First-Time Guest Engagement – Episode 111 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

guest engagement

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Engaging Your Mission Field (Part 2)

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Last week we began a four-part series to unpack the key steps we see helping churches reach more new guests with the love of Jesus. Here are the four aspects we’re discussing:

  1. Pre-Guest Engagement
  2. The First-Time Guest Experience
  3. First Steps Engagement
  4. Next Steps Engagement
guest engagement

All four are critical—but we’ve found most churches only have strategies and structure to engage one or two of them.

This week we’re looking specifically at engagement with first time guests because there seems to continually be a lack of clarity around what the win really is. 

In this second episode of the series, Amy and I share:

  • 3 strategies for keeping first-time guests coming back to your church
  • What it means to create a compelling weekend experience for both parents and kids
  • One very simple thing many churches are missing that would help more first-time guests return
  • 5 best practices that build better connection with first-time guests
Churches need clarity around the ultimate goal for first time guests. #unstuckchurch [episode 111] Click to Tweet The pace of people's lives is increasing. If your services don't feel worth their time, they won't come back. #unstuckchurch [episode 111] Click To Tweet

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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Today on the podcast we are continuing a four part series on how churches can better reach their mission field. This week, Tony and Amy are exploring how you can more effectively connect with people as they visit your church for the first time. Make sure before you listen to subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox. Each week you’re going to get one email with the leader conversation guide, all of the resources we mentioned and bonus resources to go along with the content. You’ll also get access to the archive of all of our podcast resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to Now here are Tony and Amy with week two of a four part series on reaching your mission field with a conversation on better connecting with first time guests.

Tony: 00:55 We’re in week two of our four week podcast series on dealing with the front door challenges churches are facing.

Amy: 01:00 And this week we’re looking specifically at engagement with first time guests. We’ve talked about first time guests several times on the podcast before, but there seems to be continually a lack of clarity around what the win is for engaging first time guests. So how would you define the win for churches?

Tony: 01:18 Yeah, you’re right. There’s still a lack of clarity around the ultimate goal for those people who are visiting our church for the very first time. And I think a lot of the challenges that churches experience with identifying first time guests are a result of this. I mean, the mistake I see some churches making is that they’re over-complicating the goal for the first time guest. They’re communicating specific next steps like small groups or serving opportunities or they’re inviting guests to come to a four week or eight week or 20 week class to learn more about the church. You laugh at that but I’ve seen it happen. Many of those environments are important and they’re needed at some point in the journey. But for the first time guest, that’s just too much to ask. In fact, we’ve pointed to some data, on the podcast before it originally came from Charles Arn and Gary McIntosh and some of the research that they’ve done as it relates to defining the win for new guests.

Tony: 02:18 And they found that the typical growing church will see 20% of their first time guests become a part of the church. Additionally, they’ll see almost 40% of second time guests and nearly 60% of third time guests become regular church attendees connect to the church, and be engaged in the church. And you can see how getting those guests to return greatly increases the odds of them becoming long-term attendees and hopefully fully devoted followers of Jesus. So data like this really helps us clarify the win for these first time guests. And it’s really just about getting them to come back for a second and third visit. And if we can get them to return a second, third, or fourth time, we really have a chance to impact their lives.

Amy: 03:08 Alright. So if the win is to get them back for a return visit, what do you think churches should be doing to increase the chances that these new attenders will actually come back?

Tony: 03:17 Yeah, so there are a few things that I think are really important here, but let’s start with the relationship. We talked about this last week and again, I encourage you to go back and listen to my interview with Jeff Brody in episode 97 if you haven’t already. This is a great conversation about Jeff, on one of the primary factors in guests returning. And that’s an established relationship with someone who already attends your church. And really those relationships begin before they ever attend church. They begin as we engage our neighbors and our coworkers and get to know them on a personal level who we invite to church becomes clear because it’s those who we’re building relationships with outside the church. In fact, I did some research on a couple of occasions where I found that churches are seeing about 75 to 80% of the people who currently connected to the church were invited by someone else that already attends the church. And Amy, you were talking earlier, it’s been closer to 90% in some instances when you’ve done the research.

