Tips for welcoming first-time guests

By Ken Willard

Do you remember the first time you walked into a church? For many of us, we have been in church so long that we do not recall a time when we did not attend a church. However, people do come to our churches every week for the first time. Research shows that major life experiences are a main factor in causing a person to return to church, or to try out church for the first time.

Is your church ready to receive first-time guests?

After dozens of church consultations, hundreds of mystery guest visits (reports from Faith Perceptions), and reading many books and articles . . . here are my top ten recommendations/reminders:

  1. Walk outside the church and look at the building from where you expect most new people will park. If you had never been to your church before, could you tell where to enter? New guests need good directional signing.
  2. Where possible, ask your greeters to stand outside and open the doors for everyone. If that is not possible, please open the doors before someone reaches them. Be sure your greeters are not engaged in their own conversations when people are arriving.
  3. Take a good look at the nursery and children’s ministry areas. Are they clean and organized? Have someone remove anything being stored in those rooms. (upright pianos, chairs, etc.) Will the experience new parents and children in our church match their experience at a local school? (safety, security, age of toys, etc.)
  4. How long is your “meet & greet” time? This is a very uncomfortable time for many unchurched first-time guests. If it is normally more than two minutes, consider cutting it back a little each week until you can reach 120 seconds or less. (see 10 Reasons Guests Don’t Return to Your Church by Thom S. Rainer)
  5. Be sure to welcome everyone, but offer a special welcome to anyone who may be attending for the first time each week. [Please don’t ask them to raise their hands, or stand and introduce themselves Yes, those are still happening in some churches.]
  6. Ask everyone to fill out a connections card, pew pad, etc. First-time guests will typically follow the people around them. If no one else fills it out, they will not either. Best Practice: “If this is your first time here, welcome! We want you to know that a $10 donation will be made in your honor to Nothing-But-Nets for every first-time card we receive. That ten dollars will buy a mosquito net which may save a child’s life.”
  7. Review your worship service and bulletin for anything that might be “insider” language. Would someone who has never been to any church before understand what we are doing and saying in worship? Remember, it is not about changing what we do as much as it is welcoming people to join us. For example, many churches really love their times of call-and-response. (The pastor says something and the congregation responds.) Believe it or not, these are different in every church. So even “church” people can feel lost. Unchurched people tend to feel not included.
  8. What is your plan for following up on first-time guests who leave their information? The 24-48 hours after their visit is critical. If you receive a phone number, that is always the best way to reach a new guests. A short call from the pastor, or trained connections person, during a time you expect to reach them. “Hi Kay, this is pastor Mike at First United Methodist Church. I see where you visited our church for the first time this weekend. I just wanted to call and say ‘thanks!’ We would love to have you come back and see us again. In fact, next weekend we are starting a series on Bible myths. Is there anything I can answer for you at this point?” Less than a minute total, unless they initiate a conversation.
    • If you don’t get a phone number, then an email the next day is good too. If you only receive an address, then a postcard/letter should be the last option.
  9. The time right after the service ends is very important for first-time guests. Church people tend to either run for the doors, or gather with people they already know. Recruit a few people to watch for new faces and be sure they are made to feel welcome.
  10. First-time guests with children often run late. Be sure there are still greeters in place, space available in the nursery and children’s ministry rooms, and seats in the back on the aisle.

There are of course many more, but ten seems to be a good place to stop.

I would recommend the book, Becoming a Welcoming Church by Thom S. Rainer to any church wanting to take their hospitality to the next level. It is a quick read, but has many great points.

God is calling us to reach the lost ONE.

Let’s be sure they feel welcome when they come to our churches.