In a recent conversation with a pastor I admire greatly, he commented, “We love seeing first-time guests, but we really love seeing second-time guests. We know those folks are serious about connecting with our church.”
The conversation leads to an obvious question. How do we get first-time guests to return? Have the answers to this question changed since the COVID pandemic? In our conversations with people visiting churches, the reasons guests don’t return remain the same. Here are the top ten reasons from guests before the pandemic. While a lot has changed, some things stay the same.
1. “I will not return to a church that has a stand-and-greet time.” We heard from over 1,000 guests, and 90 percent of them gave us this response. If you are thinking about bringing back this activity to your worship service, think again.
2. “The people are unfriendly.” Most church members think their church is friendly because the members are friendly to each other. Many guests felt like they were treated like unwanted outsiders.
3. “I could not leave my child in the children’s area. It was filthy and unsafe.” This concern has grown since the pandemic.
4. “I could not find any information on the church.” Even though most of these guests visited the website, they were still looking for an information center or persons to give them more information.
5. “The church website was terrible (or did not exist).” This issue is more of a first-time guest issue than a second-time guest issue, especially in the post-pandemic world. For most guests, if you have an inadequate website, your church does not exist.
6. “The signage was terrible.” The primary complaints were about inadequate parking signage and directions to the entry of the church.
7. “I heard a lot of insider language in the worship service.” Please avoid acronyms.
8. “The service was boring, and I did not understand what was happening.” Guests have choices. They will not choose a boring church. The first-time guest will not become the second-time guest.
9. “Someone told me I was in their seat.” Yes, it still happens.
10. “The church facilities were messy and dirty.” A lack of attention to the facilities communicates loudly that the church does not care.
Though the rankings of the reasons may have changed slightly since the pandemic, the reasons have not. And any church should be able to find ways to overcome these challenges.
Let me hear from you. What do you think about these ten reasons?
Posted on August 15, 2022
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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What is meant by “stand and greet time” here is it the same as “passing the peace” or is it visitors are called out during the service to stand and…what… be greeted?
We invite visitors and newcomers to the courtyard after the service to meet the clergy, or “straight down the hall” to meet the welcome team, get more info, and have any questions answered by one of our deacons. We find that a fair number of newcomers enjoy that loose structure as an entrypoint to further engagement.
I am so glad #1 is on the list. When I visit a church on vacation the worst time for my family (specially the kids) is the stand and great time. Nothing makes me feel more out of place. It may be great for the members but horrible for guests.
Your point is the key issue, Jim. Thank you.
Thom, your books are very good. I have read all of them. I attend a church that is 200 plus years old and has very low attendance. A big worship is 20. Most Sundays it is 8 or 10. I started reading your books to see if there was anything I could to help. I got hooked on your message.
I am honored and grateful for your comments, Larry.
All ten reasons are valid, but #1 is often the most overlooked. As a retired pastor, I’ve witnessed the downside of welcoming guests this way. 1. Often members ignore guests and go directly to people they know. 2. Guests have told me that this way of welcoming them seemed too programmed and fake. Some have added that no one spoke to them before or after the service, but only during the “forced friendly” time. 3. Some people want anonymity and to be left alone, and adding that a genuine welcome from the pulpit was more than adequate. 4. The practice is very unsanitary. 5. It is a distraction from worship and is a waste of time.
Your points are on target, William.
As an alternative to #1, what works best today to welcome and obtain visitor information so a connection can be made with visitors once they leave. Filling out a “Connect Card” by way of a QR code has had a very mixed, even dismal response.
I agree that many of the things you have stated are true. Another problem is that so many churches still have live broadcast that keep people at home.
Thank you for this.
I feel we can only do something about something if we know.
This helps us know.
I am a great believer in exit interviews, Why has some one left?
I don’t mind if they feel this is not the church that God has for them, or they are moving away, but I do mind if it is because we have failed in some way.
No. 1 blows me away. I ask myself why would they not like meet and greet (I love it).
The only reason I can come up with is they are made to feel more isolated. People meet and greet those who they know already and a visitor is made to feel surplus to requirements.
To me unless a church has a heart for visitors this would be an ongoing issue.
I do always try to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Would I come back if I was not made to feel welcome.?
Welcoming strangers was not evident initially in our church, but it is being seen more and more.
A landslide starts with one but becomes many.
But maybe this completely missed the mark. I would be interested to know why people do not like meet and greet.
Hey Peter – I really enjoy #1 too. I don’t know why this makes people so uncomfortable. Has anyone found any alternatives that still make guest feel recognized and wanted?
The issue is whether we desire to have a welcoming church or a church built on our preferences. In our research, 90.1% of guests were clear that they loathe the stand and greet time.
I have been in church literally all my life but I recently moved and have been trying new churches in the area. And I can tell you for a 100% fact that I have stood in a new church and actually tried to engage during “stand up and greet” time and I have been ignored and walked around. So, I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone that is standing there not knowing what to do and being actively ignored. If I felt left out and isolated and I actually knew what was going on can you imagine what others not in my position feel like? It was awful and insulting and isolating and I know now that it’s not about “our” preferences if we are seeking to be a growing church. If you really want to understand what it’s like you should drive out of town one Sunday to a town where you don’t know anyone and experience it yourself. Like me, you might have a whole new appreciation for the “guest” experience.
Great points, Kesha.
When I pastored churches I periodically and apart from the worship service asked my members to be sensitive and real in seeking out those who they didn’t recognize and approach them privately before or after the service to extend a greeting. Guests perceived this to be real and genuine. We did away with “Grip and Grin” for good.
For a pastor of an old mainline church, “boring service” and “didn’t understand what was going on” are constant concerns. What’s the alternative or the way out? “Boring” depends upon who is feeling bored or what tends to bore them. “Didn’t understand”–we can do something about that, but the best way to gain understanding is to become a repeat visitor. The Spirit is at work, if and when visitors attend. Is the Spirit also at work if they don’t return? New habits aren’t always easy to form. People will gravitate to a church that feels like a good fit for them. If we, then attempt to retool church to fit what someone is looking for, does that have an effect on the faithfulness of our worshiping? How to maintain a balance between a “seeker-friendly” atmosphere and a biblically-grounded and biblically faithful worship service? How to balance transforming worship and being transformed by worship?
“Boring” is usually related to quality rather than seeker-friendliness or compromise. We have worked with hundreds of churches using the “secret guest” guide. If you really want to reach your guests, I suggest you ask someone in your community, preferably unchurched, to be a secret guest. If you do that three or four times in a year, you will see a pattern develop. I recently worked with one pastor who admitted he used “biblical worship” as an excuse not to make the necessary changes.
I would be happy to give you the secret guest survey if you write [email protected]
#1 is surprising, but understandable considering how isolated we’ve become as a society. #9 is disappointing.
Yes, it is.
Or as one elderly saint in our church recently told me when complaining about a visitor who encroached upon ‘her side of the church’, “they should know my family has been sitting here for years”.
Yep, she actually said that.
As the Associate pastor I felt like walking out the door and never coming back because her attitude is not in the minority here. It’s absolutely draining when you realize how embedded people are in their own little cocoon.
These top 10 are very helpful. Thank you.
Among these, what did you find out about people stating, “We wanted to know what the ‘Next Step’ was and either could not find it on their website (your #5), or it was never communicated in the service.”
In other words, there was no direction or assistance as to “What’s next?”
Where did this rank, if at all.
I would have been included in number four.
How sad this “list” has not changed in years. For many, many, many…. years, you have been warning churches and pastors of these exact same things to be aware of.