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Open Doors and Warm Smiles: How to Retain Visitors to Your Church & Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of Rolling Out The UnWelcome Mat

Market: Religious

Your church wants to grow. Needs to grow.  Country church with open red doorsYou’ve worked on creating interesting, inspiring programs for adults and children. The choirs and musicians are excellent. Precious dollars are spent on advertising and an attractive website. But attendance isn’t growing. Visitors stop in from time to time, but they don’t express an interest in membership, and they rarely attend more than once or twice. You know how to keep visitors to your church, right? Why aren’t they coming back? What are you doing wrong? Are you doing everything you can? Church Growth, Inc. suggests that in a growing church, at least 5% of its weekly attendance should be visitors attending for the first, second time or third time. In most churches, only about 1% fall into that group, which is why so few churches are growing today. The Church Growth Institute conducted a study of church visitors to find out why they returned to a church, and why they didn’t. The most significant reason in determining whether a visitor returned was the “friendliness” of the church. For many visitors, it was not only the most significant factor, it was the only factor.

How to Say “You’re Not Welcome”

One tiny negative aspect of a visitor’s experience often overshadows all your positive outreach efforts. Factors cited by visitors as reasons they don’t return to a church run the gamut from parking to programming to procedures.

Lack of parking:

Imagine driving to a new church for the first time. You’re running late and hope you’ll be able to find a parking spot quickly. The parking lot is full, except two empty rows of Handicapped and Staff parking. It’s a snowy winter day, and all you can find is a spot on the street. The walks haven’t been cleared. How are you feeling about the church before you even walk in?

Locked doors:

Do visitors have to try more than one door to enter the building? At one church, several doors remain locked all the time because the church lacks storage space, verstibules formed closets. Visitors don’t know that. All they see is a locked door.

No greeters:

Nothing says, “Go away,” like walking into a church where no one makes eye contact or an effort to welcome a visitor. Churches often lack adequate signage, leaving visitors wondering how to find restrooms, Sunday School rooms or even the sanctuary. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone offered to show the way?

No children welcome:

Are children welcome in worship? Are separate children’s bulletins available? Is there a children’s message? Does the church have an area where parents can take babies or children who become restless during the service? What is that space called? The church simply changed the name of its “Cry Room” to “Wiggle Space” and saw an immediate increase in the space usage and the number of young families in attendance.

Poor communication:

How does the church communicate? Does it use multiple platforms to allow for print, e-mail, and online distribution? Are the bulletins correct and easy to follow? Is the church website complete and easy to navigate? Does the website allow online donating? Online program registration? Is the website optimized for a mobile device? Every time a visitor encounters an obstacle in simply finding information, chances of that person returning declines.

Pew flowers at a church weddingHard to work with:

One strikingly beautiful church was a sought-after site for wedding ceremonies, but few couples returned to the church following their weddings. A review of the weddings page on the church’s website offered insights. One bride observed, “The church is beautiful, but we almost didn’t call about holding our wedding there because the website was so negative. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. Write separate checks to everyone, the minister, the coordinator, the organist, the janitor, even the committee that puts out the candles. Why not just one check? And, by the way, who only accepts checks these days? We became members of a different church. It’s in an ugly high school cafeteria, but we feel so at home.”

Poor program information:

I worked with a church recently that had a dynamic, insightful pastor, a core group of committed people and terrific adult programming. But visitors never attended adult Bible study. A look at their program names offered important clues; The Explorers, The Quest, and Pairs and Spares. The only difference in these classes was that Pairs and Spares consisted almost entirely of widowers. In each case, the curriculum was excellent; the difference was in the age of the attendees. A simple explanation in the bulletin or on the website would help visitors choose the class best suited to their needs.


If asked the direct question, most congregations would deny that cliques exist in their church. However, observation and a few more questions often show a different picture. Before or after the service, are people standing around in groups talking? Do the people in the group change during your observations or do the groups remain the same? Do people who move from one group to another or bring a person from one group to the next?

Research shows that there is a 10-minute window in a visitor’s first 75-90 minutes with you that has the greatest impact on the decision to return or not. Surprisingly, it’s the 10 minutes after the service that matter the most. If the people in your church are racing for the exits or clumping up for coffee with the same three or four people they huddle with every week, they aren’t doing anything to welcome or get to know a new person. Imagine how that would feel to a first-time visitor. What are you doing with your 10 minutes?

How are You Doing? Red and White Name Tag how to retain visitors to your church

Here’s a quick assessment for gauging the welcome offered by your church. Use it to find if your church is doing all it can do to make every person – visitor or member – feel valued every time they attend. Take a walk around and through the building as though seeing it through a stranger’s eyes.

Look for:
  • Parking/Exterior: Is there enough space? Is there overflow parking? Are there sidewalks? Are the sidewalks clear in the winter?
  • Landscaping: Should be neat and updated. No overgrown messy shrubs and weed-filled beds. Well-kept church property shows that people care about and take pride in their church home.
  • Communication/Signing: Are entrances clearly marked and lighted? Once inside the building, do signs point the way to key areas like the Sanctuary, Nursery, Sunday School rooms, office or visitor center, restrooms? Are the bulletins right and well-organized?
  • Access: Is the building handicapped accessible? Are the restrooms built to accommodate a wheelchair? Are there hearing assistive devices available? Large-print bulletins and hymnals?
  • Greeting: Is there a Welcome Center?Are name tags readily available? Are people greeted as soon as they enter the building? Do the ushers help people find seats or just hand out bulletins and let people fend for themselves?
  • Members: Do you see members introducing themselves to visitors?
  • Worship Service: Are visitors welcomed at any point during the service? Is there specific information for visitors? Is there a way to register for programs or request information?
  • After the service: Does anyone escort visitors to a fellowship/coffee area? Introduce them to other members?
  • Follow-up: Is there a formally defined follow-up process for first-time or repeat visitors?

If you aren’t comfortable with the answers to these questions, chances are you aren’t telling visitors you want them to return. Work on finding meaningful ways to say you’re glad they came, and that you hope they’ll come back. The key is being aware of how to keep visitors to your church and doing those things consistently.People choose a church for many reasons.   Make sure a genuine, enthusiastic welcome is one of the reasons they choose yours.

10 Things That Say “You are Not Welcome in this Church,” Joe McKeever,
Church Growth Blog,
50 Ways to Welcome New People,


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