Keeping Your Guest Coming Back

Keeping Your Guest Coming Back
Dr. Hal Seed

If the cardinal rule for weight loss is take in fewer calories than you burn, the cardinal rule for church growth is just the opposite: take in more people than you lose. An easy way to remember this is: widen your front door and narrow your back door.

Your Assimilation System is all about your front door. I want to start your journey to a healthier church here, because first impressions are so important that hardly anything else matters if this system isn’t top-notch.

The goal of Your Assimilation System is to attract increasing numbers of newcomers and convincing increasing numbers of them to return and become part of your church family.

Every person who walks through your church doors is a gift from God. Chances are someone has prayed diligently for them to come. You can bet the Lord himself has been tugging at them as well. Your first assignment in taking your church’s ministry to a new level is to do everything possible to create a great first impression. Convince your guests that you want them and that they want to be part of your family. Enable them to see that if they join you, they’ll make new friends and be touched by God on a regular basis.

If you break it down to its simplest, your assimilation process looks like this:
Goal #1. Inspire your first-time guests to return soon (Preferably next week.)
Goal #2. Persuade your second-time guests to return again (preferably next week).
Goal # 3. Guide your third-time guests to get involved and become members.

New people will show up at church for a lot of reasons.
* Their wife dragged them.
* Their children begged them.
* Someone they knew was playing a part in the service.
* On high holidays they consider it a religious duty.
* God’s Spirit is tugging at them.

* They have become desperate because of a circumstance in life. (A lost job, a failing marriage, death of a loved one, a health crisis, loneliness, penniless-ness, hopelessness, need for help with parenting, and others.)
* They are new to the area and looking for a church.
* They’ve become disgruntled, bored, or disenchanted with their current church.
* They want a better life for their children.
* They want to meet new, wholesome friends.
* They have a business and are looking to network.

Regardless of why they came, their visit to your church is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to touch them.
A thousand things can go wrong to keep them from returning. Only one thing has to go right to convince them to return: God touches them. This is why prayer and planning are so important.

One: A Big Dose of Prayer
If God’s touch is the most important factor in a guest’s return, prayer is of paramount importance. Prayer is the first and most important component of a healthy church system. Pray about people’s first experiences with your church, and organize your church’s teams and leaders to pray as well.

At New Song, we have five places we pray regularly for the weekend services:
* IN PRIVATE: The pastor, staff and leaders pray for God’s presence at the services during their private prayer times throughout the week.
* IN TEAMS: The church’s Prayer Team prays every week for our newcomers to be touched by God. This request never moves off of their prayer list.
* IN STAFF MEETINGS: The first half hour of our weekly staff meeting is reserved for praying together, including specifically lifting up the service and our guests.
* AT BOARD MEETINGS: Our Leadership Board prays at the beginning of every monthly meeting, and praying for newcomers is a standing request during each of these times.
* BEFORE SERVICES: Each of our Serving Teams holds a “REP” huddle before their service Saturday night and Sunday morning. REP stands for “Review,” “Equip,” and “Pray.”

At our Tuesday afternoon staff meeting we take time to share and celebrate what God has done over the last seven days. Our Communications Director records the highlights of this meeting and condenses it into two or three sentences of praise. These are printed up on 4×6 cards and distributed to every Serving Team Leader before the next weekend’s services.

Fifteen to twenty minutes before the service, our ushers form a circle and pray. So do the children’s’ team, the youth team, and worship team. In each huddle, the team leader reviews the highlights listed on the 4×6. He or she then equips the team to minister that day by describing the purpose of today’s sermon and events that are coming up that we all want to communicate to anyone we talk with today. Then the members hold hands a prayer together for God’s movement and power.

You may not have a paid Communications Director, but collecting review and equip information isn’t that hard to do and can easily be handled by a volunteer or the church administrator.

Review: “Hey everybody! Last weekend, twelve people came to Christ, six signed up for Next Steps, John [who came to Christ three weeks ago and was baptized last week] began taking Mark [who came to Christ last week] through our DIRT program, and he’s only three weeks old in Christ!”

