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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  • If we are not willing to ask the difficult questions and put ourselves in “guests” shoes, we are trying to help more people come to church and to Christ. We are just defending the status quo. Dr. Rainer, thank you for republishing this and hopefully, every church will have difficult conversations to make our places of worship better to reach more people!

    The bottom line is, “are we doing our part to make sure that every person has a great experience and comes back to worship and become more like Christ?”

  • Guy in the Pew says on

    The reason #8 is not ranked higher is because people have already formed opinions about the other seven by that time.

  • I would be embarrassed to learn that any one of the ten listed reasons were the cause of a visitor not returning to the church where I serve as pastor. However, I am completly aware of a more problematic reason people do not return to our church. Visitors often ask me, “what does your church have to offer my family?” My typical reply is, “A place where you can learn the Word of God, grow spiritually, and serve the Lord making disciples.” Aparently this is not what most people are looking for in seeking which church the Lord is leading them to. Our budget is too small to have paid staff serving people inside the building. I follow that comment up by explaining the work of missions our church members do locally and globally after being encouraged and equipped to do the work of ministry in our corporate worship services and small group study. I’m ok with not having repeat visitors after this exchange. The local church would be stronger if we counted the cost of following Jesus as much as or more than trying to weigh the benefits.

    • Bravo! That’s precisely the point I was trying to make. Many small churches are doing the best they can, but many so-called “Christians” think they’re too good to join them because they don’t have enough resources to suit them. Has it occurred to anyone that maybe – just maybe – Americans are too doggone picky?

    • M. D. Grant says on

      You hit the point, at least with me!

      As someone who is in the process of waiting on God to plant me where he can use me WITH the body, not for the body, people (especially Christians today) will only serve in a PAID position.

      I don’t believe ANY (The Pastor who serves as the leader should be taken care of and provided for, as is biblical) position should be paid. We are looking for a body serving the lost, not using tithes and donations to pay parishioners who will only serve for money.

      We’re looking for a body on fire for souls not a body of individuals seeking an additional money making opportunity for self.

      When I was a kid, the housekeeping was handled by a group of lady volunteers (rotated among all), the grounds and buildings were maintained by those members skilled and who had the equipment and tools. The church might have needEd to buy supplies, parts, ac’s, furnaces, etc. but the labor and many materials was an OFFERING to God, by the members. The only volunteers to make an offering to God through sweat equity (cliche’) now days are those cooking and the nursery (in a few churches).

      I was welcomed and sat in on a business meeting of one of the churches we were visiting and the person cleaning the church was being paid more than the interim pastor…..that says something. Pastors can’t focus on the flock because they are having to work full time jobs in addition to support their household. Teach the hard teachings like Paul, not the feel good teachings. Teach the teachings that convict parishioners and visitors alike to want Jesus Christ; not the worlds feel good messages. Even when Paul was in prison the church took care of him; not just in prayers but provisions.

      Big buildings and more bodies in those buildings isn’t what Christ’s message was…it was choice. Gods Grace through Jesus Christ to return to Him in Heaven by resurrection with Jesus Christ or Gods Judgement through eternal damnation in The Lake of Fire with Satan; The Anti-Christ, and Hell……..for eternity………Simple; Our CHOICE!

      God and Satan have both chosen each of us; who will we choose!

      As for the meet and greet; I’ll say this….Parishioners miss the MEET instruction! Meet and greet the visitors, not your neighbors and friends. People (those lost and even those who know Jesus Christ) are looking for a body to be welcomed and included to be part of. When during the meet and greet, visitors aren’t the ones being welcomed and meeting leaders, teachers, and members alike; it says the body doesn’t NEED or WANT outsiders.

      I want to be joined to a body whose leaders are leading the body to get off the pews, go outside the doors, and share Jesus Christ. I want a body on fire for souls for God; not big buildings with more bodies. Take Christ to the world and God will bring what The Church needs to the church.

      People who are proud of the building and number of people in that building they are “worshipping” in, are not worshipping God but the $$ those bodies bring. God doesn’t need our money to meet our needs or give us our hearts desires; he wants our money to meet the needs of those who don’t know Him in His Name so they will learn through us…….we follow, trust, seek, and obey Him, and He handles the rest for us. He strengthens us to do, receive, and see the impossible done!

  • Our church has seen more than a hundred visitors in 2019 but our growth is very slow. As I read the list in the article, I honestly don’t see where we are missing the mark on most of them, preaching may be suspect:-). We have a great follow up system but we get very little feedback about the visitor experience. Do you have any advice on collecting visitor feedback that could help us?

