Taking the Guesswork out of Guest Relations
By Aaron Wilson
Did we make a good impression?
I wonder what they thought of us?
Will they be back next week?
Questions like these are on the minds of church leaders each week as they watch first-time visitors leave service.
To help get answers, churches around the country employ the services of Faith Perceptions—a company that sends real people from a church’s mission field to visit and share feedback on their experience. This allows leaders to see their church through the eyes of a visitor and learn what can be improved so guests will be more likely to return.
Melanie Smollen, founder and president of Faith Perceptions, says that while many factors play a role in whether guests will come back to a church, there are certain aspects of a church experience that tend to be most influential on visitors.
After cataloging feedback from mystery visits to more than 10,000 worship services across the nation, Faith Perceptions met with Facts & Trends to share what they’ve identified as the five most significant impressions that determine whether a church guest will return.
Impression #1: A Welcoming Experience
Faith Perceptions has found that friendliness alone won’t make guests return to a church, but an unwelcoming encounter is enough to send them packing.“It doesn’t matter how great the church service is, if a guest is made to feel unwelcome, there’s a high probability they won’t return.”“It doesn’t matter how great the church service is, if a guest is made to feel unwelcome, there’s a high probability they won’t return,” Smollen says.
“After the service, I was asked if I needed to shop for food in the food bank and pick up some clothes there for my son. I was a little taken back because I wasn’t someone in need and felt like they were making assumptions about me. I would not return to this church.” – church mystery guest
It’s not just door greeters who are responsible for creating a hospitable experience. A welcoming impression is gathered from church signage, whether guests are talked to and escorted to where they need to go, and if the church offers a digital welcome through its website—the new front door of the church.
Impression #2: A Clear, Relatable Message
Biblical preaching should be theologically precise, but not at the expense of being unclear to guests. Consider the following sentence from a sermon:
“The shedding of blood caused the curtain to be torn in two, ushering in the reversal of the Fall’s curse.”
While every word in that sentence is theologically correct, a guest with limited Bible knowledge may leave thinking they heard a message about upholstery damage and the pastor’s dislike of autumn.
To avoid such confusion, take time to explain terms and phrases that might be unclear. Also be on the lookout for Christian jargon or “church talk” that can keep visitors from relating to the service. Examples of this are:
- “We’re going to take up a love offering now.”
- “Join us in singing the Doxology.”
- “Think about this during your daily quiet time.”
Guests are much more likely to return to a church when they feel a pastor or group leader speaks their language and can communicate God’s truth in a clear and relatable manner.
“The main thing that would bring me back, even after only one visit, was the message. I thought the sermon was excellent. It stuck in my mind throughout the week.” – church mystery guest
Impression #3: A Personable Pastor
Speaking of pastors, Faith Perceptions reports one of the greatest indicators of a return visit is if a church guest finds the pastor to be personable.
This doesn’t mean pastors need to manufacture a forced charisma that mimics a Christian “celebrity.” It just means pastors need to be genuine, humble, and approachable to their members and guests.Church visitors don’t need rock star pastors that drip with magnetic appeal—just shepherds who are willing to be present and personable within the flock.To accomplish this, pastors may choose to hang out by a doorway after service to engage guests as they prepare to depart. Some pastors may choose to record a welcome video on the church website. Others may be intentional in maintaining a humble but visible social media presence. (The latter is especially beneficial for helping younger generations sense the pastor is accessible.)
“During the meet and greet portion of the service, the pastor came over and introduced himself. I thought it was very considerate that he took the time to seek us out and talk with us.” – church mystery guest
Church visitors don’t need rock star pastors that drip with magnetic appeal—just shepherds who are willing to be present and personable within the flock.
Impression #4: A Healthy Kids Ministry
“Long gone are the days when parents dragged their kids to church,” Smollen says. “Today, parents want to go to a church where their kids also want to go. A healthy kids ministry is important to the survival of any church.”
“Our children enjoyed the children’s ministry. It would be worth returning just for that reason.” – church mystery guest
Making kids ministry enjoyable doesn’t mean watering down the message. Nor does it require a huge budget.
It does, however, require volunteers who are passionate about reaching kids with the gospel—volunteers who are willing to relate to kids’ interests and learning styles.
Impression #5: Authentic Worship
When it comes to music and singing, church guests aren’t drawn to a particular style as much as they’re interested in authenticity, musical quality, and congregational engagement, says Smollen.“A lot of traditional churches will have the preconceived idea that if they don’t have a contemporary service, it’s a deal-breaker for guests. That’s just not true.”“That’s been one of the biggest surprises for me over the last decade,” she says. “A lot of traditional churches will have the preconceived idea that if they don’t have a contemporary service, it’s a deal-breaker for guests. That’s just not true.”
Instead, guests are looking for a worship experience that demonstrates a genuine intent to honor the Lord.
“In churches, I sometimes get the feeling the congregation just goes through the motions instead of approaching worship with an attitude that says, ‘We were made for this, so let’s worship God with all we’ve got.’” – church mystery guest
“If a guest looks around during worship and sees a congregation not singing or glued to their phones, it makes that guest think they’re at a concert,” Smollen says. “That’s not the point of worship.”
Having authentic worship comes from setting a precedent from the stage that encourages congregational participation and helps the church understand the meaning behind worship.
Majoring on What’s Most Impactful
It can be taxing for leaders to fret over every detail that might affect a guest’s perception of a church service. But by doing the following, leaders can be assured they’re hitting the highlights of running an efficient guest ministry:
- Creating a welcoming experience
- Delivering a clear, relatable message
- Presenting personable pastors
- Offering a healthy kids ministry
- Leading authentic worship
Learn more about mystery visits and ascertain the health of your church guest program by visiting FaithPerceptions.com.
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor of Facts & Trends.