Is your church driving away guests? – 11/8/14

(copied from the ADN daily electronic paper as the online edition with commenting capability is still not available for this column as of 5:30 p.m. Saturday)
After visiting Alaska churches constantly over the past 10 years, I’ve come to the conclusion many of them just don’t understand how to retain those guests, visitors, church shoppers or whatever churches call them. Takeaway: They should always be called guests.

Last weekend, noted church consultant and author Thom Rainer shared the results of a Twitter poll he conducted of first-time church guests who did not return to a particular church. He summarized the 10 ways churches drive away first-time guests as self-reported by them. Trust me; I’ve seen them all here in Anchorage and across Alaska.

Rainer’s reasons list is below; his published reasons are in bold, while my observations follow.

Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service.
Oh yes, almost every church has them. It is one of the most awkward times a church guest will ever have to endure. Too many churches even enhance this distasteful experience by asking guests to stand up and identify themselves. In some churches the passing of the peace makes this time easier.

Unfriendly church members.
I’ve seen this so many times. No one speaks to me, introduces themselves or even greets me in their church. Attending a church with “friendly” in its name, I was virtually shunned. People in churches generally seem to be friendly to those they know but not friendly to those they don’t.

Unsafe and unclean children’s area.
This can be an issue in any area of the church children might frequent; from bathrooms to children’s worship areas and Sunday School rooms. If a church expects to attract young families, it needs to take special care that these areas are above reproach or families will go elsewhere. Children’s security procedures also go far to relieve parents’ minds.

No place to get information.
Few churches offer visitors center areas where knowledgeable and friendly church members offer personal and written information about the church. If present, they are also a great place to share a welcome gift. In my church consulting, churches often bristle regarding the thought. They counter that their few literature racks are sufficient. Revisits bear out they make no changes. Worse, if a church offers a visitors’ table, it is usually so low that one’s back hurts to bend over to write down requested information. Everything should be at walk-up height. (I’m also surprised at the number of churches who serve coffee at low tables, once again forcing visitors to bend down to fix their coffee.)

Bad church website.
I frequently comment on this problem. For prospective guests, only two pieces of information are needed from a church website: location and time of services. Many church websites absolutely fail to provide this information upfront and instantly. Often, many aspects of church websites are sadly out of date. This may be partly due to churches using a kind member to support their website.

Poor signage.
In this day of branding and identification, after figuring out the location of a church and going a few times, it’s easy to find. But too many churches have poor signs, out of date, and hard to read at the posted speed limits. Sadly, a missing key ingredient is the church Web address. Many have service times, pastor name, and even the title of the coming sermon. What a waste! The sign needs to point the visitor to the church to establish its identity.

Insider church language.
Yes, every church has it. When the pastor mentions the MOW will meet in the CRW for ACT training, guests are confused. But wait, it gets better. When mind numbing theological terms are thrown in, it creates unnecessary confusion on the part of guests. Jargon is bad in business, but when it becomes a part of church services, it is deplorable.

Boring or bad service.
Rainer noted he was surprised this didn’t rank higher. It certainly does on my list as I’ve experienced them over and over. For example, several years ago I took a close friend to a church service that evolved from a regular 75-minute service to almost 2.5 hours. My friend said, “I’ll never visit this church again.” The whole problem should have been solved by an astute ministerial team.

Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew.
A number of readers have told me it’s happened to them. It’s happened to me, and my family, over the years. For hundreds of years, selling pew seating was a way the church could afford to stay open by covering operating expenses. Today, it’s inexcusable for any church member to suggest or infer, to a guest, they are occupying the place where they usually sit.

Dirty facilities.
Many churches I visit have poorly maintained restrooms, some of them foul-smelling, stalls with missing latches, wadded paper towels strewn on the floor, and junk in the corners. I’ve even observed pews with disgusting stains on them, stains on the carpeting, dirty carpets or flooring. Often the narthexes of churches are poorly maintained, with piles of books, papers, leftover festive ornaments, unclaimed clothing and similar. All of these things detract from the main purpose of visitors coming to a church: to seek an encounter with God and those who follow him.

Rainer’s poll observations are sad but underlie a basic problem. Guests should be treated extremely well. As church people, we need to put ourselves in their shoes to try to understand them. A pastoral call to come forward or to join hands can be distancing for a first-time guest. Let them know they are accepted and don’t coerce. Many are on a true quest for discovering Jesus, and a group of followers who exemplify Christian values. It’s interesting to see how first-time guests see our churches.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at

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