  • I agree and disagree with the meet and greet. Yes, I am a longer term member. The problem is we make this about ourselves. Having a moment to get up and say good morning to others and shake hands is OK and yes depending on size could be =/- 50% but it is a good time to go and shake a visitors hand as usually they slip in and out before you can get to them. I for sure do not like when the church highlights the visitor or makes them stand. If the meet and greet is only about you, not worth it. If leadership and bible study class members will go and introduce and genuinely give them their name, invite them to class, just let them know your glad their at service and if they need anything just ask, I cannot see how that could be seen as a negative.
    Anywhere I go, at a conference, meeting, etc. if group is mingling and some seek to welcome me, I always see as a positive that without being prompted by speaker that they spotted me and welcomed me.
    I have had many contacts with visitors during service like this. Only takes a minute and if I catch them after service, reinforce that glad they came and give them my name and again invite them.
    I am not sure I fully understand the first comment of the guest not liking the meet and greet unless it is all about the members, then I understand. At any other round tables, I think that needs addressed as to what they do not like and is it because they are setting there and no one says anything other than a quick handshake which just highlights them as visitors or if people sincerely were welcoming them, would that be seen as a positive and not a negative. Just my thoughts.

  • Dave Matsumura says on

    Thanks Thom. I’m grateful for the reminders. The stand and greet time is a cherished exercise in my church. In trying to control it and make it more comfortable and purposeful we changed it to passing Christ’s peace and moved it later in the service. For many it’s still a stand and greet time and my congregation loves it. I can understand the discomfort for visitors but warm and friendly is one of the descriptions our new members all give for why they chose to join.
    Help me understand other ways that churches use to be hospitable and express their compassion and friendliness. Help me understand what visitors prefer. Do you have a survey that shows what these same people like when they do join a church? Thanks for your research and sharing.

  • “The preacher, he’s too young, or maybe he’s too old;
    The sermons, they’re not hard enough, or maybe they’re too bold.
    His voice is much too quiet-like, sometime he gets too loud;
    He needs to have more dignity, or else he’s way too proud.

    The sermons, they’re too long, or maybe they’re too short;
    He ought to preach the Word with dignity instead of stomp and snort.
    Now that preacher we’ve got must be the world’s most stuck-up man;
    One of the ladies told me the other day, “Why, he didn’t even shake my hand!”

    That’s from an old gospel song called “Excuses”. I’ll leave it at that.

    • This seems like you are the one making excuses.

      • Is that so? My church has an Awana program, an active youth program, and we do a Good News Club in our local elementary school. We are also actively involved in community ministries, such as our local food bank and our crisis pregnancy center. We usually put together some 250 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child (which is quite remarkable for a church our size), and we’ve regularly been named as one of the top per capita givers to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. We’re just a small country church, doing the best we can with with what we have. Yet because we’re not toeing the line with all of these modern trends, people jump to the conclusion that we somehow love Jesus less than they do, and I’m getting a little sick and tired of it.

        You were saying…?

  • I would add, smoking by the entrance.

  • Charles Deglow says on

    Having retired recently, I have experienced what others have expressed as “faking” friendliness. I suppose some individuals feel the need to meet the criteria of a “good church member” and get credit for shaking hands with everyone even interrupting sincere conversations to do so. It is annoying.

  • Richard Rothwell says on

    One I have noticed is people who get into service and get at end of pew and when guest members come in they have crawl over because they are not giving up the”prime” seat. I always, if I first on pew, move to the middle so any new does not have crawl over me. Even standing up in aisle so the guest can move to the middle is wrong. What if the person that had to crawl over is touch and wants to make a decision and they cannot as they feel uncomfortable to have to crawl out.

  • Kevin Smyth says on

    The number 1 reason since I have found by taking a private poll is the service was to LONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • MARGE STEVENS says on

      I believe a minister should finish his sermon , but also be aware some people are not physically able to sit in a long period of time. now to me is when it should end around noon for the morning service or close to it a few min over I s ok. you loose their attention and if kids are in the worship service then they will get restless which bothers the parents…..

      • It seems most preachers have never taken homiletics. Just because a man thinks they are called to preach does not mean they know how. IMHO, many people come to church to fulfill a God commitment. Someone should take a survey of parishioners five to ten minutes after the sermon has ended and ask: what were the main points and scripture texts. I doubt many would remember anything, and what does that communicate to what is going on?

    • If we eliminate 10 minutes of shaking hands with people, then the service should not go too long. Also, if the person in the pews is being engaged in worship, the time really should not be an issue either. We have all sat through services that we were just ready to end. The goal is to end with them wanting more.

    • Guy in the pew says on

      When a service seems too long it’s usually because the preacher has nothing to say.

  • The way you framed item 1 is clear, but you are biblical wrong. The Greek word ‘ekklesia’ = “called out ones.” And, those “dedicated to the Lord” form “one body.” Those who have a personal relationship with Christ Jesus are not passive, but “living stones.” Non-believers and “dry bones” will never understand those united with Christ. A radiant church cannot contain an outpouring of love for one-another.

    Inviting people to church is not wrong – but the great commission is to GO! If people met Jesus before coming to church your 10 items would be a non-issue. Worship is what believers do where ever they are.

    Funny – it seems proper to introduce yourself everywhere, but church.

    • Harold O'Leary says on

      Steve –

      I am not clear. How is Thom biblically wrong in #1? I don’t see what you are seeing.

