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As a secret shopper or mystery worshiper of churches around the country, I’ve found there are some reasons that I will tell a church I would not return for a second visit, and some may be news to you. Whether I’m working with a church plant of 60 people or a mega-church of over 1,000, some things are universal and should be present regardless of church size.

Throughout this post, we’ll look at actions and areas every church needs to address.

1. The Front Door

Before a guest ever steps foot on your church’s physical campus, he or she has probably already checked out your church Web site.

What every church should have clearly visible on their homepage is a section or button for first-time guests. Once clicked on, this should take you to a page that addresses FAQ’s, service times, directions, parking instructions (is there a side of the building that is better to park on if one has kids?), what to expect (upbeat music and relevant, practical, Biblical preaching in a come as you are atmosphere, etc.), what to wear (are jeans okay? are shorts okay?), and encouragement for them to be sure to stop by Guest Central or your church’s Information Booth to pick up a first-time guest packet.

2. What Stinks?

It’s important that no church ever underestimates the sense of smell. While sight is the strongest sense for short-term memory, the sense of smell is the strongest and most vivid for long-term memories.

If you’ve ever smelled something and had memories you hadn’t thought of in years come flooding back, that’s your sense of smell in action.

Every church has the potential for positive or negative smells. Mold is a bad smell. Coffee is a good smell. Bleach is a bad smell. Citrus is a good smell. Many churches have restrooms that are disgusting and smell bad. This lack of attention to detail can be costly and discourage many from ever returning.

As best you can, try to walk into the lobby or entrance of your church with a new nose.

3. Park Here

One of Tim Stevens’ three “growth lids” that he thinks every growing church should have is someone who is constantly watching the parking area.

Tim says, “This is why Visitor Parking is so crucial. If it’s difficult for newcomers to go to your church, they won’t go.” Some would argue that guests want to remain anonymous and don’t want special parking.

Of course, some want to go unnoticed and will choose to park in regular parking (a minority), but most newcomers are appreciative of a closer parking space. Consider this a kind gesture in the already intimidating and nerve-racking experience of attending a church for the first time, especially a large one with a huge campus.

4. This Way, Parents

One way to assure guests will not return is to have a confusing, long, or hard to find process for getting their children registered and in the right classroom. Wise churches have signs for first-time guest kids’ check-in which makes the process quick and painless.

Regular attendees should already know to go up to the check-in kiosk and enter their phone number or swipe their card, but visitors will be clueless and need a manned station that is clearly marked for guests with a volunteer to walk them through the registration. Next, the church should have this volunteer, or another helper, walk with you to your child’s class, while explaining what will be going on and how to go about picking their kids back up. If they must have a sticker with corresponding numbers on it to get their kids, this needs to be explained to them.

Signage for the children’s check-in should start in the entryway of the guest parking. Do not assume people will automatically know where to go once they enter the building.

5. Give It Away

Something subtle but powerful is a church that has a generous spirit. Some churches have a coffee shop where money is required, while others will opt for a designated area where people can get free coffee and not pay anything. They also give away their message CDs.

Too many churches charge for everything and wonder why no one buys CDs of their message. If you want to bless people and create a generous spirit throughout your church, give away free coffee and message CDs (and other surprises throughout the year).

Some Churches will have ice cream trucks pull up outside the church doors and give away free ice cream to congregants leaving on a hot summer day.

6. Security Counts

One issue that is huge to a secret shopper and visiting families is security. If a parent is worried about their child’s safety, they will not enjoy the service and will likely not return.

A children’s classroom must be clean, safe, and secure. Security also includes the check-out process. If anyone can walk into a classroom and pick up a child, you’re asking for trouble and will turn off potential newcomers. It’s important that your childrens’ volunteers are trained well and know to ask for the parent’s sticker when picking up their little ones.

This is vital and goes a long way to ensuring a tragedy doesn’t occur and a parent has peace of mind.

7. The Visible Pastor

Accessibility of the senior pastor is another subtle and powerful statement of a church. Even pastors of the largest churches in America make an intentional and strategic effort to be seen, greeted, and hugged after a service. They may have a bodyguard present for security reasons, but they are available and willing to pray with people that need to speak to their pastor.

  • Some churches have a designated “Guest Central”.

  • Some have a “Meet and Greet”.

  • Some pastors stand down at the altar and meet and pray with people.

  • Some walk around the campus shaking hands.

  • Others have an “After Party,” at which the pastor is present and available to meet with newcomers. This, especially in a large church, goes a long way toward countering the rock star or unavailable pastor stigma that so many guests walk into the church expecting.

8. Finish Strong

It’s simply not enough for greeters and parking lot attendants to say “Hello” or “Welcome” when one walks into their church. To go to another level, have your first impressions team stationed at their posts when the service ends to say, “Goodbye” or “Have a nice week.”

This goes a long way to wrapping a bow around the entire morning experience and will send them off with a lasting positive impression.

Do these 8 things and you’ll see a greater return and higher percentage of second and third-time returning guests.