Amy: 04:27 Yeah, well, at the church that I worked at for over a decade, we ran a survey and boy that came back consistently year after year at 89 to 90% of the people started coming to our church because they were invited by a friend or coworker.

Tony: 04:40 Yeah. So the key thing here is it wasn’t marketing, it wasn’t a clever sermon title that got them there. It was a relationship and it’s the relationship that is the best strategy to keep them engaged in your church. So hopefully those who attend your church are engaging their unchurched neighbors, coworkers, and extending an invitation to join them at Church and get them to come back. The second thing I would say is critical to seeing guests return would be creating a compelling service in kids’ environments. Your service really needs to add value to people’s lives. All of us as church leaders have seen over the last decade that the pace of people’s lives is increasing and that’s affecting their church attendance. Think about someone who isn’t a normal church attendee. If your service doesn’t feel worth their time, they’re not going to come back. And the same holds true for their kids.

Tony: 05:37 If they have kids, their kids need to have an equally great experience. Parents will put up with a lot for their kids. My wife and I were just having a similar conversation in the last couple of days of how kid centric our culture is. And because of that, as parents, we’re willing to sacrifice a little if our kids are having a great experience. But if kids don’t have fun, don’t develop relationships, or if their parents don’t feel like their kids are safe, they’re not going to come back to our churches. And so your kids’ facility space, the security, the overall experience, it’s really important. And then lastly, often, we’ve experienced churches who miss this part. There needs to be a clear invitation to come back when we engage with churches and consulting. Part of our assessment of the church is this kind of a secret shopper experience of their weekend services.

Tony: 06:35 And our consultants have often noted there’s that missing invitation at the end of the service for any new guests to return. One of the last things you should be communicating and the service should be that compelling reason why people need to come back the very next weekend. Why should they come back? They won’t naturally be considering the reasons on their own. So you need to help make that clear. Another great opportunity is when they actually exit the building, have volunteers in place to open the door for them and as they leave, thank them for coming and invite them to come back next weekend. If you’re clear with them that you want them to come back, it obviously will increase the chance that they will return. And Amy, I have a question for you related to this. I mentioned the secret shopper assessment that we do for churches and you’ve done many of these. What some of the best practices you’ve seen from churches you’ve worked with who are engaging those first time guests?

Amy: 07:34 I’ve been a first time guest in a lot of churches across the country and you know, it’s interesting Tony, it’s still intimidating for me to walk into a church for the first time and I’ve been asked by the church to be there, actually been paid to be there. But there’s still this level of anxiety going on inside of me when I’m entering a place I’ve never been before and I don’t know what to expect. But there are a few things that have consistently created a great experience, you know, has piqued my interest and I, at the end of the secret shoppers say, yeah, I would actually come back and I didn’t probably bring a friend with me. So a couple of them. First I’d say there’s generally been some sort of positive surprise, something I didn’t expect. You know, this church I was at a few weeks ago, they had such an amazing person inside the doors after I’d made my way in.

Amy: 08:22 She was so friendly, engaging, not weird, not awkward, you know, didn’t hold my time too long. But she just surprised me with her warmth. And so, just something that maybe it’s a service element that really touched me or surprised me, but just left me leaving, going, you know, I didn’t know church was going to be like that or was going to feel like that. Second, a best practice is that they actually welcomed me in the service and put me at ease. So I’m not talking about the worship leader who stands everyone and says, welcome. You know that that’s not helpful. In fact, I’m wondering what we’re going to do next, but that genuine focused welcome to people who are new to the church and just to say, glad you’re here. We’re gonna sing. And then we’re going to hear a great message from our pastor on acts and just giving me some cues as to what to expect and to know that they were expecting me.

Tony: 09:15 Yeah. Actually related to that, Sean has a great kind of word picture. He said many times in churches, it’s like when you invite someone to a dinner party at your house and they just come in and sit down at the dinner table, but you don’t introduce yourselves. You don’t welcome them to the dinner. You just expect that they’re going to start eating. Yeah. So that’s that. That’s the word picture I have going in my mind now when I hear one of our consultants say they didn’t even take the time to welcome guests to the service.

Amy: 09:48 But, so Tony, yes, it is. Another one would be that the service actually added value to my life. You know, the experience gave me some help on something that I’m facing in my life and it introduced me possibly in a new way to the wisdom of Jesus or the Bible. In other words, sometimes you can feel like a message is all self-help, but when it’s self help rooted in something bigger, that’s really piqued my interest and has drawn me to want to come back. Um, and one of the other best practices that I’ve seen actually happens before I attend the church. And so I always go on the webpage before I go to church to see the service times and all of that. But it’s being able to see a sample of their messages online to actually take one in. And I think we’ve seen this shift in the church over the last couple of years. You know, we used to say the website is another front door to your church. But I think actually the front door is that online service. Did I connect with it? Is it going to be worth my time? Do I relate with this person? Does the content relate with me? So that that’s another best practice out there.

Tony: 10:57 Yeah. But let me just say this related to this, and this is probably gonna make some people feel uncomfortable. It’s really tough to get people to go with you to church if you’re watching the online service. So for those of us that are connected to church we can’t just go to the online service. We actually have to be a part of the worship experience, we have to be physically there and it makes it a lot easier for people to join us when we do that.

Amy: 11:24 Good point. Well, let me turn it back to you again, Tony. One thing we often hear from churches is that they struggle to connect with their first time guests and get information so they can actually follow up with them and invite them back. And in fact, we’ve seen some churches essentially giving up on this because it’s been so hard. So are there any effective ways that you’ve seen to connect with first time guests and get information so that these churches can have an effective follow up?

Tony: 11:50 Yeah, absolutely. In fact, we did an podcast on this recently. You can go back and listen to it. It’s episode one of four and we’ve heard from a lot of churches using texting service to connect with these first time guests. It’s really working, and I won’t explain the entire process because we outlined it in that earlier episode, but texting gives guests a safe and less intimidating way for them to acknowledge that they were at the service and it allows you to make that first connection with them. It also makes your follow-up with them a lot easier. It’s more personal and ultimately more effective. You have that opportunity to invite them every single week and that invite goes directly to their phone, which people are on more than they are on their computers these days and if they’re like 99% of the rest of the population that they have their phone with them almost 24 hours of the day.

Tony: 12:48 Interestingly, we heard from one church leader recently that not only are their first time guests numbers and retention increasing because of texting, but they’ve also found themselves engaged in spiritual conversations over text that they would never have had the opportunity to have before. Isn’t that fascinating? I mean, we, I think assume that if we provide counselors and people that pray with people at the front of our auditoriums that we’re going to be engaging those types of spiritual conversations. But I can just tell you if people are wired up like I am, I’m probably going to initiate that conversation over a text message before I am to go forward and pray with somebody. So that’s something to keep in mind. People just feel more comfortable asking questions and learning more about faith in their church when they can do it through text. So if you’re feeling discouraged about your ability to connect with first time guests or you aren’t seeing a good number of new guests connecting, I would encourage you to check out this texting option.

Amy: 13:51 Yeah, that’s good. Thanks Tony. Any final thoughts as we wrap up for today on this number two in our four week podcast?

Tony: 13:58 Yeah, so we started out this episode mentioning this is just part two in a series of four podcasts about engaging our mission field. I mentioned last week that in today’s culture pastors need to think of themselves as missionaries and that’s true about your connection with people before they attend. But it’s just as true when they make that decision to visit your church for the very first time. But it’s impossible to do this unless you’ve really identified who you are trying to reach and what’s most important to them. And that’s why part of the process we lead churches through is using the demographic and psychographic tools that we have through technology and really getting a sense of who it is that we’re trying to reach in our community where the churches are located, where has God placed your church? And if that’s something that your church needs help with, we would love to talk with you about that process and you can learn more and connect with us by going to the Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast, it’s so cool, working everyday with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus them on vision, strategy, and action. If that’s a need in your church, we would love to talk with you. You can start a conversation by visiting us at If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, we’d love it if you’d help us get the content out by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling your friends. Next week, we’re back with part three of our conversation on front door challenges in churches discussing how we can help people take their first steps. Until then, have a great week.

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