Why not offending your guests (a little bit) is killing your church

Have you ever been somewhere different for the first time?  In the past I’ve encouraged pastors to go play Bingo for an evening to give them a sense of what First Time Guests feel when they come to their church.  At Bingo there is a series of social norms, funny language, ritual and definitely “insiders and outsiders”.  It’s good for pastors to feel like and “outsider” to give them a palatable sense of what First Time Guests feel like when they come to your church.

What does your church do to reach out to First Time Guests?  How do you make them feel at home so they will venture the risk to come back a second week?  Chances are you have to “offend” your First Time Guests a little to get to know them a little bit to make that connection.

I sometime think we believe that what Guests want is to be totally ignored and allowed to just slip in and then slip out because they want to be anonymous.  Effective churches reject that notion because they know that church is a relational community.  “Ignoring guests to make them feel at home” makes about as much sense as “ignoring friends who come over to a house party because I want them to feel at home.”  

raised-handYou are going to need to take some steps to interact with your guests to start building a relational bridge … you’re going to have to risk “offending” them by being proactive in the relationship.  But if you don’t take the risk of offending them (a little bit) I can guarantee they won’t return.   Here a couple ways to reach out to First Time Guests that you could implement …

  • Name Tags // I’m a believer in name tags.  Even in large services with 1500+ people in them I think it’s a good ask for our guests.  It says we are trying to make it easy to connect.  I’m not saying make people wear name tags … I’m saying to offer everyone who attends the opportunity to get a name tag written up for them on the way in.
  • Who’s here for the first time? // Remember the horror story of the pastor who makes first time guests stand up in their service and identify themselves … totally creepy.  But I’ve seen it be effective for the host to be on stage with their hand raised and say “Who might be here for the first time? We have a gift that we’d love to give you as a thank you for coming today.  If you flag down an usher they would be happy to give you one.  Thanks for coming today.”  It’s all in how’s it done … no one is being told to raise their hand but invited to self indicate.  This raised hand helps people around the First Time Guest see who they could reach out to and welcome.

What about in your church?  I’d love to hear what you’ve done that might be slightly “offensive” to start building a relational bridge with guests?  Leave a comment!


  1. Rich, intriguing point about “ignoring” guests to make them feel at home. I’d suggest we give people the “option” to stay anonymous if they really want to, but we “offer” ways to connect. A little risk is essential because building relationships feels risky…on both sides.

    I like your offer of a visitor gifts, as well as inviting visitors to connect briefly and simply after the service with a gift so your very best “connectors” can make them feel welcome.

    One way to connect is to offer “visitor” parking. If you park there, we know you are visiting and our greet team is going to connect with you and say, “welcome.” They offer to show them around or take them to check-in, etc. The level of response they get back tells them either to back off or lead on.

  2. We went to Elevation church in Charlotte. They had a sign saying to put on your high beams if you are a visitor. Then the parking attendants ushered you over to VIP parking. With a tent in the parking lot manned by people waiting to greet you, answer any questions you had, and give you a gift. Felt very welcomed.

  3. We train churches to have a high intensity, high touch hospitality system in place. Enough “greeters” (they’re actually screeners) are stationed at every entrance to the building to insure that church visitors are gently funneled into the first step of the assimilation process.

    In small churches it’s easy to spot the visitors. The Greeters will initiate by saying, “Good morning, my name is XXXXXX. There are some folks I’d love to introduce you to.” Then, (there’s a decision tree involved) the greeter introduces the visitor to the next “handler” in the chain to escorts the guests to their next destination (perhaps a nursery) and then to the auditorium.

    Part of the journey will be to the hospitality center where the guests contact info is collected and they are given a gift that stands out in a crowd (even though they don’t realize it) so the rest of the church will know they are visitors.

    In the auditorium the “handler” introduces the church guests to a section captain (who has responsibility for 25 or so seats) who greets the visitor and sits with them throughout the service.

    After the service the members of the congregation (who have been trained to look for visitors) will greet the visitors and thank them for being in the church. There will be those folks who will voluntarily invite them to a meal after service or perhaps at a subsequent time.

    By the time the church guests leave they will have had contact with at least five or six people, all of whom greeted the visitors. The guests go away thinking, “Wow that was a friendly group!” (others have written that the more “touches” a guest receives the more friendly the congregation seems).

    I am personally convinced that the contact after the service is probably more important than the treatment received before the service. I’m not aware of any research on this, but it just seems to make sense. We should put at least as much effort at making their departure pleasant as we did in making their arrival present!

    There’s additional follow up during the week, but that would make this comment windier and longer than it already is!

    We have seen this system work in small churches and large, and although we’re not record keepers, the anecdotal information indicates that the retention rate is much higher.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.