Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Guests (Re-visited)


By Thom S. Rainer

The research and the post got me in trouble five years ago.

So, why am I re-visiting this issue?

Over the past few weeks, I have been involved in micro consultations. We bring ten pastors together for one and one-half days of intensive training and practical planning. With four of these micros completed with forty pastors, I still hear how important this issue is.

We want people to visit our churches. We want them to return so they can have multiple opportunities to hear the gospel and connect with believers. But many do not return. Why? In a social media poll, I heard from over 1,000 persons sharing their experiences of being “one and done.” They visited a church one time but did not return. Five years ago, these were their top reasons. Not much has changed in their responses today.

  1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. Those who want to debate this issue are longer-term members in the church. They are split almost evenly on their preference. But, among first time guests, the response is an overwhelming 90 percent negative. The stand-and-greet time is for half your members and almost none of your guests.
  2. Unfriendly church members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it.
  3. Unsafe and unclean children’s area. This response generated the greatest emotional reactions. If your church does not give a high priority to children, don’t expect young families to attend. Since I posted this information five years ago, the safety issue has come to the forefront.
  4. No place to get information. If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.
  5. Bad church website. Almost all of the church guests went to the church’s website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a church’s website are street address and times of service. It’s just that basic.
  6. Poor signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it anymore. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there. By the way, if you have prohibitive signage (“Do not bring food or drinks in the sanctuary!”), your church is perceived to be unfriendly.
  7. Insider church language. Most of the respondents were not referring to theological language as much as language that only the members know. My favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.”
  8. Boring or bad service. My surprise was not the presence of this item. The surprise was that it was not ranked higher.
  9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches. Since I did this survey five years ago, I have more stories about it. The stories are not apocryphal.
  10. Dirty facilities. Some of the comments: “Didn’t look like it had been cleaned in a week.” “No trash cans anywhere.” Restrooms were worse than a bad truck stop.” “Pews had more stains than a Tide commercial.”

These ten issues persist in too many churches today. Do we really want guests to visit and return? Countless churches are saying “no” with these ten problems.

Let me hear from you.

I bet I will!

If you would like to learn more about the 2020 micro consultations, join me on Monday, October 21st at 12:00 pm Eastern for a webinar, Grow Church Attendance 10% in 2020. Register for the webinar here.

Posted on October 14, 2019

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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  • Kathy BarberI says on

    I have moved to a new area and have visited probably 6 or 7 churches. One church I attended for 2 months. I filled out their contact card twice over that time. Never was contacted. I attended Sunday School for probably 6 weeks of that time. The teacher never introduced himself or asked my name. So I attended the Wed evening Bible study. Same thing. I went to a new church. I went to a SS class last week. The teacher never asked my name or introduced herself. One couple told me their names. That’s it. Class of about 15 or more. If you’re a teacher and someone new shows up in your class……introduce yourself! Ask their name! Introduce them to the class! Ask the class to introduce themselves. Basic stuff. Don’t be a clique. We are supposed to be the church. I am struggling to find a church that loves.

    • I’m so sorry you had to be treated this way Kathy. All Churches should be focusing on how to make newcomers feel welcome and part of the community. God wants us to behave with incredible love towards others, especially newcomers. I’ll pray that you can find a loving Church that values you. I know very well the feeling of trying to find a new Church and being discouraged with uncaring attitudes. We all need to be family to each other, no matter who we are and what were going through. We have no excuse. Jesus died for us, the absolute least we can do is show some friendship to fellow Christians.

  • Kevin–amen!

    Loud Music–we went through that with a grandchild. Turns out she apparently has perfect pitch and very sensitive hearing. When she started diving under the pews to avoid the loudness we had to search hard and long for a church that understands music (whether an organ and hymns or contemporary and band) does not have to be loud. If anyone nears ear devices let it be the musicians. Then they can hear without blasting the rest of us. And no need to blast us during the preaching. Let those with hearing difficulty use hearing assists rather than ruin the ears of everyone.

    The church we chose was loud BUT when we explained our needs to her SS teacher we found the whole service got toned down very quickly and she loved “her church” while we lived there.

