The manner in which churches respond to guest visits can determine whether or not those guests make a return visit. This column frequently focuses on how guests are treated at area churches during visits In reality, most church guests decide whether or not they’ll come back based on their perceptions within the first five to eight minutes. But if they stay for the service, afterchurch follow-up can be a critical factor.
In a recent podcast, church consultant Thom Rainer shared what guests have told his organization about how churches should not have followed up with them. I’ve seen some of these in my years of church visits. In this column, I’m using Rainer’s categories to group this follow-up mistakes, but describing my own experiences.
Do not show up unexpected at my house
This has all of the hallmarks of a “cold call,” the dreaded sales technique where a salesman shows up on your doorstep or business wanting to make a sale. I was in sales for a good portion of my career and discovered this was terrible technique.
Once, a local Baptist preacher, his wife and the church secretary showed up on my doorstep unannounced, wanting to be invited in. I was away on a business trip and my then-wife had no desire to discuss anything with them. Despite a previous connection to this church, it was the last straw to me, and certainly for her.
Do not neglect follow-up completely
I’ve visited many of Anchorage’s churches, sometimes filling out guest cards, and often not. Out of hundreds of visits, I’ve had only a couple of churches actually follow up with me in any way at all. Rainer found out many respondents to this survey had the same experience, and did not return as a result. Several years ago I visited a large fundamentalist church here, and filled out a guest card. I never heard from them. (I later made the acquaintance of a then-member and discovered she wrote their visit thank you cards, but said she did not recall seeing mine.) Incredible! That’s similar to placing a call for home service, and then never hearing back. It’s no different with church. Guest follow-up is critical.
Do not wait a long time to follow-up
Rainer tells of a person who waited for four months before receiving a follow-up. By that time she’d forgotten about the visit, and subsequently never returned. The urgency of follow-up, whether its churches or business calls, is measured in days, not weeks or months. At the minimum, a warm and friendly note from the pastor can go a long way toward establishing a solid connection.
Do not act like a visit is merely obligatory
The church guest should never be left with an impression that a personal visit is obligatory because you just have to do it with every guest. Years ago, I visited a local evangelical church and was contacted by a member who wanted to come over to bring me a plate of cookies, something they did for all new guests. I was incredibly busy traveling statewide in my job, and literally did not have time to meet with him. After repeated calls, the member became exasperated with me and made a rude comment.
Years ago, my then-wife and I visited a church for the first time. We were asked out to lunch and, surprised, said yes. While waiting in the foyer after the service, the husband of the inviting couple let slip they were the “official couple” to ask guests to lunch. We quickly made an excuse and found a delightful meal at our hotel instead.
Do not do hard sells
Many times churches doing guest follow-up visits perform “hard sells” to try to get the guest to affiliate with the church. Some churches are not happy unless they are able to get guests to commit to return and become part of the member structure. If you are pressured, tell your visitors the way you feel and kindly ask them to leave. This type of behavior should not be condoned by any church.
Do not send a form letter or an email
Form letters and emails are disingenuous; they don’t have the ring of authenticity. There are better ways to convey the willingness of the church to be a resource in the life of the guest. That’s why we toss the majority of our junk mail out. If you do use a form response, make sure you’re prepared with a personable follow-up. Once, after visiting a local church, I received a warm form letter from the pastor. I wrote and called him back, but neither yielded results, because his secretary blocked people from reaching him.
Do not ask for money
As unbelievable as this sounds, some churches actually solicit money from guests. It’s totally unacceptable, especially when they are sitting in your congregation. Instead, they should clearly be told, in the bulletin and at the pulpit, they’re not expected to give because they are your guests. Sunday, I visited a Pentecostal church but heard no exception before the buckets, literally, were passed down the rows. It’s even more flagrant when churches ask guests to contribute money in a follow-up visit or mailing, yet it happens.
Aside from follow-ups, churches can acknowledge their guests by welcoming them from the pulpit, yet many churches neglect to do so. A welcome token, such as a freshly baked loaf of bread, or invitation to lunch with the pastor are also great. Mike Merriner, pastor of Clear Water invites guests to his house for lunch once a month.
The key in all of this is thoughtful Christianity in practice.
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser.