Can You Handle the Truth? 3 Reasons Your Guests Aren’t Returning

All pastors know the feeling. A new couple visits on a Sunday morning. Maybe they just moved to the area and they are looking for a church, or a friend invited them, or they decided to give church a try. They seem really sharp, exactly the demographic you are trying to reach. You have a great conversation in the lobby. They promise to be back next week, but they’re not. They never come back.

Another family comes three weeks in a row. Each weekend you see them in the lobby after church and it seems like they are really connecting. They miss the fourth week, but they’re back on the fifth. And then they never come back.

What happened? Why didn’t these families connect? Why do so many people flow through your church without sticking? You’ve read the books, been to the conferences and tried everything you can think of, but the back door of your church is always wide open. What is going on?

While I haven’t been to your church, or if I have let’s pretend I haven’t, I have visited scores of church across the country and I know why many people don’t stick. Sometimes the music is really bad or the preaching is really boring or the children’s ministry is really awful, but there are other, less obvious, reasons people don’t return:

1. Your church is a Members Only club

I can hear your reaction from here, “Not us! We work very hard to be inclusive. We go out of our way to welcome visitors; we even invite them to a monthly reception to show them how welcome they are. Swing and a miss on this one, cheesy boy.” (I don’t know why you are calling me “cheesy boy”, but I could use a nice slab of sharp cheddar about now)

Actually the more you think you’re not a members only club the more likely you are. Guests are just that, guests. They are welcome to watch and even participate, but they are not a part of the club. Walking into the church is like walking around in a foreign country. There are signs with clever labels like “Treasure Cove”, “Warehouse” and “Waves” that mean absolutely nothing to the outsider. Your announcements are laced with insider language about ministries and programs that everyone, wink-wink-nod-nod, already knows about. Sermons are filled with inside jokes and references to individuals that an outsider knows nothing about. You even have special shirts and name badges to clearly delineate who belongs and who does not.

The effort required to learn your language, understand your references and get to know your members is just too challenging for the new attender, so they don’t come back. You don’t mean to be a members only club, you just are.

2. Your church doesn’t care about details

The first time attender showed up a few minutes after your website said your services start because they wanted to sneak in the back, but when they arrived the band wasn’t even on stage. The auditorium was almost empty when they sat down, which made it easy for the pastor to find them. He explained that the congregation is notoriously late, but the service will start in a few minutes.

During service the guest noticed that the words were wrong on some of the slides, and there were several typos in the bulletin. On they way out to the car they noticed the pile of junk on a table in the corner, seemingly the same pile of junk that was there when they visited last Christmas. In the parking lot the overgrown flower beds seemed to emphasize the message, “We do the least we can.”

The new attender can’t help but wonder why the church leaders care so little about details. Maybe that’s the way they treat people as well? Its not really worth the effort to find out.

3. Your church is full

There may be room in the parking lot and the auditorium, but everything else is full. Your small groups are closed, but you have new ones starting the fall if the new attender wants to come back in a few weeks. Your ministry teams are full unless the new attender wants to wipe babies butts, in that case there’s an opening today. Your leader’s slate of relationships is full; they’ll meet with the new attender, but they reached their quota of friends a few months ago. There’s a place to park and a place to sit, but there’s really no place to belong.

This is confusing and a little embarrassing for the new attender. At least when hotels are full they put out a no vacancy sign; your church talks like they have plenty of room even though every available slot, or at least desirable slot, is full. Maybe they’d be better off sticking with to find new connections, there’s always room there.

Have you ever visited a church and then didn’t go back? What are top two or three reasons you didn’t return?

Read more from Geoff here.


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Geoff Surratt

Geoff Surratt

Geoff lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife Sherry (CEO of MOPS International). Geoff and Sherry have two awesome kids (Mike and Brittainy), a wonderful daughter-in-law (Hilary) and the most beautiful granddaughter on earth (Maggie Claire) Geoff has served on staff at Seacoast Church and Saddleback Church. He is now the Director of Exponential and a freelance Church Catalyst and Encourager.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Dennis — 05/22/16 9:22 am

Church is to bring in the lost, to save souls. If you're a believer and come to a church to seek what it can do for you, instead of what you can do for the church, then your in it to be served and not to serve. It's not about you and what you want, it's about the Kingdom and glorifying God. Do your part to help not to run because you don't feel good about the church. True Christians seek God in Spirit and in Truth, all others are seeking a savior and need help getting to there destiny. Help to do the vision, not criticise others for not doing it the way you want. We are one body with different parts moving towards the same purpose. Salvation!!

