The second step in Jesus’ 5 step exponential church growth model is to build relationships (step 1 is to get some attention and increase your first-time visitor count).

This is part 2 of a five part series.

Most, but certainly not all, churches get a first-time visitor every now and then. And if you’re following the advice from the first part of this series then you should be seeing first-timers on a regular basis. However, just because a visitor comes once, doesn’t mean they’re going to return. In fact, studies have shown that the average church only sees around a 15 percent return rate, and that number drops to 11 percent for the mainline church. In our own research over the last three decades, we’ve found that a 6 percent return rate is about average for a church that’s in decline.

If you’re going to grow your church, then the second step of Jesus’ exponential growth model is to build relationships with your visitors. And the most common way to build those relationships is to ensure visitors become returning guests so you and your congregation can get to know them.

Here are the things we know that work to get visitors to return:

1. Make Them Want to Return

Mystery Shopper KitThe most effective way to run your visitors off is to offer lousy hospitality. And though I’m sure your church is the friendliest church in town (aren’t they all?), the fact is most congregations are membership friendly and “visitor” unfriendly, somewhere on the scale between antisocial and antagonistic. In other words, most church’s guest hospitality falls somewhere between virtually ignoring their guests and overwhelming them.

The Effective Church Group is famous for our hospitality resources and blogs and updates, so I’ll not spend more time in this section. But if you “think” your church is friendly, but you’re not retaining 50 percent or more of your first time guests, then I can almost guarantee poor hospitality is the culprit. You can test it yourself with the Mystery Shopper Kit.

On the other hand, if you already know you need hospitality help, get great tools free at

Bottom line here … if your church is offering really great guest hospitality, your visitors will want to return.

2. Increase the Odds of Their Return

Every study on the subject shows the same thing: If you make a personal follow-up with your first time guests within a few hours after they visit, the odds of their returning literally skyrockets. Couple great follow-up with outstanding hospitality and you can expect to see between a 50–75 percent return rate … we’ve got examples to prove it.

Again, we’ve written a lot on this topic too. You can check out our follow-up blog posts here.

The key practices to effective follow up are:

  1. Make a personal visit within a few hours of their visit (Sunday afternoon, not sometime on Monday).
    • Take a gift of value and your business card … plus any church information you have (brochure, DVD, branded thumb drive, etc.).
    • Don’t go in, even if invited.
    • Introduce yourself; thank them for coming; give them the swag your brought; invite them back; give them your card and invite them to call you with any questions; go home.
  2. Send a handwritten card on Monday morning and put it in the mail. Thank them and invite them to your next week’s sermon (give the title and topic).
  3. Send them your church’s newsletter on Wednesday (if you have one).
  4. Send them a text (if possible) or email on Friday inviting them to the weekend service.

I  can hear you exclaiming “They’ll think we’re pressuring them … or worse, stalking them!” or “That won’t work in our community … every house is gated.” First, if what you’re doing is working so well, then continue to do it. Otherwise, we recommend doing what we know works to increase visitor returns. Second, if you have gated communities around you … and you have a Masters Degree in Divinity … then you’re smart enough to figure out how to “get in.” Just do it. And on more thing: don’t cherry pick the recommendations and then complain they don’t work. They DO work if you follow the plan … we guarantee it.

3. Give Them a Reason to Return

Great hospitality and follow-up are important. But you can improve the odds or their returning even further and start to build lasting relationships by giving them a good reason to return. If you’re in the midst of a great sermon series or if you have a guest-friendly event coming up, those are great opportunities for inviting a visitor to return. In fact, I recommend launching a new sermon series regularly to spark interest and get both your guests and members to return.

Recently, Paul Borden shared a great plan for getting your guests to return … AND there’s a bonus with his plan. Your visitors and members will begin building relationships with each other.  We published this plan in an issue of Net Results (January 2016), but here’s the gist of the process.

  1. The pastor meets the guest and expresses an interest in taking them to lunch … but admits s/he cannot this week. Would they be willing to come back the next week and s/he will take them to lunch after worship? Most of the time, according to Borden – and my experience – they’ll agree.
  2. Week 2 … the guests return and when the pastor greets the guests, a well-trained lay person interjects. “I heard you were going to lunch with the pastor today and I had hoped to join you to get to know you [the guests] better, but I can’t go this week. Would you be willing to return next week and I’ll take you to lunch after worship?”
  3. Paul says to repeat this at least a couple more times (up to six times, he suggests). What’s amazing is how many visitors will return for lunch … and after you’ve done this several weeks in a row, you should have done a good job at assimilating your visitors and turned them into participating guests.

What can I say? This is one of the best ideas I’ve seen for assimilating visitors and turning them into guests.

4. Build a Network With and For Them

I suspect that “everyone knows” that the most effective way to keep your visitors is to get them involved in a small group. The problem is that most churches’ small group programs are fraught with insiders and devoid of new folks. It’s not that those in the small groups aren’t “welcoming,” but after four to six weeks every small group essentially becomes a closed group. The most effective way around this is to start new groups regularly.

But there’s another issue with most church small group programs. Their programs tend to be virtually invisible and churches make it especially difficult to get involved. In part, this is because few churches really emphasize small group participation (for instance, if the pastor isn’t talking about his/her involvement in their small group every couple of weeks from the pulpit, then it’s a clear indication that the church’s leadership isn’t committed to small groups). In addition, it can be difficult for a newcomer to discover the path of “next steps.” The way to take care of this is to talk about the steps to discipleship, steps to membership, or just The Path to Next Steps. Here is one church’s well publicized path (it’s in their worship folder and on their screen virtually every week – plus the pastor interjects a comment about it from the front almost every week as well.

Want to Get Involved? Need to Go Deeper? Here’s the Path:

  1. Welcome to First Church: Lunch with the Pastor and Staff
    2 Hours – Childcare available
    (First Sundays at 12:15)
  2. Discover You Class
    3 Weekly Sessions – Childcare available
    (Discover your God-given gifts, passions, and strengths)
  3. Exploring Faith Class
    6 Weekly Sessions – Childcare available
    (Introduction to adult faith formation practices)
  4. Life Groups
    Semester length home groups

Ultimately, the goal of all these tools is to put guests with members, and guests with guests, so they build friendships. Because friendship is the first step in faith development … and helps create hearts that are ready to be touched and transformed, which is the next step in Jesus’ plan for exponential growth.