  • What’s crazy is that all of these are easily overcome with focused leadership and limited resources. Thanks for this great reminder, Thom.

  • This is just a survey that is intended to help church leaders. I encourage pastors to conduct your own survey within your own context. You can do with it what you feel led to do by God.
    It is beneficial to have surveys like this. More than once, I’ve witnessed the church member who runs off others be the same person who later blames the pastor for the church’s decline. A survey such as this can perhaps help diagnose the problems.

  • Loud Music says on

    Loud music. Then the trite “Oh, we provide earplugs!”. This does not work for my child. My child cannot tolerate loud music at all. And even with earplugs, can still feel the floor vibrate from the loud music. We are currently churchless because of this because I can’t find a church that doesn’t blast the music. It’s very depressing. Why do pastors care about loud music more than they do my child?

  • If the points on this list apply to you, take them to heart and work on it. Otherwise just let them roll off.

  • As a member of a small, struggling church, I am concerned about attitudes expressed here as well as by some of our church members. Sadly, if I was an un-believer I would run the other way if approached inside or outside the church by someone with attitudes as expressed here. We need to remember that we are all vulnerable to sin even if we have accepted the Lord Jesus as our Savior. We need to be very careful so that we do not become spiritual bullies.

  • I have mixed feelings about much of what I have read here. I personally hate that moment in a worship service when you’re called to greet those around you. I’m an extrovert, but it nearly always seems contrived to me–a pressured occasion for feigned interest. I will personally never implement that in our church, but having been a pastor for 40 years, however, I am also slow to criticize this method or that. I tend to believe that what matters is having cultivated a pervasive culture of hospitality in which the guest is regarded at the most important person in the building. And that takes vision, creativity and hard work. It means doing what any conscientious host or hostess does: thoroughly anticipating the needs of your guests and then thoroughly meeting those needs with as much love and creativity as you can muster. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should show up as a priority in your church budget. And it should be somebody’s job, whether paid or unpaid. One final note: it all begins with the Lead Pastor. If he is a genuinely hospitable person, chances are that shadow will be writ large throughout the congregation.

  • Alex Clayton says on

    Guests are invited – Visitors are drop ins. Change the lingo – Oh # &

    ADD to the list: Number one sin of a church of any size.
    Number 1: A visitor that comes to the church and absolutely no one talks to them. BTW: handing them a bulletin is not talking to them.

    Thank you for your list:
    The #1 failure to #1 is #2! Their are members who will not participate and they are usually sitting next to the visitor. Its like going to “high five” someone and there’s no one there. Visitor ends up feeling stupid and embarrass. Can’t get this moment back, so they don’t come back. Solution: Have an authentic welcoming team from “street to seat” as Nelson Searcy put it.

  • When we moved to a new city we visited several churches in search of our new home church. One in particular stands out because we went for three consecutive Sunday’s and the pastor and the worship leader were the only two people to welcome us. Everyone else just stared at us but didn’t speak. Actually, we couldn’t believe this was happening.

    I was so shocked by this that I emailed the pastor after the third Sunday to let him know what our experiences were in his church. Sadly, he never responded to me. Can you imagine what someone would think who hadn’t been in the church for several decades?

    • I went to a Southern Baptist Church for over a year and no one there even asked me my name. The Pastor said hello a couple of times, but after that he ignored me. None of the leadership ever even acknowledged me apart from one Deacon who said hello a few times. It was like I was haunting the place. It was insanely unfriendly and unwelcoming. I kept going for so long because there aren’t many good churches in my area.

      It’s incredible that in a Church of hundreds of people not even one could be more loving than your average non believer.

  • I believe most of these issues have some relevance. I am keeping the stand and greet time. Milk drinking ‘So called” Christians will not dictate all aspects of the service. God forbid if the Holy spirit moved in a mighty way. People might become a Buddhist. I’m tired of surveys and the like!!! God is to awesome for mans mess!!!!! That’s why the gate is narrow.

  • I would imagine number 9 includes “saving” seats with the church bulletin as well. As much as I would like to think that we do well on all of these, this is something that I despise… And it’s always the back row seats. Rarely do you see “bulletin” saved seat on the front rows… imagine that?

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