Sean — 09/21/15 7:55 am

The main reason i don't return is because the preacher didn't prepare, or maybe he just isn't a good preacher. Sometimes it's because they are too fluffy with their beliefs, "God aint mad at you" and every body is tip toeing through the tulips.

John Crossman — 01/25/15 7:24 am

The main reason why I believe someone does not come back is a lack of follow up by the church. It is odd to me but the majority of the time that we have visited a church, there has been no follow up. Even more concerning, we have never seen a pastor follow up. My advice to churches is to have a pastor follow up with every visitor and then Shepard them based on their need which could include helping to connect them to another church.

Paul — 01/09/15 12:02 pm

#3 seems to be quite common around me. They don't have room for me to get involved in anything, but they sure manage to send out multiple requests for my money every month.

Martha Roberts — 01/03/15 7:32 am

It seems like everyone's standards are pretty high. I would think that if people are going to give a church only one try to come up to their standards, they may never find a church home. I remember several years ago we had two or three groups of new people who complained that we did not sing the hymns that they were used to. So we added some of the hymns they suggested, but they left anyway. Maybe new people could try appreciating what they find when they go o a new church, instead of setting their standards so high that few churches can meet them. I have not had reason to look for a new church for many years, although I visit other churches on occasion. Maybe that new church that doesn't measure up to your standards has something different and special to offer that will enrich your lives. And what is awful music? I think that my church has terrific music, but if someone new comes and doesn't like it, then it becomes awful music. I guess I feel that instead of looking for the perfect church, people might go with the attitude that they will become part of the community and offer something to the life of the church. It's a two-way proposition.

Shay Wallace — 04/07/14 12:59 pm

It seems this was written awhile ago but I would like to respond. Mr. Surratt makes great points. Points that should be taken seriously by all churches. I just do not think these points are the main reason people are not coming back to churches. Who knows the exact reason why anyone does not come back unless they tell you, but I can say with certainty the reasons I do not return are usually the same. 1. Love, tolerance, and acceptance. (unbelievers, baby Christians) Church members seem to want their guests or potential members to behave a certain way. They want them to conform to the system that is already in place. In some ways this is understandable. In other ways, it is isolating to the guest. They want to feel loved and accepted the way they are. They want to be told everything is ok no matter their past. They want to be given time to work out their immediate more pressing issues without having to worry about what to wear and how to talk (church speak). 2. Love, tolerance, and acceptance (believers, unchurched) Many times, these people are looking for what fits their already preconceived ideas of what "good churches" are. These preconceived notions are difficult to overcome and some of them were addressed in Mr. Surratt's article. But I can tell you that a truly loving, a truly tolerant, and a truly accepting church can overcome most of these things. You may never be able to overcome a taste in music, or a theological difference, but most everything else can be healed with Love. 3. People can see the business aspect of the church. I see it almost immediately when I walk into certain churches for the first time. I think people understand that a church has many aspects of itself that are business oriented. I just believe they dont want to experience these aspects when they visit. How many churches are so focused on growth, in numbers of bodies, that they forget the growth of the heart? The American church is now fully Americanized. Its a show and a numbers game. People come to church, especially new comers, CRAVING to fill a void in their life. If you are offering the same thing they can get in the real world, how are you any different? There are plenty of other reasons people do not return and many may not be avoidable. However, the church as a whole needs to reevaluate the arena in which they are playing. The simplicity of the Gospel is good enough to fulfill the hearts of the unbelievers and restore the prodigal's to a relationship with Christ. Love thy neighbor as thyself and love thy God with all your heart.

Dave Alan — 04/07/14 8:19 am

"You even have special shirts and name badges to clearly delineate who belongs and who does not." Now a short while back I was told by some of you growth gurus that we needed name tags and same colored polos so people would know who to ask directions or other info from. Which is it?

