Although an unscientific pool, Thom Rainer did some research regarding what drives away first-time guests. Here is what he found (along with his comments):
1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. This response was my greatest surprise for two reasons. First, I was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, I was really surprised that it was the most frequent response.
2. Unfriendly church members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it.
3. Unsafe and unclean children’s area. This response generated the greatest emotional reactions. If your church does not give a high priority to children, don’t expect young families to attend.
4. No place to get information. If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.
5. Bad church website. Most of the church guests went to the church website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a website are address and times of service. It’s just that basic.
6. Poor signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there.
7. Insider church language. Most of the respondents were not referring to theological language as much as language that only the members know. My favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.”
8. Boring or bad service. My surprise was not the presence of this item. The surprise was that it was not ranked higher.
9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches.
10. Dirty facilities. Some of the comments: “Didn’t look like it had been cleaned in a week.” “No trash cans anywhere.” Restrooms were worse than a bad truck stop.” “Pews had more stains than a Tide commercial.”*
Do any of these apply to your church? Not sure, but would like to find out? One of the “odd” ministries I’ve had a chance to serve in was as a church evaluator. The goal of the evaluator is to provide suggestions on how to make a better impression to first time visitors (sort of like a mystery shopper).
Here's how it works: The pastor, associate pastor or deacon will contact me to arrange a visit to the church. I will then come on a random Sunday (sometime within 2-4 weeks) as a visitor. Only the pastor (associate pastor or deacon) is aware that there will be an evaluator visiting. In most cases they will not know whom the evaluator is or when they are coming.
Here are a few of the things evaluated:
Outside appearance of church: Is the church been well maintained, or does the appearance make one want to pass on by? Is parking adequate? Are service times visible somewhere? If the parking lot is large enough, is there a need for someone to direct parking or assist elderly/handicapped visitors?
Inside appearance: What is the inside like? Are the floors clean? Bathrooms? Is there a nursery, and if so, is it clean or would a parent be hesitant to leave their child there? Are different rooms/locations clearly marked so someone can find their way around?
Atmosphere: Was there a door greater to welcome guests, and did they actually welcome me? Is the congregation welcoming, or do they ignore visitors? Is there a welcome gift or pamphlet? Is there any information about the church available? Are upcoming events listed anywhere? was any "insider church language" encountered?
Sermon review: I’m a pastor myself… I can’t help myself in making a few comments. I will be honest as to if the particular message I hear that Sunday falls into my understanding of being biblically sound. I have done church evaluations (off and on) for roughly 3 years. I’ve heard some really bad sermons. I have also heard many great sermons (which I will be honest and admit I’ve “borrowed” several sermon illustrations from sermons I have heard). I’ll also let you know if you were solid but “boring”.
Community review: I will stop by one local (up to 3 if requested), nearby business (usually a gas station, convenience store or fast food restaurant) and ask for directions to the church. You would be surprised how many people can’t give me direction to a church 2 blocks away. At other times I will be told “Oh, xxx church! There so friendly! They just had yyy event”. This gives an idea of what impact and impression the church is making in the area.
Website review: More and more, the church website is the front door for the church. If there is a website, was it easy to find with a web search? Are service times and directions available? What sort of impression does the website make on a person when they visit it? BTW, Does your church need a website?
Special Requests: Normally these evaluations are done for the morning services, but essentially any of the following ministries can be evaluated:
Sunday morning worship services
Sunday morning Sunday school and worship service
Sunday evening services
Midweek services or bible study
In addition, If there is anything special you would like me to look for, just let me know. One example, it could be arranged for 2 evaluators to visit on the same day. One could be dressed “to the nines” while the other poorly dressed. This would allow you to review how the congregation responds to differently appareled visitors.
If you are interested in having your church evaluated, please feel free to contact me. Although I am a Baptist, I will do this service for most denominations. I will travel anywhere in the state of Missouri. Once I have completed the evaluation, I will send the written evaluation to you within a week (or optionally, I can share the results in person with the church should you wish).
*Originally published at ThomRainer.com on November 1, 2014 (http://thomrainer.com/2014/11/top-ten-ways-churches-drive-away-first-time-guests/). Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and ten grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer.