According to our research, it appears that in North America less than 15 percent of first time church visitors return for a second visit. I’m sure it doesn’t follow denominational lines exactly, but it appears that in mainline denominations that number actually hovers nearer to 11 percent. That means that if 100 visitors graced your church’s vestibule last year, 85-89 of them decided your church didn’t have what they were looking for. And if you’re depending on online church, those numbers are even worse!!

Although in some circles it’s chic to be exclusive, that shouldn’t be a church’s badge of honor. In our culture, pretty much the only ones looking for a church are either already Christians or those desperately seeking the divine. Those who are already Christians know what the church is like and tend to be pretty lenient in their judgment, so a brush off by these typically means there were hospitality issues or else they were looking for something specific they expected and didn’t find (like a “contemporary” worship service that was actually a traditional service with a tie-less preacher). The real issue is when those desperately seeking the divine turn away. Although that may mean there were hospitality issues, the core reason tends to be that the visitor was hoping to find God and instead found the Church. In other words, they couldn’t find God through the coded vocabulary, the insider-only message, and/or the spirit of conflict that smothers the Spirit of God.

We’ve been training leaders and congregations for decades now on how to turn that around. Indeed, a church I’ve been working with over the past four years reported that by practicing what we’ve taught they’ve turned their return rate from 11 percent to 85 percent… and 75 percent are becoming participating members. (Look for the “Turn First-Time Visitors into Returning Guests FlipYourChurch Training” DVD set in mid-February 2012).

However, in order to put together a cohesive plan on how to usher visitors into your membership roles, it will be helpful to capture the big picture of the connection track. In this article, we’ll both explore the larger picture and look specifically at the first half of the connection track: turning first-time visitors into returning guests. In an upcoming article, we’ll explore the second half of the connection track: turning those guests into committed members.

The Connecting Track

There are two rails of the connecting track. The first rail carries our passengers and we call it the integration process. This process is best understood through the terms we use to define integration into the heart of a congregation. These terms certainly aren’t proprietary, but when we use them, we do so with specificity and intentionality.

The Integration Process Rail

Visitor: Someone who visits a church for a single service. Visitors may never return to a particular church, they become a returning guest, or else they return as a visitor some time in the distant future. A visitor who returns a second time within six weeks should be considered a returning guest. When Aunt Marge from Pensacola drops in while she’s in town with the family she is a visitor and should be treated as such.

Guest: Visitors who return a second time within six weeks are considered returning guests. Guests are considering becoming increasingly involved with the church, although that doesn’t mean they want to chair a committee, sing in the choir, or join a small group. It also doesn’t mean they don’t. It does mean that they are especially sensitive to pressure and may be looking as intently for a reason not to stay as they are for a reason to continue attending.

Participant: When a guest begins singing in the choir, attending Sunday school or a small group, volunteers to help with a hands-on ministry, or willingly joins a committee or team, they’ve become a participant. Participants tend to be consumers more than supporters, so don’t expect their giving to increase and don’t plan on building a ministry around their gifts, talents, or skills just yet. The one thing you can count on is that you can’t count on participants for much.

Participating Member: Somewhere along the line a participant stops talking about “your” church or “the” church and begins to own it as “my” church or “our” church. This isn’t necessarily the definitive sign of membership, since some cast their loyalty on whatever seems like the next best thing, but it is a hint. Participating members may or may not “sign on the dotted line” and join your church, but they have made a decision to move from “guest” to “member,” at least in terms of their practices and behavior. Participating members are willing to serve, at least on some level. However, their loyalty is often predicated on the current pastor and/or on a small body of church friends.

Committed Member: You can tell who the committed members are when the going gets tough. When a popular staff member leaves, the mortgage payments become overwhelming, or the search committee hires a nice pastor who can’t preach a lick, the committed members will stick anyway. Yes, they may grumble, but when push comes to shove, they’re the ones pushing with their shoulders against the wall. Their loyalty is beyond personalities and friends and they will serve and sacrifice beyond where it hurts.

Thus, the integration process rail of the connection track looks like this:

Visitor → Guest → Participant → Participating Member → Committed Member

The Connections Rail

Whereas the first rail of the connecting track carries the passengers, the second rail carries the freight. To move someone along the track from visitor to committed member requires a number of specific connections that must be made along the way. If any of the necessary connections aren’t made, the visitor’s likelihood of full integration into the congregation is small. Therefore, we call the second rail Connections.

In brief, the second rail of the connections track looks like this:

  • Connection with Church → Returning Guest
  • Connection with Acquaintances → Returning Guest
  • Connection with Friend/s → Participant
  • Connection with God → Participating Member
  • Connection with Church → Committed Member

You probably noticed that the first two connections have the same results … a guest returns. The reason for the repetition is explained in the next section.

Turning First-Time Visitors Into Returning Guests

The remainder of this article will briefly look at the connections that must be made for a first-time visitor to become a returning guest. When churches fail to understand and facilitate these first connections they find themselves in the under 15 percent group. And although churches that do well here may not transform their guests into fully committed membership, churches that don’t retain their visitors don’t even have a chance.

Connection with Church

For a moment, let’s consider the visitor who comes without a personal invitation from a member. What determines whether a visitor has any desire whatsoever to return to the church is whether or not they make either an intellectual or emotional connection with the church.

Please understand that we’re not saying that a church has two shots at making a connection with an individual and that if it misses the intellectual part it gets a chance to connect on an emotional level. Nicky Gumbel of Alpha fame has correctly surmised that people are stimulated primarily on one of these two levels. Thus, some will make a connection on an intellectual level (“That makes sense”) and some will make a connection on an emotional level (“That touched me”).

A connection with the church is built on first impressions and on the visitor’s ineffable overall experience. We’ve spoken, written, and recorded volumes on the importance of first impressions, so we’ll turn our attention briefly to their ineffable experience.

Simply put, a great first impression won’t necessarily turn a visitor into a guest, although a poor first impression pretty much guarantees they won’t be back. A visitor must make a near visceral connection with the whole church experience in some way to want to return. Generally this happens in one of two ways: (1) They make a perceptible connection with the pastor; (2) The style and content of the worship service “resonates” within them. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a visitor to make both of these connections. In any event, if a visitor leaves the service feeling or thinking, “That hit the spot!” in some significant way, then it is relatively likely that they’ll return. Couple that with a great first impression and effective follow-up and the odds of a guest returning leap above 50 percent.

Connection with Acquaintances

Enjoying a church’s worship service enough to want to return will only last so long. A returning guest will only hang around the church for a couple of weeks if they don’t begin making connections with some of the “regulars.” We’re not talking hard and fast friends… not at this stage. But everyone has a need to feel both noticed and accepted before they’ll make any sort of personal investment. Therefore, it’s critical for guests to begin making connections with some familiar faces within the first few weeks.

Some of these connections may almost be imperceptible. A nod of recognition, a brightening smile when the guest enters the lobby, and if someone actually remembers their name… priceless. Other connections will need to be more tangible. Clear recognition by the pastor, staff, or other key leaders. Inclusion in conversations before and after the service. Invitations to the fellowship hall for coffee and doughnuts.

As a guest makes these connections, they may begin to pick up names and initiate conversations. At this stage it will become increasingly critical for the church to be intentional about helping the guest move to the next level.

… and that’s the content for the next article. Click Here for Part 2

For more information on making a great first impression, visit our website.

Question: How does your church create an environment that encourages first-time visitors to return? Share your ideas and experiences in the Comments section below.