Dan — 03/06/14 10:21 am

Personally I think that a major part of the problem, and this becoming more transparent today, is this assumption and assertion that church is about emotionalism. Why make the assumption in this article that a church has a "band"? Some churches still embrace a certain level of reverence and respect -- they attempt to make church something different, something more transcendent than day to day car radio, night club, social media environment. First church is NOT just an emotional time where people come together like-mindedly and feel good about themselves. You see, our culture is so lost and so desperate for something that the people will fill that emptiness with anything that gives them a high, even if its only temporary. Is that what church is meant to be? Is it a drug, given in the name of God? Come together, have some coffee and rolls and sing songs that temporarily fill a void? I don't think so. Second, what church should be offering is the Word of God! The main focus in worship is the teaching - the faith - the confession - the meditation - the prayer - the day-to-day LIFE of God's people sort of summed up in an hour and a half. I mean if God's children are supposed to be running around with their hands in the air all day long singing "breathe" I guess it's one thing...but what are they learning from that? No. In church people must learn to repent, to believe in Christ as their salvation, to delve into the Word of God, to learn humility, to learn to be passive-receiving from God His gifts rather than thinking they must do something or sing louder or raise their hands higher to get them. They must learn about sin, and the effect of sin in their lives, so that they can truly rejoice and thank God for the wonderful gifts of salvation, grace, eternal life, and forgiveness of sins in a LIFELONG way and not as an emotional high. Church must be something different, something that goes BEYOND the culture and thus has the ability to reach INTO culture to get to the lost. Church must display the transcendence and the holiness of God, but it must also show the closeness and the intimacy of the Father shared in Christ. What church has become today is a business-show. It's not church but it's entertainment. It's like drinking the milk where God wants to get us to solid food. Yeah we don't want to become stagnant and hypocritical by following a bunch of rituals for rituals' sake, but we also don't want to abandon the ritual of the church in order to try to look like the culture around us. I like a lot of praise music, but sometimes I think it's an infiltration of culture and worldliness into the church (rather than the Church changing and leading culture). Thus when I choose praise music (or any music) for church, it must first and foremost TEACH THE FAITH, not just make people jump up and down, cry, and become emotional robots. While I agree with the premise of this article, I do NOT agree with the assumptions or the assertions. There are times when an organ and a hymn is far FAR better than a band where the musicians wear jeans and dress like they just came from a night club. I believe we should show some air of reverence when we are in the presence of God and when we are teaching the faith corporately.

Greg Balzer — 01/18/14 11:58 am

Certainly timeliness, cleanliness, and true hospitality are important, but for me these are not the decisive factors in finding a church home. These factors are frosting on the cake, and can be improved over time. What I want to find in a church is a pastor and membership focused upon loving God, and loving their neighbors (and visitors) as themselves. A church with a high view of God, a low view of man. A church truly transformed by God's spirit. Born from above and giving the credit to God. A church like this cannot help but grow.

Bob Cleveland — 01/09/14 12:33 pm

Ask yourself why the people who DO come back, do so. It'll probably have less to do with parking or seating or timing, than it does with something going on that draws them back.

Robert Huckleberry — 12/23/13 8:26 am

We visit many churches in the past due to our occupations, but now, settling down, I never thought we would have a problem of "finding a church home". First, it was apparent We simply have nothing in common, except, of course Jesus. I thought that would be enough. But, I was wrong. The cliques are strong and the singing/music is aweful. We tried for months to make it work, but when my wife started crying on the way to service, I caught myself saying "it isn't about the worship" its about plugging into the Body of dawned on me, we had to go somewhere else. The second place we visited and left was also due to cliques, poor proper exegesis of Scripture and they had no idea of ther mission to their community. It was a pep-rally sermon format with poor music, no discipleship and no room. The last place where we are currently attending has reduced us to Sunday morning only (SMO as they call it) due to the Bible studies being monopolized by a leader who approaches Scripture using propositions because they "think" or "feel" it should be so...again, no formal exegesis. I feel terible for even commenting like this, but, you asked. We've stopped looking elsewhere, and resigned ourselves to sit in the back and wait for openings.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you Ed for sharing your insights into the Church Growth Movement. I have my reservations with Church Growth models because it has done more damage than good in the Body of Christ. Over the years, western churches are more focused on results, formulas and processes with little or no emphasis on membership and church discipline. Pastors and vocational leaders are burnt out because they're overworked. I do believe that the Church Growth model is a catalyst to two destructive groups: The New Apostolic Reformation and the Emerging Church. Both groups overlap and have a very loose definition. They're both focus on contemporary worship, expansion of church brand (franchising), and mobilizing volunteering members as 'leaders' to grow their ministry. Little focus on biblical study, apologetics and genuine missional work with no agenda besides preaching of the gospel.
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comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you for sharing such a good article. It is a great lesson I learned from this article. I am one of the leaders in Emmanuel united church of Ethiopia (A denomination with more-than 780 local churches through out the country). I am preparing a presentation on succession planning for local church leaders. It will help me for preparation If you send me more resources and recommend me books to read on the topic. I hope we may collaborate in advancing leadership capacity of our church. God Bless You and Your Ministry.
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