Is Your Church Calling Visitors By The Wrong Name?

Kenny Jahng —  2009/07/30 — 9 Comments

Here’s the reason why most churches aren’t growing fast enough or even at all:

Churches are disillusioned about their “first-time guests

Ask most visitors to a church which is the most apprehensive part about stepping foot in a new church?  You can give them some options — Is it. . .

  • making you wear a name tag that screams out “I’ve never been here!”
  • shaking hands and saying hi to strangers during the “Passing of the Peace”
  • made to stand during service in front of an entire group of strangers
  • being chased down to fill out intrusive “first-time guest visitor cards”
  • OR pressured into staying for the after-service coffee hour where no one is probably going to talk to them

The answer will be YES.

Similar questions were in fact asked about first time visits to church.  Some of the answers give you a clue as to how they want to be treated. . .

  • 11 percent said they would be willing to identify themselves as a visitor when visiting a church for the first time
  • 63 percent said they would prefer to wait until at least the second visit to let anyone know they are visiting
  • 26 percent of formerly churched adults said they desire to slip in and casually introduce themselves after the service.

Of course there are churches that are thoughtfully approaching the entire “assimilation strategy,” mapping out a visitor’s experience from the first time, 2nd time return, all the way to membership and service. 

Rich Birch, formerly from north of the border (yes, they have churches in Canada too, eh?) has been talking about the 90% of first timers that don’t return.

So aren’t we calling this group by the wrong name?  Aren’t these First-Time ONE-TIME Guests, not first-time guests?

It is interesting that part of the discussion is centering on an interesting sliver of the first time visitor experience plan: “the gift bag.” The knee jerk reaction is to figure out what else can we can give away so that they don’t go away?  The discussion of gifts for the gift bag sometimes extends to follow-up incentives to “claim their reward/gift” if they come back a second time.  This is just silly IMHO.   Isn’t this akin to scenarios in the marketing industry where brands become reliant on couponing and promotions to gain any sort of response?

Liquid Church recently handed out hundreds of free movie tickets to intice and reward first timers in a campaign tied to a “At The Movies” series.  Is this the best way to get people to return?  The jury is still out on that one.  I’m sure it will be effective, but the question is it cost-effective?  And are there alternatives that are MORE effective, and less costly?

The only issue I have with focusing on “the gift bag” is that only 16 % of those who receive a gift bag from the church after the first visit attribute it to making the decision to make a second visit.   So it shouldn’t be the centerpiece of the assimilation strategy.  And if it’s the obligatory brochure, pen and magnet type thingies in there, perhaps there are better ways to use the money typically poured into this tactic.

Take the simple finding that 41% of people who had direct contact/visit from the pastor after the first time at church said it was the most important influence in returning a second time.  Another 25% attributed a call from the pastor.  Similar numbers are reported for personal contact with church members post-visit.  Wonder why those home visits where the church members drop off a freshly baked apple pie were so popular in the “good ol’ days”?  Perhaps because it works.

This tells me that it’s not the gift bag, free cd’s, pens, magnets or colorful (and expensive to be just thrown out at home) brochures.

If you look at 15 reasons why people won’t return a second time to your church, none of these are solved by giving stuff away or claiming rewards for showing up:

  1. No welcome from the parking lot to the pews.
  2. Finding the right door to sanctuary appeared difficult.
  3. People in the pews held on to their “good seats.”
  4. Too many “churchy insider words” like doxology and introit throughout the worship experience.
  5. No safe, clean nursery for the babies and toddlers.
  6. No sincere greeting extended by pastors or members.
  7. No warmth or hospitality extended.
  8. Missing joy and a spiritual atmosphere.
  9. No sense of family in the church community.
  10. Very limited reaching out to outsiders or strangers.
  11. Very few ministries or activities for youth or children.
  12. Public recognition of guests that left them feeling uncomfortable.
  13. Appears to be no vision or purpose for the congregation.
  14. On Sunday morning, members and ushers seem focused on “member only” conversations.
  15. No one invited them back.


What this list screams is that personal attention and tactics where the pastors, staff, *and* current congregation members live out an outward-facing culture is the holy grail.

You have to ask the tough question about what type of culture your own church lives out RIGHT NOW:

Is the purpose of your church to serve as a social club for its own members?  Or is it in existence to welcome, embrace, and assimilate any newcomer that walks in the door?

Here’s a in-the-face example of what I’m talking about: my kids attended a VBS at a local church this week where we are not members.  During the entire first evening‘s registration and reception, not one person said hello to our family.

The first three people *we stopped and asked* about where to go for registration said they didn’t know and then returned to their own circles of conversation.

The fourth person finally told us where to go.  Did we want to return here the next day to drop off our kids?  How would you feel?

You can critically read this scenario, but I bet that this happens in your own church all the time to differing degrees.

First things first.  You have to decide if your church is ready to be purposefully outward facing or not.

If so, this is not a strategy, campaign or process.  It is a way of life.   There are several things you can implement immediately.

Another critical point to understand is that all this is not a mandate for the pastor or staff alone.

It must be lived out by everyone who attends your church regularly.  Just as everyone knows where the bathrooms are, they need to understand how to greet welcome and enfold the one-time visitors to your church.

The first step to seeing if this is taking place in your church?  Counting how many times you overhear “Hello! Welcome to ____!”

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9 responses to Is Your Church Calling Visitors By The Wrong Name?

  1. kenny . . .

    thanks for the mention.

    i need to get back and finish this series on first time guests . . . 😉

  2. Rich, it was great to be nudged to think about this stuff.

    I think one of the simplest shifts we can make it to call it what it is — the one time guest. If we even took that actual language and talked about them as "one-time-guests" our thinking would change. I bet we would start to look at everything we "give away" and "invest" in these one-time visitors and wonder if it's worth it. That 90% of them – that's pretty much all of them, won't ever come back.

    If that's the case you'd talk to them differently (or actually talk to them for the first time), give them different messages/signals, and certainly different goodie bags.

    We have to remind ourselves that the Gospel message is about relationships, not prizes and iTunes gift cards…any efforts that prioritizes return visits over authentic relationship building isn't Gospel-centered and something to be reconsidered…We cannot cannot cannot have the former without the latter!

  3. I'm wondering where the poll was taken. I pastor in California (SF Bay Area) and the feeling I get here is that visits are intrusive. Are the pastoral visits "pop in" or scheduled?

  4. I would agree with johnwyp this visit from a pastor or leader in the first week would be intrusive. You would have to put pressure on first time visitors to get their home details so you could visit them aswell.
    Maybe this is a California and UK issue? I would like to know how they go about getting people details and getting them to agree to a visit all in the first week?
    Could it be that the 41% who liked a visit from the pastor in the first week were part of the 10% that would have come back anycase?

  5. @johnwyp and glenn khan – Great thoughts. The link is live in the text above to the PC USA survey. Here's the direct link again:

    You can contact the author of the research as well via:
    Email the author: Jack Marcum
    Research Services
    100 Witherspoon Street
    Louisville, KY 40202
    (888) 728-7228 ext. 2040 (voice)
    (502) 569-8736 (fax)

    If you do find some more details, I'd love to feature some follow-up here, so please do share any more information you find out.

    This is such a critical issue, and if there are successful tactics to bring people back, we should be trying to spread that knowledge as much as possible.

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