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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  • As a missionary servant evangelist, I have visited thousands of churches around the country in 26+ years. One of the factors to me that determines as to whether the church is going to be welcoming or not is if at least three people come up to me before the service ever started and welcomed me. I am not talking about the “Greeters” or “Ushers” because that is part of their tasks. There have been many times before the service started that I got out of my seat and left thinking to myself “For I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me”. I am not going to stay around and watch a stage show. One of the most troubling things is when somebody comes up to me with their arm outstretched but they reach over me to shake the hand of the person behind me.

  • Kevin Wicker says on

    This article is shallow — simply putting a band-aide on an open gash. Friend, you can have church in a tent and have a growing rush of return visitors if you’re having a true Move of God.
    I know this because my Dad and Grand-Dad were men of God, and we were witnesses of many great revivals. God hasn’t changed. The church has, as well as the ministry. Drastically.
    This you speak of may be true for a social club. But it’s still inaccurate. When new people come to church, the majority are searching for God. That’s what this is all about anyway, right?
    What the church — and the leadership — need is a true spiritual revival. No, let’s call it a resurrection!
    Put 2 Chronicles 7:14 into play. Watch what GOD does. Let Him draw people in. Allow HIM to move. Forsake your programs and open the door for those who need a Touch from Heaven. Put altars back where they belong, and point the people back to God.
    Yes I’m a Pentecostal. But there’s something to be said about be humble before God, living a life of Holiness, and walking in the Power of the Holy Spirit daily. It’s been forsaken and shunned as old fashioned. But it’s still the same. The church today needs a bit of Pentecost spiritually, and to understand what a real Move of God in the hearts of the people really is. It starts with the man behind the pulpit.
    Then you’d be having to find seats for the people, and seeing new members join the church every Sunday. That’s a fact.
    Then you won’t be coming up with these fruitless Top 10 lists.

    • Marguerite Colson says on

      Kevin –

      This list is a survey, nothing more, nothing less. You are way off base in your criticisms and own shallowness. You miss the point entirely. Above all, you don’t demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in your own caustic attitude and words. Your “fruitless” behavior is far worst than a so-called fruitless list.

  • I have been in services where these have been done well as well as awkward. I suppose being appropriate and a good explanation of why to the leaders during the week and attendees during worship…
    Watching Youtube and visiting churches it is possible to do ministry well. no matter if you are in a suit or flannel shirt but….. many of the posts points would keep guests from returning and are fixable if only we would begin to be aware of what is seen through their eyes.

  • Wow. I can’t recall reading so many responses to one point of Thom’s list. I always appreciate what you have to say, Thom. And, it would be helpful to have the actual data from the survey that produced the weighted responses in the list. As a mobile ministry, I have the privilege of traveling to a variety of churches. I may not have a complete picture, since most of the churches are large (1000+) venues, however, I can vouch for the fact that some churches do the “meet-and-greet” very well – other’s poorly (perfunctory). One key seems to be the leadership given by the pastor presenting that time and its purpose. Visitors sense the authentic and that begins with the Lead Pastor. I’ve also noticed that “legacy churches” tend to “clique-greet” and younger churches tend to look for new friends. Anyway, thanks, Thom, for surfacing what seems to be a sensitive topic.

  • Not one comment has mentioned one of the problems with #1 is: Where has that hand you are shaking been? What about communicable diseases?

  • Jerry Burkett says on

    In another old gospel song, it reads, who moved the piano, who setting in my pew. Who standing and shouting, thier blocking my view. Who got mud on the carpet, that carpet, that carpet is brand new. Who moved the piano, who is setting in my pew.

  • Re not giving up the prime aisle seat: some struggle with arthritis, post polio, and other orthopedic difficulties that make it necessary to be able to extend one leg. Often these folks will choose an end seat on the affected side, which may be an aisle seat.

    Let’s not judge folks who stand and let others in without surrendering the aisle seat. Pain may factor in, not rudeness.

    • I remember one of my first visits to the church I attended in college. One of the elderly ladies politely asked me if I could move to a different seat. Her husband needed to sit where he could plug in his hearing aid (he had one of those old-fashioned hearing aids that plugged in to the back of the pew), and only a few pews had such outlets. I wasn’t the least bit offended by her request, and I gladly moved to another seat.

      Is it possible that today’s society is just too sensitive?

  • lovelypeace says on

    I agree with a lot on this list. Unfriendliness is a major cause of angst in my church. It’s really obvious that a lot of people showing up in the pews would really rather be somewhere else. It’s more out of habit or checking something off the list that they are participating. We completed a church survey about a year ago and it was sad reading the responses. A good number of people said that they’ve attended for years, but don’t have any friends at church or that they weren’t welcomed in the groups that they tried to join. It just was just heartbreaking. It really speaks volumes about a church when people will anonymously write “I’d just like a friend at church” to a complete group of strangers, with the faint hope that something might change for them.

  • As somone who is Christian ministry and has visited many churches in many parts of the country, I will say all of these are very true, even for visiting fellow Christians. As an introvert, meet and greet can be excruciating. If I stand in one place, a few people may turn around and speak to me because they are told to. But most leave their pews and go hug and talk to fellow church members, so I’m standing there feeling awkward. I was recently in a new part of the country and had difficulty finding a church to visit because none of them had service times on their website, Facebook page, or answering machine message. When I did find one to visit, the first two people I encountered walking in were talking to each other at the entrance of the sanctuary. They stopped talking long enough to look at me and then continued their conversation. Not a good first impression. As a long-time Christian, I was blessed by the worship time and was able to focus on why I was there, which was to worship my Lord. But I could see how a new believer or non-believer would have been discouraged by the whole experience.

    • I agree 100% with you. I am a long time church member and I dread meet and greet. My daughter was looking to be part of a church where she had moved so I and my younger daughter went with her to a “city church”. Meet and greet- the members all around us ran up to each other and hugged and shook each others hands, but completely ignored us 3 girls. after it was over, the poor guy in front of us gave a limp handshake. He didn’t want to obviously. Never went back. Now, at my church-before the service we chit chat with our neighbors for awhile before service begins, enjoyable. Then after services begins we are told to “welcome visitors”….not many visitors around but so as not to be a stick in the mud, we have to once again run around and chit chat and hug our neighbors because we were told to do that. And have you ever went up to someone and welcomed them and ask who they were, only to be told they’ve been members here for 25 years?! I always dread it. Many times people just want to worship and be anonymous for various reasons, health issues, saddness; just want to worship Jesus in quietness and holiness without the drum roll of being “welcomed”.

    • Kevin Wicker says on

      What about a Move of God?
      Nobody said anything about that.
      I find this list pointless.

  • I disagree with #1. I believe the issue is not a greeting time, but how it is conducted and how long it takes. If visitors are put on the spot by being pointed out and made a target. Or if they are greeted quickly and then everyone else is clustered in little groups chatting away and they are ignored. Then I can see why this would be a problem. Or if the session takes too long to the detriment of the preaching of the Word then I can see as well. But I know at the church I pastor right now which because we are in a resort area attracts many 1st time visitors I know this is not a problem but a help to the ministry of our church.

  • My wife and I have long made it a practice to go around before the service starts and shake as many hands as we can. We always say something personal to them so they will know we are sincere in what we’re doing. We are always on the lookout for visitors as well because we will forgo shaking hands with the regulars to speak with visitors.

    The one thing that hasn’t worked out with our own little ‘meet and greet’ is that no one else ever makes the effort to duplicate our efforts. For some odd reason folks seem to be quite content to stay in their seats and have you come to them.

    At any rate Thom, I am sad to report that I have seen every one of your listed items in the church I attend. I tried to address some of them with the pastor but his response was simply “I hadn’t noticed”.

    Thanks for all you do!

  • I agree that the ten objections can be very real for visitors. The objections assume that we are in an attractional model of ministry. “if we build it, they will come”. Granted we do get new folks this way, but I do think that there is some truth in that we most go outside the doors of the church and bring them in. And the reason for coming will be a relationship with the inviter, the Christian who is bringing them to Christ. It won’t be too much of the other issues, if the coming is based on a relationship.