    • I don’t know whether it’s biblical, but I definitely see a contradiction between #1 and #2. That’s why I quoted the song “Excuses” below. The excuses people give these days are just as trivial (and contradictory) as the ones cited in the song.

      Let me say clearly that my issue is not with Dr. Rainer. My problem is with people who come up with endless excuses for not attending church.

      • These are not excuses for not attending “any” church, it’s a reason for not attending “this” church.

        Every believer would likely agree that Biblical hospitality is an important Christian virtue. Hospitality is basically making your guests fell welcome, comfortable, valued, and safe. Every one of these points is some variation of feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, not valued, or unsafe.

      • But that’s just the point: many churches are offering hospitality, but the visitors still aren’t happy with it. I was always taught that it’s rude to complain about other people’s hospitality, especially when they’re doing the best they can.

      • Guy in the pew says on

        There’s no contradiction. Many people complain about the meet and greet as being fake friendliness.

      • No, many of them complain about it even if the friendliness is genuine. I’ve seen their comments on this site. They complain that the church isn’t friendly enough, or that they complain that the church is too friendly. That tells me they’re just looking for excuses.

      • Most members don’t like it either. Churches need to have opportunities before and after to greet each other. The in service forced time is not necessary and causes introverts to have great anxiety. Our church got rid of it and it has been wonderful. People still have plenty of legitimate ways to respond to each other warmly.

      • I disagree, Jamie. I read one of Dr. Rainer’s blogs a few years ago saying visitors didn’t like the “meet and greet” time, and I mentioned it to our church leadership. We decided to quit doing it. After a couple of years, the change had made no noticeable difference in our church attendance, and a lot of our members missed it, so we brought it back.

        I realize every church is different, so I’m not suggesting all churches should do the “meet and greet”. On the contrary, I am very strongly against the “once-size-fits-all” mentality, and that’s part of my reason for posting these comments.

      • It really depends on the individual church, in my experience. In our last church–a large one–it did seem like going through the motions and not genuine. I our current church–about half the size of the previous one, it is quite genuine.

      • Exactly!

      • I don’t see a contradiction between 1 & 2 at all. That assumes that the only time on a Sunday morning that people will greet one another is during that short greeting time, when you really don’t have time to form a real relationship anyway. Rather than giving a couple of minutes during the service for people to shake a bunch of hands and do the perfunctory “greeting,” it’s far better to equip our people to be warm and welcoming all the time, and to approach new people before and after the service, when they actually have time to really fellowship and forge relationships. Someone will object, “What about the people who come in just as the service starts and leave as soon as it’s finished?” And the answer is: those folks aren’t going to value an in-service greeting time. I say all of this as a pastor of a church that still does the in-service greeting time, and I’ve been open with my church board that I’m deeply ambivalent about it. I really don’t see it serving guests, and the people who take advantage of that time are generally people who are going to talk to one another outside of the service anyway. So, if the greeting time isn’t serving guests, and is actively dissuading them from returning, what’s the good of it?

      • Whether you have a “meet and greet” time is between you and your church. That’s not my point. My point is, people can’t have it both ways. People grumble when the church is too friendly, but then the same people will complain when the church isn’t friendly enough. They can’t have it both ways.

      • Carolyn Honaker says on

        Sometimes people do come with a defensive attitude, ready to pick apart every aspect of the facility, people and service. It is our mission as members to show them the positives and make them feel welcome in God’s house and accepted by the church family.

      • I don’t see a conflict between 1-2. I’ve been a visitor by myself in a church and felt super awkward during that time because I didn’t know anyone.

        I tend to by shy around new people and having people come up to me like that while I’m already uncomfortable makes it worse. Or if the church is unfriendly it might make me feel even more awkward if no one came up to me.

        I prefer to be greeted by a few greeters and have a genuine conversation with someone.

    • Guy in the pew says on

      So…. where in the Bible does it say to have a formal meet and greet where people grab hands simply because the guy on stage told them to?

      • Read my comment again.

      • I have been serving as a “secret worshipper” for a few months and when I read your responses, Ken, I feel like you are making excuses and trying to justify why someone doesn’t return to your church. I can tell you,from my experience, there is a huge difference between making a visitor feel welcome and the formal in-service meet and greet. One focuses on the newcomer, the other is all about current members and exclusive to the visitor.

      • You don’t even know me or my church, so on what basis do you make that judgment?

    • Guy in the Pew says on

      Most people visiting churches come from other churches and have, presumably, already met Jesus and yet these ten items are still an issue.

      For those who are not believers, are you going to tell them they’re not allowed to attend until they meet Jesus?

    • Dude, seriously! Really. Seriously?

    • I would argue that inviting someone to church is going.

      • Russ Davis says on

        Ironically Jesus never did; he went as he commanded/commands us to do. So much for our unBiblical notions only concerned with man, not Jesus’s example or commands (e.g. calling the Syro-Phonecian woman a “dog” she embraced vs vile “seeker sensitive” worldliness rejecting Christ and his divine election), which all ten of these are, with no consideration of God’s Word as with many if not most of today’s “churches.”

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