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

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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.

Posted on October 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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27 Comments

  • I was blessed to grow up in a part of the country where most churches were friendly. By the time I started college, I kind of took it for granted that churches always welcomed visitors. Through the years I had visited big churches, small churches, city churches, and country churches, and I never encountered one that wasn’t friendly to visitors.

    The summer after my freshman year I served as a summer missionary, and there was a little country church near where I stayed. An older man told me he didn’t like that church because no one had spoken to him when he visited there. I’d always found small rural churches to be particularly friendly, so I was sure the man was exaggerating. He wasn’t. I visited there one Sunday night, and not a single person spoke to me.

    Every church has faults, so I try not to nitpick. However, coldness toward visitors is a very serious flaw in my book. If a church is going to be that way, then it might as well close its doors because it’s lost sight of its mission.

  • S. B. Macias says on

    When no one reaches out by mail…yet emails or mail on funds for projects arrive almost daily and really still know no one even after months going on a year…aloneness Very Real.

  • Hey Thom!

    Thanks for the great post! Question – do you think Sunday morning services featuring members vocalizing prayer requests for five to ten minutes at a time might be uncomfortable for most guests?

    Thanks so much!

    • anonymous says on

      Yes. As someone who has been visiting churches for awhile (trying to find the right fit for our family)….it is very uncomfortable to hear very personal and sometimes private information about a stranger being shared in a public venue. Congregational and corporate prayer is so vital but there needs to be a balance of privacy and respect for the person who is being prayed for.

  • I have been visiting many churches since moving to a new home. Visiting a church, especially when I am by myself, can be a very lonely experience. I have increasingly noticed that the larger the church, the more easily it is to be ignored. I’ve been ignored during a time of greeting. I’ve been in a Sunday School class with 10 others and not a single person said a word to me. My wife and I have determined that when we find our next church home, we will make a point to notice and meet visitors.

  • Great lessons and reminders! Our best experience on holidays was when people talked to us after the service… And listened. And were interested. Even though they knew we weren’t going back since we were just on holidays. But that means we’re going to recommend that church to others!
    Lesson: the people you welcome may become ambassadors for your church 🙂
    Thanks for the great article!

  • Angela Starnes says on

    My cousin hadn’t been to church in years. His first time in a small Methodist country church, he was greeted with, “Oh my goodness, lightning is going to strike. Nathan ______ came to church!”

  • I can speak from experience on Great Experiences #6 — first time we visited our church, during the “old fashioned” greeting time, a couple came to us, introduced themselves, and asked if we were new. After we said “First timers” they immediately invited us to lunch. Jim and Rose “get it”.

    In our Bible Fellowship class which my wife and I co-teach, and we have a visitor or visitors, either the director and hubby or my wife and I invite them to join our “lunch after church bunch” and we pick up the tab.

  • To add to the bad experience list:

    An old established elderly couple who are definitely old enough to know better actually stood at the end of a pew and told a family of first-time visitors that they were sitting in their seat and seriously expected them to move. The family did move and then were never seen again.

  • Mike Willmouth says on

    My wife and I visited a church once, and if we would have dressed up like giant donuts we would have had the whole church flock to us and joyfully greet us. But we didn’t dress up like giant donuts, so they choose to totally ignore us in order to get to the box of donuts instead. True Story!

  • Gary Jameson says on

    Your lesson on #4 under “bad” is excellent!!!

  • We have been attending a church for about 10 years. We still don’t feel accepted or welcomed. The core of this group had broke off from another church and seem to be content to stay in their group. Having comefrom a church that was super friendly, this has been very hard. We attended a different church this past Sunday and I think we will feel more at home and connected there. People need to feel connected. It is so important, that I believe, this should be an assigned role in the church. Not just a greeter at the door but others in the church who also greet and welcome visitors.

  • Hans Hiebert says on

    It is so helpful to be reminded of what to do and not to do to have a friendly and inviting church.
    You have been very helpful in my ministry in a struggling church.

    hans

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