Equip: “Two announcements people ought to know about that we didn’t have space for in the announcements slot this morning are that the Women’s Ministry is holding a Spiritual Day Spa Conference next Saturday, and our Military Ministry is hosting a movie night, showing “Taking the Hill” two weeks from now, so encourage women and military folks to register for those today. Now, let’s pray for our service.”

We empower all our volunteers to support whatever important events are coming up by asking them to remind or invite people to those events.

Pray: “This weekend we’re continuing in our series ‘On Location’ series. Pastor is going to be reminding us that wherever we go, we’re on location and mission for the Lord. He’ll be using Matthew 28 to inspire us all to bring a friend to the Attractional Series that starts two weeks from now. Let’s pray that God speaks, we all learn, and lots of invitations will be given.”
Prayer is the best preparation for a great church experience. The more people you mobilize to pray for your services and guests, the better!

Two: A Great First Impression
Church consultants tell us that a newcomer decides within as little as the first two minutes of arriving at church whether he/she will return. This means that his/her perception of your signage, parking lot and entry area weighs heavily in determining his/her odds of returning.

Others say first-time guests take as long as seven minutes to decide whether they’ll return. This extends your potential first impressions to how guests are greeted, how they are escorted to the children’s area, the look and smell of the nursery and bathrooms, what information they are given, and how inviting the hospitality areas are.
Still others teach that newcomers take as long as fifteen minutes to make up their minds about a return visit. This means the friendliness of the people, the type, volume, and quality of music, and the comfort of your auditorium influence the decision to return.

Regardless of how many minutes you have to make a first impression, you will make a first impression. You only have one chance to make a good first impression. Why leave any of that to chance? These people are a gift, and it would be so sad if they decided not to return because of an unpleasant smell in your bathroom or because the children’s area was hard to find.

Do as much as you can to ensure that these details are taken care of. To guarantee excellence in the details, make sure every part of your Sunday morning preparation falls within a system. Every leader and greeter should know when to show up, how to dress, what your church says/does to make people feel welcome. Every aspect of the facility should be viewed from the lens of a guest.
Is it easy to figure out where the entrance is? Is the place clean? Does it seem like people want me here? Are there signs telling me where the bathrooms are? Where the children’s, youth, and auditorium areas are?

Every newcomer wants to be greeted, directed, seated, and treated.
People want to be welcomed genuinely, but not weirdly. I ask our ushers to greet, but not accost newcomers.
A handshake, smile, “Good morning!,” and look in the eye are a good start.

Without really knowing it, every guest walks through your door with an unspoken question: Are there people like me here?
Every first-time guest will subconsciously check out every person in your lobby to see if any of them are in their same age and stage of life. They’ll look for people of their own ethnicity. If they’re single, they’ll look for singles. If married, for other married people.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of diversity in your greeting teams. After all, the easiest person to recruit to greeting is an older male. Why? Older people’s children are grown. It’s easier for them to get to church early. Women are more willing to work with children. A fifty, sixty, or seventy year old wife will arrive at church twenty minutes early to serve in the preschool department. What’s her husband going to do? He can sit awkwardly in a corner, or come by himself later, or he can volunteer to greet at the door.

Look around your church next Sunday. If the front door and lobby are overpopulated by overaged males, you may have a problem attracting younger people. Do your best to recruit a diversity of ages and stages of greeters so that everyone who walks through your entrance says, “I can relate to that person.”
New Song has intentionally chosen to be a multi-ethnic, multi-generational church. It didn’t happen by accident. We consciously recruit people of all ages, stages and skin tones to populate our lobby, stage, and staff.

Being welcomed at the door is just the first step in creating a memorable and warm newcomer experience. The newcomer’s next expectation is that he’ll be able to find his way to the nursery, children’s area, bathrooms and auditorium. Good signage helps. But if your guest has a baby, mom and dad will be far more impressed if a greeter walks them to the nursery and introduces them to the nursery host than if they are only pointed in the right direction. The same thing goes for each area of your church. Have enough hosts on hand that several of them are available to accompany guests to their destinations.

I was in Wal-Mart the other day. I asked a clerk where the headphones were. Instead of pointing off in the distance, she walked me to the headphones aisle. This simple gesture caused me to decide that I enjoyed my visit to Wal-Mart that day and would be likely to come back next time I needed something similar.

