Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First-time Guests

NEW RELATED POST: Should Your Church Stop Having a Stand and Greet Time?

If you attend a church regularly, you’ve probably noticed the phenomenon. A guest shows up for a worship service, but he or she never returns. It is, unfortunately, a common issue in many churches.

I did a Twitter poll to ask these first-time guests why they chose not to return to a particular church. While some of the responses were anticipated, I admit being a bit surprised with some of them.

Though my poll is not scientific, it is nevertheless fascinating. Here are the top ten responses in order of frequency.

  1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. This response was my greatest surprise for two reasons. First, I was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, I was really surprised that it was the most frequent response.
  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.
  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. Most of the church guests went to the church 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 website are 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 any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there.
  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.
  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.”

There you have it. The top ten reasons first-time guests said they did not return to a church. I can’t wait to hear from you readers. You always have such good additions and insights.

Posted on November 1, 2014

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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  • Today I went to church for the first time since I was 12 years old, so it’s been 13 years. What’s funny is the sermon was about Luke 14:15 and seemed really relevant. Also the pastor was talking about that story from a year or so ago where that grandma accidentally texted some random kid when her grandson changed his number over Thanksgiving and ended up inviting him for dinner.

    The pastor asked me to stay for the lunch, so I went in the other room and made a plate. He must have been busy because I never saw him and nobody spoke a word to me while I sat at a table alone while everyone else talked with each other. I left my plate and I’m just sitting here in my car at home now…

  • Roger Metzger says on

    The “top ten” list was informative.

    When my siblings and I were small, our parents were lay leaders in the churches of which they were members (five different locations between 1944 and 1962) and they anticipated that we, too would be leaders, if for no other reason that we might be “missionaries” in the sense of going to places where there were few or no Christians and we might live there for a year or more at a time. Accordingly, our parents instructed us to always think about how a visitor might respond to what was said and done in church buildings. They suggested that, whenever possible, we sit next to an empty space in the pew and imagine what kinds of questions a visitor sitting there might ask about the meaning of what was said or done or the reasons for doing things as that congregation does them.

    In addition to the items on the “top ten” list, here are things that make it difficult for me to invite visitors.

    Pastors or Sunday school teachers being dogmatic about passages of scripture being interpreted as allegorical. It doesn’t bother much if passages are interpreted as allegorical but I have found that some preachers can be as dogmatic about that as other preachers are dogmatic about interpreting passages “literally”. My advice: preach with conviction but without the dogmatism. There is a difference.

    Pastors preaching a political sermon. For the benefit of everyone and especially visitors, it is better to teach biblical principles and let the members and visitors decide for ourselves whether or/and how to apply those principles in the political arena.

    Greeters with high squeaky voices. Even if the friendless is genuine, high squeaky voices can put children off. Adults too sometimes.

    Telling people what to do. This takes many forms but the most common is telling people to stand or sit or to turn to a hymn in the hymnal or to a Bible passage. It is possible for even lay members to be taught how to make every such suggestion as an invitation and do so in such a manner that the person in the pew will be comfortable participating or observing as he sees fit. Some pastors seem to need validation almost as much as they need a salary. This often takes the form of saying “Amen?” several times in each sermon. An extreme form of this problem was the pastor who told me he can tell what a person’s “spiritual condition” is by how that person responds to that pastor’s preaching.

    While we are on the subject of congregations in general and visitors in particular being told what to do, telling people they should attend worship services regularly needs to be included on that list. Yes, we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together but that isn’t necessarily a reference to assembling in a church building. When that advice was written, Christians didn’t have church buildings as such. I my not-so-humble opinion, they didn’t even have formal worship services, much less the liturgical types of services some congregation have in the twenty-first century.

    Too many prayers. Don’t get me wrong. I pray. I encourage people to pray. I teach people how to pray. Prayer certainly should be part of any worship service. But people in general and visitors in particular can get the impression that church leaders think God will hear them because of their much speaking. It is appropriate for someone to invite the Lord’s presence at the beginning of the service. It is appropriate to ask the Lord to bless the offering. It is appropriate for each service to include a “pastoral prayer” wherein a more extensive thanksgiving is included than in the other prayers and a more extensive list of requests is tendered. (Even the pastoral prayer can be too long.) But if there is a prayer of invitation for the Lord to attend our gathering and a longer pastoral prayer before the sermon, what impression does a visitor get when the pastor (or other speaker) seems to think that those prayers weren’t enough and he has to pray again at the beginning of the sermon (or, worse yet, begin addressing the congregation and then stop to offer yet another prayer)?

    Attempting to include a mini-sermon as part of a prayer. This often takes the form of, “We know that…..” as if the Lord doesn’t already know what we know.

    Adding a phrase at the end of a prayer that the typical non-Christian will utterly fail to understand. The most common one is “…in thy name amen.” Jesus did instruct us to pray in his name but what does that mean? He also taught us to pray to our heavenly Father. In which case, to pray in Jesus’ name is to ask that our heavenly Father do things for us for Jesus’ sake that Jesus does deserve but that we don’t deserve. If the prayer is addressed to “God” or “Our Father who is in heaven”, it makes sense to end the prayer with the phrase, “…for Jesus’ sake.” My wife and I have a 92-year-old friend who is a retired pastor. He often ends his prayers with the phrase, “…for we ask it in the name of our wonderful redeemer.” Now that’s something most visitors can understand.

