I visited a popular Mexican Restaurant with my 14 year old son a while back.

He was convinced I would love the place. I was doubtful, which means I went into the experience already critical of what might happen. As you might expect, I had a terrible experience while my son loved it and was left scratching his head why I hated it. Here’s my short list:

  • The line was long, so I had to stand and wait for 10 minutes.
  • The floor was a simple, and dirty, concrete floor.
  • They didn’t serve ground beef, which is what I love on my taco salad.
  • They didn’t have any normal lettuce for my taco salad.
  • I had to pay extra if I wanted some nacho’s (where I normally go they are free.)
  • The ice machine was broken and the soda was warm (really.)
  • The place we chose to sit at was dirty and I had to clean it off myself first.

Most people reading that list will agree with me that I had a right to complain, and not want to return. And yet, there was a line of regular customers (like my son) who loves the place and will come back over and over, despite some minor (or even major) problems with the overall experience.

Why is that? Because loyal customers don’t need to be treated extra special to remain loyal. But that’s not true for first-time guests! Successful organizations will know how to roll out the red carpet for new people, and they will know how to invite them to return for a second visit!

THE SAME IS TRUE FOR THE LOCAL CHURCH!

How to know if your guests will want to return.

There are several proven strategies that, when embraced by local churches, will ensure most 1st time guests will be likely to come back for another visit. Here are just a few.

VIP Treatment the Moment They Arrive

The best greeter teams are those that know how to identify and host guests. From the moment guests arrive on the scene (as early as the parking lot in some cases) there are people available to kindly direct them to others who will then explain where things are, what to expect and, if necessary, help them find a seat. The most anxious first-timers will begin to relax and focus on God when their worries and fears are dealt with within the first 2-3 minutes after they arrive.

A Warm & Welcoming Environment

The moment churches forget they are hosting guests is the moment they stop caring about the floors, windows, bathrooms and rest of the building. That’s the moment when the church has decided to hold outsiders at arms length and just focus on insiders. This will be immediately obvious to visitors and may play a much larger role in deterring their return than just about anything else. First time guests should never be distracted by a dirty or run-down facility. 

Handling Kids With Care

Church leaders and greeters will do well to always treat the children and teens of first-time guests with the utmost respect and care. They will over-communicate where they will go and what to expect and they will exceed those expectations. Many long-standing church attendees around the world will confess in private that the real reason they came back was because of their children. Alternatively, ignore children and offer them a bad experience and your guests are almost sure to never return again.

Friendly Attendees

It makes a huge positive impression when the regular attendees are genuinely friendly and reach out to first-time guests. The subtext behind this environment is, “People are really nice here, and I can use friends who are nice to be around. Maybe I should come again.” I’ve visited churches who would label themselves as friendly, but who treated me like I was invisible. And I’ve visited those who are so obviously friendly towards outsiders. The difference between the two might be compared to the difference between the winter weather in the northern versus the southern United States.

Strategic Follow-Up

Unless your first-time guests are already committed ‘church goers’ it’s unlikely that your guests will think of coming back anytime soon. After all, they hold no loyalty toward the church or God yet. For the truly unchurched guest, church attendance might be viewed as something to do on a rainy day, when they think about it or simply when time permits. So churches need to strategically follow-up with their guests, preferably within hours or a day or two of their visit. And they shouldn’t forget about their guests after their ‘obligatory follow-up’ either. Rather, churches should consider methods by which they can occasionally invite past guests to upcoming events or sermon series that may potentially draw them back to the church for another visit.


What other ‘first-time guest’ strategies would you recommend?

(don’t forget to check out my webinar on this very topic later this week!)

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