Guests feel awkward walking into your building. They also feel awkward walking into your auditorium. A sparsely-populated room makes me feel self-conscious. A densely-populated one makes it hard to find a seat. Both problems are diminished by the presence of a friendly usher who suggests a particular seat or section and walks me there.

Ask yourself:
“How well does my church do at creating a good first impression?
How well do guests think your church does at creating a good first impression?”
One of the easiest ways to find out is to invite a friend or acquaintance who has never seen your church to come as a “mystery shopper” next Sunday and write down everything that impresses him/her and everything that turns him/her off. Note: don’t tell your team that a mystery shopper is coming so that all responses will be natural.

Three: An Intentional Welcome
At some point during your service, there should be a greeting time when people turn and introduce them-selves to those around them. This enables everyone to make eye contact, shake hands, and become participants, rather than spectators, at the service. The funny thing about this is, it’s awkward. People feel uncomfortable introducing themselves to others. BUT, the downside of not introducing yourselves would be worse. People would leave feeling your church didn’t care. So lean into it and make the greeter brief, and energetic.

Some churches greet one time during the service. Usually it comes after the first or second song. Other churches greet twice. In which case, the second greeting comes at the end of the service. The service host says, “In a minute I’m going to pray for us all. After I do so, please say hello to at least one other person before you leave this morning.” I recommend two greetings.
I also recommend that these greetings be scripted out, so nothing is left to chance. For instance, at your first greeting point, the service host could say,

“Good morning! Here at New Song we want to be one of the friendliest churches in the world. To make that happen, we need your help. Please turn and say hello to two or three people around you before you sit down.”

Those words not only instruct, they inform. Six months after we adopted this script, people in our new members’ class began saying, “You are one of the friendliest churches in the world.”
“Use scripting to help your church become what you want to be.”
Immediately following our greeting time, the service host says,
“Inside of your Program is a Connection Card that looks like this. Please fill this out and put it in the offering when it comes around at the end of the service. If this is your first time with us, we’re especially glad you’ve joined us. If you’ll take your Connection Card to our Information Center, we’ll give you a free copy of The God Questions as our way of saying, ‘We’re glad you joined us today!’”

Four: A Church Full of Hosts
I teach our church that one practical way we “love our neighbors as ourselves” is by welcoming guests into our church the way we would welcome them into our homes.

When a guest visits your home, you don’t open the front door and point them to the living room. You smile, shake their hand, and walk with them into the living room (or, more likely, into the kitchen where you can offer them something to eat or drink.) Church should be like that. Teach your members that hospitality is everyone’s responsibility. Guests should be welcomed, introduced to others, and treated to something to eat. You should get to know them by asking them questions.

For smaller churches, two or three gregarious people are probably sufficient to make a good first impression. But when you get to five hundred or more, there are too many guests to take them for granted. Twice a year, right before the prime inviting times of September and Easter, I take time out of the sermon to train our congregation in an intentional welcoming strategy I call “LINE-UP”:

Line UP
Every time a member comes to church, you want them to “LINE-UP”
Look For Someone you don’t know.
Introduce Yourself. (And ask a lot of questions about the other person.)
Never Sit Alone. (This is our “11th Commandment.”)
Engage in Conversation. (After the service, as well as during the greeting time.)
Use the R.U. New Café. (I’ll explain this in a minute.)
Practice the 3/10 Rule. (Which means, try to speak with three people you don’t know during the first ten minutes after the service. Church members and friends will linger for at least ten minutes, whereas newcomers will leave within three minutes if no one engages them. )

*The R.U. New Café is a monthly free lunch for all newcomers and staff. It’s an opportunity to meet the staff, hear the history of the church, and find out ways to get further connected or involved. Lunch is provided by members of the church, as their gift to newcomers. If your church has enough visitors, you might hold your lunch more often.

Five: A Great Final Impression
Your goal with every first time guest is to inspire them to return next week. That’s why first impressions are so important. Final impressions are equally important. Give your guests a gift to remember towards the close of your time together. It will impress them, and enable you to continue communicating with them.

To get your guest’s contact information, encourage everyone in your congregation to fill out their Connection Card every week. Guests will do what they see others doing. The best time to fill out a Connection Card is during announcements. Offering a free copy of an inexpensive book like The God Questions not only endears your guests, but offers an unstated quid-pro-quo: you give me your information, I’ll give you a book.

Studies indicate that offerings can be as much as 35% higher when taken after the message, we almost always take the offering during a song towards the end of the service. As part of the offering announcement, our service host slips on-stage as the preacher is praying. He or she says:

“Wasn’t that great? In just a minute we will be collecting our offering. This is a time for those of us who call New Song our home to invest back a portion of what God has entrusted to us. We’d like everyone to put your Connection Card in the offering basket as it comes around – unless you’re a first time guest. In which case, we have a special gift for you. Take your Card to the Information Center in the lobby and they will give you a copy of The God Questions.” (Hold up a copy so they can see what they’ll get.) “This book will answer almost every question you have about God. It’s our way of saying thank you for joining us today.” I know, we used almost identical words during the announcements. But some people come late, forget, or didn’t hear it the first time.

“When it comes to communicating important items, repetition and reinforcement are your friends.”

Like a good cup of coffee or tea at a restaurant, the last taste in your mouth is almost as important as the first taste in your month. That’s why we give away a free gift to our first-timers and our second-timers. As I’ve mentioned, we give our first-timers a copy of The God Questions (Gift Edition), right on the spot. Our second-time guests receive a sweet treat. We used to give out Cold Stone gift cards. Then, a member of our church volunteered free sandwiches at their Port-of-Subs location, so now we mail a Port-of-Subs card to each second-time guest.

Six: A Reason To Linger

The first few minutes following a service are prime time to build relationships with visitors. Ideally, your church will have a “linger space” where people can sit and have a cup of coffee and grab something to eat together.

Mega-mega churches, like Prestonwood, Mariners and Willow Creek provide food service, complete with menu choices and cashiers to ring up your order. Large churches, like New Song, typically provide a refreshments cart or counter with a “Donations” box to help defray the cost for the refreshments.

If you’ve made a good first impression on your guests, they may want to stick around and get to know some of your members. Provide a “linger space” for them with open seating, where “old-timers” (members/people who have been around for years) can sit down beside newcomers and strike up a conversation. People bond over food.

Recipe for an Effective Linger Space
1. Open seating with both chairs and tables
2. Quiet enough to have a conversation
3. Light music playing in the background
4. Coffee & Refreshments available
5. Friendly volunteers and members hanging out

We provide such a space at New Song’s Central Campus. Our portable locations set up tables outside in good weather and avoid the cost of renting more space.

Plumbing and permanent food preparation equipment is expensive. I recommend that young churches start with a few portable food warmers and postpone building a kitchen until the second or third phase of building.

A nice way to encourage newcomers to stick around is to give free donut or pastry coupons to children on their first visit.
New Song has seen many families return because their kids said, “I want to go to the DONUT CHURCH today!” Kids love receiving gifts, and once they discover there are goodies after church, they will drag their parents there and then ask all week if they can return the following Sunday.

Seven: A Touch During The Week
Part of a good assimilation system is rapid guest follow-up. Have someone sort your Connection Cards before they go home on Sunday. Ideally, first contact will happen within 24 hours. Many churches now manage their people-tracking with a database software system like Church Community Builder, Fellowship One, or Shelby Systems.
Personally, I’m partial to Church Community Builder, since it was started by members of my church. In my opinion, it gives you the most bang for your buck.

At New Song, a data-entry person enters all Connection Card information during our morning worship services. They’re done by mid-afternoon. Church Community Builder’s software enables automatic notifications to be emailed as soon as pertinent information is entered, so by Sunday evening, all guests are called with any requests for information they may have indicated on their Connection Card. Calls made that quickly are golden!

“The rule of contact is 48 hours.”

After forty-eight hours, the good-will created by an email or phone call diminishes significantly. Every guest should be contacted no later than Tuesday night. Monday is better, and Sunday night is the best.

The above article, “Keeping Your Guest Coming Back” was written by Dr. Hal Seed. The article was excerpted from

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes,