first time guests

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.

P.S. If you take kids ministry and student ministry seriously and haven’t check out Orange yet, do yourself a favour and start now.

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.

If You Really Want to Reach More People, Some Help


A better first time guest experience is one aspect of positioning your church to reach new people. But, as you know, getting a stuck church growing, or helping a church that’s reaching new people grow even further can be daunting.

It doesn’t have to be.

Whether you’re a church that isn’t growing, has plateaued, or whether you wish your church was growing faster than it is, I’d love to help you break through. That’s why I created the Church Growth Masterclass.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

Naturally, I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow.

You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The 5 keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
  • How to increase church attendance by increasing engagement.

The Masterclass includes a complete set of videos that you can play with your team, board or staff, PDF workbooks that will help you tackle the issues you’re facing, and bonus materials that will help you navigate the most pressing issues facing churches that want to reach their cities today.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

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 addition, I did another interview with Greg on what happens in the service and how to make it a better experience. You can access Episode 185 of my podcast here via the show notes or directly on iTunes.

In the meantime, what other barriers do you see and how have you overcome them?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Lose A First Time Guest in 10 Minutes or Less


  1. Charles Fleshman on June 1, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    I am a pastor and I have seen people so interested in keeping the members that are there..there that they have no interest in saying “hello” or making sure their needs are met when they attend. It actually boils down to this…. We must be comfortable enough to do the following:
    After they have found a “close up” parking spot and they ahve entered the church… do the following…
    1. First expect people to come.. by asking them to…
    2. When they do come… act like they are and especially their children, that you are really glad they came.
    3. Take their children “along with the parents to where their children will be taken care.
    4. Be sure these facilities are sparkling clean. Mom’s especially can tell if the area is…
    5. Then and only when their children are taken care of, do you take them to their classroom or the sanctuary.
    6. When the fellowship time comes along in the service make them feel welcome, but don’t swallow them up with people. 3-4 are best.
    7. Make sure the parents have a bulletin of the upcoming events in the church.
    8. Create a visitors’ packet with important information like an upcoming calendar, something that they can put on their frig… to remind them of their visit, a visitors card that you instruct them to fill out an place in the offering plate as it passes by during the service.
    9. Lastly, when the service is over help them secure their children.

    That’s the ABC’s of new comers. A: Affirm they are important..B Be suren their children are taken care of…. and… C clarify who you bare as a church by giving them information about the church as ask them to fill out the visitors card… Oh by the way Pastor… Be sure to touch base with them by the next.. Tuesday…
    Thank you for sharing…

  2. on June 1, 2019 at 2:44 pm

    Some genuinely good information, Sword lily I noticed this.

  3. Mary Carver on November 22, 2018 at 10:28 am

    Hi Carey! I just left a message on your post about working with millenials. (I can’t seem to find another way to contact you on this site.) I work with the editors of and, and – like the first piece I commented on – they’d love to share this post with our readers! Would you allow us to republish it on our sites? We will, of course, give you full credit as author and link back to the original post. Thanks for considering these requests. I look forward to connecting with you!

  4. Megan Weston Brousseau on March 28, 2018 at 8:20 am

    Thank you very much for this. When we prepare to have a guest at home we clean, declutter and do everything possible to make it a welcoming place. It’s important we are intentional about doing the same thing at church because after all, it is home!

  5. Alfred Gomez on March 27, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    Very good article. Thank you!

  6. Helmut on March 27, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    Have you ever gone to a mall and someone takes two parking stalls or parks on the line? I have attended churches were careless church people park the same way. It is an automatic turnoff. I assume that the church is as careless about people as they are in their parking.
    Another issue that can be improved is the welcome person could introduce themself to any person that they do not know. It automatically brings some connection to the person and they church he or she represents. Surprisingly the guest may volunteer their name to the greeter and strengthen a bond of fellowship.

  7. CJ on March 27, 2018 at 10:40 am

    One way to lose a significant portion of the population is to have zero accommodations for people with disabilities. If there is no wheelchair ramp, or if it looks like a steep and risky afterthought, people who use a wheelchair or a walker won’t even make it to the front door. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg–inaccessible restrooms, basement fellowship halls, or a chaotic children’s environment can all be addressed with a little creativity. Failure to even try says “We don’t care.”

  8. Evergreen, SAM, and ReEquip | crossroadsdistrict on March 26, 2018 at 10:36 am

    […] As you prepare for Easter Sunday, take a moment to review this resource from Carey Nieuwhof that outlines some of the common mistakes we make as we welcome people to our churches: Carey Nieuwhof article […]

  9. […] How To Lose A First Time Guest In 10 Minutes Or Less […]

  10. Anita Gilbert on November 8, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    Very good article. I am a greeter at times and found this article very helpful.

  11. James on October 18, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    This is ludicrous. Most new people to church arent new people. They are church hoppers looking for the best place to consume and be served. Which if you want those people your church isnt about making disciples who make disciples. Anyone who it is their first time is usually because someone they know brought them. I would suggest it rare a person just stumbles in.

    It is our personal investment outside of the church as we show them what the kingdom is like that will draw them into the church. Of course church being the people here. I love how everything is about comfort and convenience now as that was what Jesus was all about. As if!

    • Pam on October 20, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      James, your labels are insulting. I guess I am that “rare person” because I “stumbled in” at every church we have ever joined. At no time did we go to a church at an invitation from someone and we were not “church hoppers.” Granted, it is usually a mixture of ways people find churches but a “stumbler” cannot and should not be ruled out. We have to be prepared for everyone.

    • Laura Bogner on March 27, 2018 at 8:57 am

      I would have to disagree that new people aren’t new people. Many of the new people recently at our church are first time church attenders not hoppers. Some have recently come with no connection whatsoever to the church. I agree that it is not just about what happens in the church but also outside the church that will draw them. We need to be the church outside the walls of a building since this could be the only point of contact for many new people.

    • Jeanette on April 9, 2018 at 10:01 am

      James, we were stumblers. We moved here and first thing needed to do was find a church to attend. We weren’t invited by anyone. We found that most churches never bothered to greet. As we sat in a pew waiting for church to start we listened to people gossiping about other members. In another church we heard people discuss how “so and so family will be upset they lost their pew today”. I asked if we had taken someone’s pew and they said “Oh they won’t mind.” We felt like intruders, so we never went back to either one. Almost got up and walked out. The other thing during service is everyone stop and greet the people around you and shake hands. That made me uncomfortable and did not make me feel more welcome. Felt more like a ritual. The one time we were invited to attend a church. It is really warm and friendly, so we were told. Well, it sure was for those who attended all the time. But as first timers we were left on our own. Never went back. We weren’t “hoppers” we were looking for a church to attend that met our spiritual needs.

  12. Stu on October 18, 2017 at 10:22 am

    As far as greeters go, I don’t believe that training is the most important thing but rather the heart. If a person has a genuine heart and love for people, that love will naturally come through when greeting others and will be felt as being real, not practiced or rehearsed. You can’t train for that.
    I have been on both ends of this. My greeting has influenced newcomers to stay and the poor reception has caused me to not come back when visiting.

    • Pam on March 27, 2018 at 9:41 am

      I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. At the same time, in my home congregation greeters with genuine heart and love for people sometimes direct their heart and love towards their friends coming to church on Sunday morning. They can be so focused on loving (visiting with) their friends, that the newcomer who enters gets little more than a perfunctory “good morning”, so eager is the greeter to get back to her conversation with her friends. These good-hearted people don’t even realize they are doing this. And so I think training is important and periodic reminders are required.

  13. Wayland Lankford on July 31, 2017 at 11:15 am

    How does a church go about asking any of their greeters to step aside? Some people feel they are God’s gift to greet others – that’s their gift. However, some greeters need to be updated just like the facilities need to be updated. I could go on with examples, but trust that my point can be addressed.

    • Pam on March 27, 2018 at 9:47 am

      It takes courage to step into this dynamic. I recently explained to some folks that we have others who want to play a role and that it is important to integrate new people into the life of the church and to give them opportunities to serve, so those of us who’ve been around a longer time need to step back and make room (and take a rest). You’ve probably tried that already, so I don’t mean to sound know-it-all. Here’s where more courage comes in though: when you have to outright say to someone that it is time for them to step into a different role. It goes without saying that supporting the person(s) in exploring what that different role might be, is the loving thing to do. Church culture that gets stuck in being “nice” is not a healthy culture.

      • Yvonne on May 27, 2019 at 3:36 pm

        I agree sometimes being “nice” is not always the best solution ; however be supportive is the Godly thing to do. I’ve seen people with hurt feelings and take a offense at being asked to step down. Courage and humility are must in these issues.

  14. […] If you want keep losing unchurched people, here are 7 ways to do it quickly. […]

  15. […] Carey Nieuwhof   |   How To Lose A First Time Guest In 10 Minutes Or Less […]

  16. ServantHeart2012 on May 10, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Thinking about parking, DO have easily identifiable people in the parking lot to help get folks into a convenient parking space. DON’T have your parking lot greeters ‘direct’ people from the street all the way to a particular spot like the gestapo! They are not police officers directing traffic around an emergency and shouldn’t be trained to order people to park in successive spaces like they are at an outdoor festival. Some people may need to drop something off before parking. Some are seeking handicapped parking. Some may want to park away from the building to get a bit of exercise. Lighten up and let people park where they want as long as safety isn’t being compromised. Place orange cones as visual cues to guide people or close off areas as needed.

  17. Christopher Wright on April 1, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    Good article, Carey! Just wanted to kindly note you need to fix the wording of your title. 🙂

  18. […] Read more and listen in: […]

  19. Jeremy Q. Butler on March 28, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Very Good and Very Humbling! I am a part of a team at our church that welcomes our first time guests! I’ll pass this on!

  20. Chuck on March 28, 2017 at 8:51 am

    This is a humongous pet peeve of mine in the Church today. Having recently been a secret church shopper (put down the tomatoes, folks, we had moved to a new state. LOL), I can vouch for many of these experiences personally. One thing that will send me out the door never to see me darken it again, is the fakey-fake greeter. Greeters, be sincere. I know it’s IMPOSSIBLE to remember everyone’s name after a 3 second intro, but DO make sure your personality and whatever other effervescence you exude during that interlude is somewhat comparable to your demeanor if I later ask you where the water fountain is, or if you can direct me to wherever…. When I see people pull a 180 on their greeter vs. non-greeter personality, I pull a 180 and, well, you know….
    I could go on. This is a ginormous issue for me. But let’s let others have a bite or two. 🙂 Great article, Carey!

  21. Elizabeth Wharton on March 27, 2017 at 9:15 am

    I love what you said about emotionally intelligent greeters. That is so important. We lose authenticity when we apply a one size fits all greeting method. Authenticity in the lobby goes a long way in helping people feel receptive as they enter the service.

  22. mlukaszewski on March 27, 2017 at 8:28 am

    This is an excellent article. My key takeaway is simply the word “intentionality.”

    Most of the things Carey mentioned here don’t cost a lot money, but they do require thought and planning. It’s being intentional about what you want to do and stopping to notice the impression you’re making on new people.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 27, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks Michael. You’re so right. So much of this is about attitude and heart, not budget. Love that!

      • Walt Greenleaf on March 31, 2017 at 7:22 am

        Thank you Carey. It seems that we’re losing intentionality in many churches today. I pastored a small church for almost two years. Every room was a different pastel color. When I brought up that we needed to be more asthetic by getting down to one basic color scheme which would be more attractive for new/first time visitors one of my two deacons commented, “we like it the way it is, we don’t care if visitors like it.” Unfortunately, it was at this point that I knew I needed to move on because they had already made their choice of intentionality. I agree that these are major things that don’t put a bind on the budget, but it is important that churches understand that the budget reflects their intentinality as well.

        • Jeanette Richardson on July 31, 2017 at 9:58 pm

          True. Also ownership. “MY DADDY BUILT this sancuary, and we’re not changing it”. oh and recycling the same people for the committees and officers never inviting a newcomer to hold an office or head a committee, even though the new comer has been a member for 10-15 years. It’s laughable if you didn’t watch very good people just leave, so sad really.

    • Chuck on March 28, 2017 at 9:51 am

      Can I vote this one up four times??

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