It’s hard to believe, but according to people who study these things, first-time guests to your church make up their minds whether they’re coming back or not in the first ten minutes of their visit.
Think about that.
Before they hear the first note of music, before they hear the first word of a sermon or before anyone stands up and says “welcome” in the service, most first-time guests have already made a conscious or subconscious decision about whether they’re coming back.
What might be hanging in the balance is someone’s opportunity to embrace Jesus.
Recently, on Episode 132 of my Leadership Podcast, I had a far-ranging conversation on a guest’s first ten minutes at a church with Greg Atkinson, author of Secrets of a Secret Church Shopper. You can listen in the player below, or better-yet, subscribe to my pocdast for free on
In the interview, Greg outlines the factors that determine whether or not a first-time guest is likely to return.
What’s surprising to me about the factors Greg outlines is that they’re actually simple hospitality, people and facility-related things.
Conclusion? Often the barrier to Christ isn’t spiritual—it’s us.
From the way you park cars, to how you greet people, to their cleanliness of the facility, the factors that determine whether a guest returns are all within our control. The problem is…too many church leaders either don’t know or don’t care about what drives people away or keeps them coming back.
Does that mean there are no spiritual barriers to a person’s return to church or to Christ? Of course not. And we could get into a long discussion about whether God draws people to himself and the futility of human effort, but we won’t.
Is God in control? He most certainly is. God is in control. But you have a role. So steward it well.
At Connexus where I serve, we constantly remind ourselves that every Sunday is someone’s first Sunday.
We’re thankful that God sends people (as you are)…and we want to make sure that we’re not the barrier to someone coming to Christ.
That said, it’s so easy for us to miss the things that become barriers.
So in that spirit, here’s how to lose a first time guest in ten minutes or less.
1. Have a bad online presence
When was the last time you bought a new product, went to a new restaurant or even took a vacation without checking things out online first?
Ditto with people who are thinking of visiting your church. There’s a high probability that they’ll check you out online long before they’ll ever check-in their kids on their first Sunday.
It’s not 1987 anymore, so why act like it in your church?
When was the last time you thought about your website from the perspective of a first time guest? Same for your social media accounts or pages.
Most people will check out a church online long before they check out a church in real life. It doesn’t matter whether you live-stream your services or not, a simple website with basic information for a first-time guest is helpful. (Here’s an example from our site at Connexus Church.)
Your site doesn’t have to be perfect, cost $10,000 or even be totally what you want it to be. You just need to let the guest know you’ve been thinking of them and give them the basic information they need.
Here’s a basic question. Did you build your site mostly for your attenders, or for your first-time guests?
If it’s only for your attenders, why?
2. Make parking frustrating
You’ve done it. I’ve done it.
We’ve gone to a store to buy something, only to abandon the trip because the parking lot was jammed or we couldn’t find street parking.
Whether you’re downtown and relying on street parking or have your own lot, helping guests find adequate parking is so important.
Many churches now have parking teams, and that’s a great idea.
Having clearly identified people who can direct traffic into marked spaces really helps. Our team at Connexus will often clear snow off people’s cars in the winter while services are happening or walk people to the door with an umbrella overhead when it rains.
Want a clear, short expression of a great guest services vision? Check out Gwinnett Church’s Guest Services video. The team at Gwinnett Church even takes pre-schoolers into the building on wagon rides. 4 year olds love it. 🙂 I’ll bet parents do too.
You’ll never know how many people you lose because they couldn’t find parking. Why? Because the people who give up will rarely tell you. They’ll just give up.
3. Under-greet guests
Many churches say they’re friendly. But what they mean is they’re friendly to each other.
Unless you have a well-trained guest services team made up of people who love people, your first time guests will probably be under-greeted.
Well, because we all naturally talk to people we know, not to people we don’t know.
First-time guests need an appropriate welcome, clear directions to what’s next and the sense that there are people there who knew they were coming and are able to help them.
4. Over-greet guests
Because churches have had a reputation for being cold and indifferent to outsiders, some churches have gone overboard in the other direction.
It actually is possible to over-greet guests.
If you get high-fived in the parking lot, hugged at the door and have your had shaken 15 times in the lobby by people with plastic smiles, you’re probably not coming back either. In fact, every introvert (including me) will likely run back to the car and peel away.
It’s a tough thing to know when welcoming people is too much or not enough.
One rule that’s helped us at our church is simply this: greet people the way they want to be greeted.
Recruit emotionally intelligent guest services people who can sense if someone is an introvert and merely wants a ‘welcome’ or if a guest is an extrovert looking for a warm embrace and a conversation.
If you greet everyone once or twice and let the guest set the temperature of the greeting, things tend to go much better.
5. Make kids check-in complicated
These days, one of the first things young families do on arrival is check in their kids.
The more complicated it is and the longer the process, the more difficult you make it for families to return.
Safety and security are critical, and church leaders need to collect a meaningful amount of information.
Two quick hacks can help this. Spend a bit of money on good technology. Get some updated tablets or computers that actually work (kids ministry usually suffer from hand-me-down syndrome) and give them meaningful wifi bandwidth so they run quickly.
Then, overstaff your check-in area. Have check-in people meet parents while they’re waiting in line and take their information so when they get to the front of the line they just need to get tags for their kids and go.
Many churches (including ours) have separate lines for first-time attenders and regular families. That makes it easier for everyone because once the data is captured, you don’t need to get it for a second-time visit.
You can’t underestimate how important this process is. During a recent sermon at our church, I asked the congregation how many people were parents with children at home. About 80% of our attenders put up their hands.
Imagine frustrating or losing 80% of your attenders before they even walk into the service.
6. Keep your facility tired and dirty
The problem with your church is the same problem you have with your house: you become blind to the imperfections and problems.
You no longer see the cracks in the sidewalk, the tired paint job, the dings in the drywall, weeds in the flower bed, bad smells in the nursery or the lime build-up on the faucets.
Kids areas are so key. Many churches use old toys and high chairs that aren’t even safety rated anymore and wonder why they have no young families.
Bathrooms should be spotless. And paint should be fresh. So many churches try to save money by having volunteers paint…and it looks like it.
If someone volunteers to paint, make sure they have the spiritual gift of painting.
Don’t even get me started on storage that leaks into every corner and crevice of the buidling. Unless you’re auditioning for an episode of Hoarders, clean out your junk.
A dirty, cluttered and disorganized facility signals that you don’t care about them. And that’s a shame, because God does.
7. Confuse them
Even in a small church building, it’s not always clear where people need to go.
Clear signage and a guest services team that is sensitive to when people seem to be lost as to where to go really helps.
You may have clever theming for your kids environments or student environments, but make sure your signage is still clear for first-time guests. So while we call our pre-school Waumba Land, the sign in the main foyer says “Ages birth – five.” It’s just simpler that way.
Similarly, with the main auditorium or sanctuary, restrooms and other areas guests need to access. Just be clear.
What Barriers Do You See?
Notice that we’re not even in the auditorium yet? Yet, according to experts, the guest’s mind is largely made up about a second visit at this point.
I pray we all get great at welcoming people to church the same way we would graciously welcome someone into our homes. The Gospel is just too important for us to miss some of the basics of hospitality.
The interview with Greg Atkinson gives many more insights. I hope you check it out!
In the meantime, what other barriers do you see and how have you overcome them?
Scroll down and leave a comment!