Why don’t guests return? This is a question most church leaders will ask themselves. It is encouraging to see visitors come into the church, but it can be discouraging when the vast majority seem to only be one-time visitors. Here is a list of possible reasons that may be helpful as you evaluate what is happening in your church. Some churches run guest services every week for years with hardly any outsiders ever coming in – that is a different situation that will also benefit from honest evaluation. But if your church gets lots of one-time visitors, what could be contributing to their reticence to return?
1. It is not the church for them. Not every visitor is new to church world. Some will be new to the area, or leaving a local church and considering their options. Your church might not be what they are looking for, and that might be perfectly alright. Your church should not be trying to attract and keep every possible churchgoer. They might want a legitimately different type of church, and you do not want to become that type of church in order to attract them. Or they might be troublemakers that continually need to find a new church to get their hooks into, and hopefully, your church might seem too healthy for them to be able to influence in the negative way they prefer. For good reasons or bad reasons, let’s recognize that no church is ideal for every visitor. And some visitors are just visiting their family members. Change whatever you like, they will not be joining a church that is hundreds of miles from their home!
2. It is not a friendly church. It is so hard to sense this when you are in a church. When you walk in, people smile, people talk to you, etc. But what about the visitor? I am amazed at how unfriendly some churches are. No conversation, no welcome, no friendly questions, no clarity on where to go or what is happening with the children. Some churches are also effectively unfriendly by being awkwardly friendly – putting visitors in the spotlight is not helpful. Don’t ask visitors to stand up and feel awkward, it doesn’t help. And don’t expect them to just enjoy the service and return without any meaningful connection with other humans – they might, but it would not be normal. If church culture is new to them, then look for ways to make them feel comfortable, don’t just underline their awkwardness.
3. It is too much of a mystery. The sub-culture of a local church is very alien to some visitors. If they come from a similar church, then they already know the language and rituals, but if they are new to church it could be like a foreign country to them. If they spend their time guessing when to stand at the start of a song, guessing where a Bible reference is without any page number to help them, guessing when they are supposed to say something out loud with everyone else, guessing how long the service will go on for, etc. then their experience will be draining.
4. The children did not have a good time. If a family comes, then every voice in that family matters. But some voices can be louder than others. If a parent feels uneasy about the children’s program for any reason, that will be a loud voice in their decision making. Does this church look after the children? Are they safe? Is it clean? And the children’s voice will speak loudly too. If they loved it and made friends, they will push to return. If they didn’t, then parents will probably keep looking rather than try to convince them. The children’s ministry of your church matters – whether it is three volunteers in a room or a purpose-built facility with paid staff.
5. The environment was offputting. Was it easy to find the church? Was it easy to park? Was it easy to find your way in? Did you feel safe? Was it easy to find seating (the front row does not count)? Was the atmosphere before and after conducive to conversation and connection? Did the place have a strange smell? Was it warm enough? There are so many details that can have a bearing on the suitability of a church facility. Whether you have your own building or are renting the space, you need to somehow see it through the eyes of a first-timer. Ask family members who visit what they noticed. When people keep coming, ask them, before they get used to everything, what they noticed their first week.
6. The service needs to make sense. We thought about some elements of mystery in point 3 above. People will be drained trying to work out what is going on. But there is another way the service needs to make sense too. The elements of the service need to be explained and need to fit with the experience as a whole. If the style of the church is somewhat contemporary and appropriately warm (not flippant, but somewhat informal or casual), then it doesn’t make sense to have an overbearing pipe organ to lead the sung worship. And there probably needs to be some consistency between the size of the gathering, the quality of the music, the standard of presentation from the front, etc. It might be fun to hear “quirky Quentin” mess up the notices at the start of the service for people who know him, but for a visitor, his weird manner may be off-putting (especially if it isn’t a cosy group of thirty friends like it might have been when Quentin started “doing the notices” – a church phrase, by the way). Actually, the exact style of music or format of service is probably not as important as the consistency between the size of the church, the quality of the music (whatever style is used), and level of participation. A professional quality band with a congregation that doesn’t seem to care does not make sense. Neither does poor music in a significant-sized gathering.
7. The preaching didn’t connect. The preaching could fit into what was said in point 6 above, but let’s place the sermon in its own point. It really does matter. People will join a church because of the preaching, and they will leave a church because of the preaching. Therefore visitors will stick or move on because of the preaching too. If the manner and style is too lofty, too academic, too angry, or too affected, then there will be a disconnect with the listeners. If the manner and style is too flippant, too humourous, too desperate to sound relevant, or too weak on Bible, then there will be a disconnect with some listeners. Can they follow what is being said? Does it feel like they are being pastorally fed from the Scriptures? Does it lift their gaze away from themselves and point them to God’s goodness in Christ? Unbelievers motivated to find the truth, or believers starving for good food, will be drawn or pushed away by what they hear during the preaching segment of the service.
Ultimately, we cannot cherry-pick our visitors, nor determine who will choose to settle in our church. Jesus is the one who promised to build his church, and he is still doing that. But let’s evaluate our churches and make sure we are not adding any unnecessary barriers for guests that come along. It does not have to be all about the guest. But if we never consider their experience at all, we shouldn’t be surprised if we seldom see them again.