They had a problem. A BIG problem.

More than nine out of ten first-time visitors who walked through the door never returned. It was like their visitors walked in, took a quick look around, and maybe even kicked the tires and hung out for worship, but once they left the building, their sentiments were, “Cross that church off the list. I’m never going back.” It turned out this church was breaking every one of the five biggest hospitality mistakes any church can make.

To be fair, this church was having more trouble than most. If you’re attending an average church in the US, you’re probably getting around a 15% return rate (unless you’re in a mainline church – then the average drops to about 11%). However, if you eliminate these five hospitality mistakes, the chance of a first-timer becoming a returning guest changes in your favor.

Five Serious Hospitality Mistakes

  1. Introducing Your Visitors in Worship. If you’re doing this, stop it NOW. Almost no one wants to wear the birthday sombrero in your worship service – and that’s what your first-time visitors feel like when you identify them in front of everyone. It doesn’t make any difference if you have them stand up or raise their hand, or even if you only give them a special visitor’s name badge. If you somehow point out your visitors so everyone can look at them (also known as gawking), then the chance of that visitor returning drops to almost zero.
  2. Ignoring Your Visitors before, during, or after Worship. The second biggest mistake you can make is giving your visitors too much anonymous space. Visitors don’t want to be paraded in front of your congregation, but they don’t want to be treated as if they don’t exist either.  Kris attended a church as a “secret shopper” the other day and someone noticed her right away. Within a few moments, an older member approached her, introduced herself, chatted with her just long enough for Kris to feel comfortable, and then sat down next to her as they were talking. This woman helped explain the service to Kris as it progressed, answered questions, and made sure Kris never had any awkward moments (like during the “stand up and pass the peace” part of the service when the guests just sort of stand there feeling like they’ve got “Do Not Approach” signs hanging around their necks). Of course, don’t mob your guests – but don’t ignore them either.
  3. Confusing Your Visitors. First-time visitors to your church can easily be confused. They don’t know that the big front doors are locked and that everyone comes in through the side entrance. They don’t know where the restrooms are. They easily wander off and get lost in the hallways. And they don’t know what CWF, UMW, Chi Rho, ELW, a narthex, or a chancel are. They haven’t memorized the Lord’s Prayer and don’t know that they are expected to stand up for the Doxology. Just know this: if you confuse your visitors, they’ll find something else to do next weekend. 
  4. Not Making It Easy for Visitors to Return. In most churches, first-time visitors are allowed to escape completely unscathed and untouched by a single soul once the benediction is pronounced. If it’s possible to avoid the line to shake the pastor’s hand, they’ll typically find a way. On the other hand, if a visitor doesn’t feel like anyone cares whether or not they return, it’s pretty likely that they won’t. So make sure your greeters are re-posted before the closing song ends and that they invite everyone – especially the visitors – with a big, smiling “Y’all come back again next week, ya hear?” or something to that effect. Of course, later in the day the pastor or a staff member should be making a stop at the visitor’s house to leave some sort of impression-making gift and invite the visitors to return. Whatever you do, a visitor has to feel like it’s easy to come back… or they won’t come back. 
  5. Making It Hard for Visitors to Connect. If a first-time visitor doesn’t make some sort of a connection during your worship service, the chance of them returning is slim to none. There are a number of ways for a visitor to make a connection on their very first visit. They might make a connection in a worship service that resonates with them (it makes sense to them and somehow touches them deeply). They might connect with a sermon that offers practical instructions for living life better. They might even make hit it off with someone who they’ll have coffee or lunch with later that week. But if your visitors don’t make a real connection, if they have to fight their way into connectedness, they’ll never return.

Of course there are hundreds of other hospitality mistakes, but if you eliminate these, you have a pretty good chance of raising the odds of turning a first-time visitor into a returning guest.

Question: Most of us can attest to enduring a hospitality faux pas when visiting a church. But can you share about a time when a church got it right? Tell us what they did that made you want to come back by leaving a comment below.