We have plenty of guests in our services,” a church-planting pastor recently told me. “But they don’t seem to want to come back.” I’ve heard similar comments more than once in recent months as I have ministered in our churches.
It started me thinking. . . . It’s true, most churches have Sunday guests. They come because they are invited by a friend or neighbor, see a sign on the church lawn, or come across the church’s ministry on the Web. But in many churches, only a small percentage of those newcomers return. Yes, some may have legitimate reasons for not returning, but I think there is often more to it. I believe there’s a need for a more intentional approach to reaching out to our Sunday guests these days.
Here are my observations about visitors who do come back.
1) They were made to feel welcome from the moment they pulled into the parking lot.
One pastor remarked, “Your visitors make up their minds regarding your church in the first 10 minutes.” Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the outside sign, the availability of parking, the cleanliness of the facilities, the accessibility of the nursery, and the friendliness of the people all make an initial impression—for good or bad.
2) They notice a genuine sense of community and spiritual interest on the part of both leaders and people.
Even those who do not yet have a relationship with Christ notice hypocritical Christianity. A church filled with Christ followers who are genuine and compassionate is contagious. A loving community of believers is an attraction to people who are often unloved and disregarded during the week!
3) They were invited to stay following the service to learn more about the church and meet the pastor and other leaders.
It’s hard to slow down “guest flight” after a worship service, but an informal and open visitor reception with the pastor present can have a big impact. Take time to encourage visitors to stop by, learn more about the church, and enjoy some light refreshments. Such an event affords another good opportunity to get to know them and understand their spiritual interests and needs!
4) They were contacted personally during the week—in a tactful, intentional way.
Most churches follow up on Sunday service visitors. But a personal approach that includes more than sending an impersonal letter in the mail is crucial. Make contact as soon as possible after Sunday (some churches share a hospitality basket with visitors later in the day on Sunday). Develop an intentional strategy for this ministry that fits your area and resources.
5) They were invited to attend a Sunday School class or small group, where they could get to know others.
Unfortunately, some newcomers move in and out of our churches on Sunday and never really interact with anyone in more than a cursory way. But church ministry research demonstrates that when guests get to know others more personally, usually in a smaller setting, they are more likely to return. Discover ways to come alongside visitors and help them get to know others in the church as soon as possible.
6) They sensed a connection with the pastor and other leaders.
Most visitors who return comment on their personal contact with the pastor. The crucial role of the pastor in warmly greeting newcomers and showing a genuine interest in people cannot be overstated. All the church family should be friendly, of course, but the example of the pastor cannot be overstated. Most guests can tell if he is accessible and genuinely interested in them. When I pastored, I tried to teach our people that the moments immediately after the service concluded were especially important in my ministry to visitors, and thus the traditional greeting of members at the door was shifted to other times (e.g., in the worship center prior to the beginning of a service).
Jim Vogel (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) was a pastor for 30 years before becoming associate national representative of the GARBC.