets, few smiles, and definitely no meals after services. You do your thing, then leave. Children are not really welcome and don’t really come, it seems; so us having to bring our baby daughter has been kinda frowned upon, if anything. Disheartening, to be sure.

  • As an introvert and one who has worshiped at quite a number of churches over the years, I’ve always hated #7 of the bad experiences.

  • To add to the bad list: Not a personal experience but was a member of a church where if the pastor thought that not enough members went over and spoke to the guest, he would then say “ok, everyone has 30 seconds to find the visitor in the room and find out their name”. Needless to say this did more harm and they wouldn’t usually be back!

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