    The “every head bowed and every eye closed” syndrome. I’m not opposed to inviting visitors to make a first-time profession of faith during a worship service but HOW that is done often leaves much to be desired. Appeals to emotion may be “effective” in the sense of persuading people to do things–and I’m an emotional person so I don’t mind if people express their emotions during a worship service. Manipulating people’s emotions so the preacher can have more notches in his belt, however, drives more people away from the Lord than are attracted thereby.

    Too much time between the parts of the service. This can be mitigated to some extent by keyboard musicians who can use music to “tie together” the various parts of the service. It is better, however, to simply minimize the time intervals. If the next thing after a prayer is a “special” musical number by a soloist or small group, for example, it is better for the musician(s) to be ready to step onto the platform right after the prayer than for them to wait to be “introduced”. If the congregations thinks it is important to provide information about the musicians, a note in the bulletin should suffice. I wonder whether some of the habits of some congregations were developed years ago when one or more “leaders” thought people would think they were shortchanged if the worship services lasted less than an hour.

    Members sitting in the ends of the pews so visitors who don’t arrive early have to climb over people to find a seat. There are all kinds of good reasons to want to sit at the end of the pew instead of in middle but members who do so can at least pay attention to how many other people arrive and move to the center of the pew as needed. Failure to do so gives the visitors the impression that the members think of themselves as more important than the visitors.

  • I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance between #1 and #2.

  • Great points!! Not having a place to get information about the church is a big one!

    – Zach

  • I too was feeling shy about offering my hand in peace to people nearest me in church, but I ‘sucked it up’ and pushed myself to do this with a smile and a nod.

    It has become easier during the two plus months of not missing a day of the ‘4-day a week’ early morning Mass, but what has made it more difficult than it should be is that I feel as though I am tolerated on the fringe of this small, faithful group, but not accepted.

    There have been two member’s in the past month who have had birthdays, blessed by the Priest, and celebrated by ‘everyone’ going out after Mass for breakfast.

    Needless to say, I have not been included in the invitation in fact, I have never been approached by the any of the parishioners, or introduced to the Priest. I have learned first names by hearing them said when others have offered them the “sign of peace”.

    My daily solitary walk from the church to the parking lot is getting to feel very long and lonely.

    In all fairness, it has been many years since I attended church, but I am now officially a ‘senior citizen’ as are most of the 8 women regulars at this early morning Mass.

    I initially felt comfortable with the thought that a small group of mature individuals would have amassed an understanding by now of what it feels like to be excluded; but I was wrong.

    No matter, the ‘bottom line’ is that I am welcome in this small church by God himself.

    Only He knows the peace and joy that I feel when I commune with Him, but it is a fact that people generally have a great need to feel accepted within a group; how much it would mean if even one of those women had extended an invitation to me so that we could get to know and perhaps feel more comfortable with one another.

    I can only think that they feel that they can’t stop me from coming to “their” church, but that they don’t have to actively encourage me.

    I can most certainly understand anyone who stops trying because it hurts to be excluded by other humans, or, who continues on in the hope that ‘one day’ they will be accepted and shown hospitality of the kind Jesus himself would approve of.

  • Richard Primbs says on

    When I was in college a good friend invited me to a church Christian group he helped lead. When I showed up he took me around and introduced me to his friends — and hung out with me the entire meeting when he wasn’t up speaking. I was very well received into that group and I loved it.

    Later, at another University, I was invited to a Christian group. This time, when I showed up, my “friend” did not take me around and introduce me to people. He didn’t had time for me himself, and I found it a little hard to break into the groups around the room and get to know anyone.

    The leader of that group invited a guy, who played on the football team, to a social. I introduced myself and said “hi” but hardly anyone else would speak to him. Maybe people were intimidated by his size? The group leader did not go over and talk to him, and did not take him around and introduce him. Of course he did not come back. And the leader got up, at a later meeting, and told us that we needed to be friendlier.

    I tried a number of small churches in the Sacramento area. The one that I liked made me feel “included”. A family seated next to me noticed I was new, introduced themselves, and invited me to eat breakfast with them after the service at a restaurant that most of the church ate at. It was a very friendly sociable church.

    I tried other churches where I felt like people were thinking “Who is he? And why is he here?!” They seemed intent on grilling me and finding out if I was really a Christian. And of course all of their Bible studies were full..

    I attended a Newman Club (catholic) show in Salt Lake City. They had singers, musicans, magicians, dancers, etc. It was a relatively small group, but it was very entertaining. Afterwards we went out for pizza. I got in line behind the guy and the girl who hosted the show, introduced myself and complimented them on the show and went to sit down at the long attached tables with them and the rest of the group. They stopped me and told me “These seats are taken.” and they directed me to an empty table — where two other new guys joined me. I didn’t go back.

  • michael says on

    If I want to find fault in a church I will surely find one . I can be petty if I want to but I asked myself how hungry am I to serve Jesus . When I look at my brethren that are persecuted in other countries and the world even United Nations are at best silent about it . I will serve Him and love Him and if the church has faults in my opinion I will pray ( we do sooooo little) to make sure my attitude in not in the way .

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