Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What do first-time guests look for in a church?

From 1981 to 2001 I served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Indiana. I went there with no pastoral experience and no education beyond high school. The only thing I had was the absolute conviction that God had called me into the ministry and that He had called me to that church. I wish I had one other thing when I started.

Gary McIntosh and Charles Arn wrote What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church which is one of the best guidebooks for pastors that I have found. The book covers just about every area of church life and gives specific advice for each of these areas and ways to measure how well your church is doing in those areas. Those of us in church leadership are always looking for ways to evaluate how well our church is doing, and I believe this book provides some very helpful means of doing so.

Most churches want to grow, but many of them are not very intentional about being inviting to new people. The authors point out that first-time guests are primarily looking at six areas of your church when they visit.

  1. The friendliness and warmth of the church. I know your church is the "friendliest church in town." I've heard it for years, but is it actually true? After 14 years of worshiping in different churches almost every week I can tell you that many of these churches are not actually very friendly towards outsiders. They suggest if your church has less than 25 percent of first-time guests return in six weeks or less, your church may have a problem in this area.
  2. The character of the worship service. People want integrity and meaning in worship. They want to experience the presence of God. I was recently talking with an individual whose family is seeking a new church to attend. He told me that he wants to feel something when he goes to church. They are still visiting churches.
  3. A place for children. This will be the most important issue for some who visit your church. They want a safe and secure place for their small children, and a church that will teach moral and spiritual values to them.
  4. An adult program. Contrary to popular wisdom, many adults are hungry for spiritual meaning in their lives. There is also much interest in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, many adults are looking for answers to their questions about marriage, finances, coping with loss, raising children among other things. The more programs a church has to address these various interests, the more outreach opportunities the church has.
  5. The church building. Cleanliness is crucial. Landscaping, fresh paint, adequate parking, and clean bathrooms may not be the most spiritual aspects of your church, but if any of these are missing it can be a reason your guests do not return.
  6. The church's image. What is your church known for in your community? Are you involved in ministries outside your church? Are you known for doing positive things in the community? Do you allow outside groups to use your facilities for meetings? Is your pastor involved in civic groups and schools in the community? Or, are you better known for your inner conflicts and for the things you oppose? It will be very difficult for a church to grow if it has a poor reputation in the community.
As you look at each of these six areas, how well does your church stack up? Are there some intentional things you can do to improve any of the six (or all of them?)? Making those improvements might mean that you will begin to retain more of your first-time guests.

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