Any church worth its salt has a desire to reach new people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We want to do everything we can to see the message of hope take root in the hearts and lives of individuals and families. So, we work, we plan special events, we pray, we encourage our church family to get involved … and then it happens. That first-time visitor walks through the front door! They look a bit lost perhaps, but they are here. Your church does its best to greet them and make them feel welcome. You glance their way every so often during the service, wondering what might be going through their mind. Are they enjoying this, or are they really looking forward to the end of the service? Is the sermon making sense to them, or are they totally confused? Do they think our church is weird? Have enough people made them feel welcome today, or are they just not feeling the love? You know the gospel can change them, but will they stick around long enough to allow it to take root? After observing more than 5,000 church services over the last 30 years, here’s my collection of “hacks” to consider when interacting with new visitors:

1. Equip a “Welcome Task Force.”

One of the most common reasons a first-time visitor never becomes a 2nd-time visitor? They felt like a number. They came in, sat down, got up and left, and felt like nobody knew they were there. Don’t let this happen! If your church has any size to it, it will be logistically impossible for the pastor to personally find and engage every new visitor before they leave. Rather than “hopefully the pastor can catch them”, here’s a better strategy: Equip a group of outgoing but tactful church members to seek out visitors and intentionally engage them. Notice I did say “tactful.” This may not be the best job for cheek-pinching lipstick-toting Aunt Mabel, but use discretion and choose a group that can interact with visitors without making a scene. Here are a few practical tips to think about:

A. Choose team members from different age groups.

Older members may relate much easier with older visitors, while a new teenager would probably connect much easier with a young person.

B. Train them properly.

Make sure your team members clearly know their role and understand how to engage people in a kind, non-offensive manner.

C. Have them introduce guests to the pastoral staff or welcome center staff.

A simple “I’d love to personally introduce you to Pastor Smith after the service. Would that be OK?” may be just the thing that keeps them from bolting after the service, and can keep the pastor from having to chase them down in the parking lot.

2. Find a way to get their email address.

Do a Google search for “how to get church visitors to come back”, and you’ll find a lot of suggestions about a “visitor’s card” or a “connection card.” Hey, I would totally agree, that a connection card is crucial! But rather than labeling that as one of the “5 Hacks” in this post, I want to drill down even further and propose that outside of their name, the email address is the most important piece of information you could gather from your visitors. What if there was a way to communicate with this new guest quickly and regularly without leaving voicemails, making “not home” visits, or risking a stumble into “creeper” status? That’s what an email address can do for you. I’m not saying it’s all you need, but I am saying that it can be a real game changer if you play it smart! Here are a few important ideas about this:

A. Guard these email addresses.

People’s privacy is key! The last thing you want is that unscrupulous volunteer to decide to send his latest MLM opportunity to your visitor email list.

B. Always make sure the email recipient has a way to opt-out if they no longer want to hear from you.

Nothing is more frustrating than wanting “out” with no clear way to make it happen.

C. Consider an Email Automation for new visitors.

What a great way to communicate quickly and efficiently! For a great explanation of what this means, and how to set one up, check out this great webinar by Daniel Irmler.

3. Mug them with sweetness.

What? Mug them? Years ago, my wife’s home church in Georgia would take time during every Sunday morning service to recognize first-time guests. Ushers would walk the aisles with church-logo coffee mugs that were filled with candy and finished off with a bow. I remember the pastor always saying “if you’re a first-time guest today, we want to mug you with sweetness.” For some reason, people would chuckle at the corny joke every week. I’m not suggesting you employ this same method, but my point is this: spoil your guests. Make sure that when they walk out the front doors they are carrying more items than when they came in. Whether you give gifts during pre-service, end-of-service, or afterward at the welcome center, make sure they feel the love. Oh, and make sure it is more than just church literature and a pen from Oriental Trading. Spend a few bucks and spoil them. Remember Proverbs 18:16? A man’s gift makes room for him! Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

A. Build some mystery into it.

Let your guests know that there is something special waiting for them after the service, and remind them again right before dismissal. This is also a great way to collect their contact information. Let them trade their info card for a nice gift!

B. Give a gift to each family member.

If your budget allows for it, have a male, female, and teen appropriate gift. You’ll blow them away!

C. Avoid homemade foods.

Aunt Mabel’s fruitcakes may be a hit with the family, but many people today will shy away from foods with mystery ingredients. They may appreciate the thought, but the food will likely hit the trash can.

4. Take really good care of their kids.

Picture this. The service just ended, and that first-time visiting couple shows up at the children’s wing to pick up their kids. Little Johnnie stumbles out crying and mumbling something about being thirsty, and Sally is nowhere to be found. A couple of workers disappear in the back to find her, and five minutes later she makes an appearance, but she’s only wearing one shoe. Now, maybe this is an extreme scenario, but listen – there is no clearer path to a parent’s heart than through the people they love the most in this world. If you treat their children with care, honor, and obvious kindness, you’ve made a phenomenal statement, and you’re well on your way to establishing a lasting relationship. A comprehensive plan on the children’s ministry program is beyond the scope of this article, but the thought is this: do what it takes to make this experience exciting and pleasant for those kids. If they want to come back next week, guess what? Exactly. Here are some tips:

A. Make sure your children’s workers know who the first-time visiting kids are, and make sure they receive a special gift as honored guests.

At our church, we have a dear lady who makes little gift baskets for every new kid that attends children’s ministry. You’d think it was Christmas all over again!

B. Have 1 or 2 kids workers who have the responsibility of personally assisting these children.

Remember, this is their first experience here. All of the other kids may know the weekly routine, but Johnnie and Sally are completely lost.

C. Build anticipation into the children’s program from week to week.

“Make sure to come back next week to hear how the story ends! Next week we’re playing ‘Zap Em Up’ – you won’t want to miss it!”

5. Connect with them outside of the church setting

This is a big step and perhaps the riskiest out of all of these, but it may also be the most rewarding. Whether it’s a staff member, a deacon, a small groups leader, or just a friend who is already a member, try to arrange a follow-up meeting outside of the church setting the week following their visit. This may be a casual cup of coffee at a cafè, a bite to eat during lunch break, or a simple play date with kids at the park. Whatever the arrangement, the idea is to take away the unfortunate “walls” that can so easily shoot up within the corporate church setting. As much as we’d like to think this doesn’t happen at our church, it does. Most people simply won’t be up front with you the first time they walk through the doors of your church. They are trying to feel it out and see what the safety level is. Once you work through the awkwardness of arranging the meeting and breaking the ice, it is amazing how many doors of opportunity for ministry can appear. If you decide to go for it, consider these things:

A. Always arrange the meeting beforehand.

The days of showing up on their doorstep unannounced are dwindling. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work anymore, but more and more people are becoming wary of strangers showing up on their property without warning. You know your area and your community culture – just be smart!

B. Make sure the guest knows the purpose of the meeting first.

This can put their mind at ease. “Hey John, I’d love to grab a coffee with you this week and chat about a couple of opportunities coming up at FBC that I think could really be a blessing to your family” is a lot better than “Hey John, can we talk this week? It’s really important.”

C. Pay for their meal, drink, treat, etc.

Again, “in honor, prefer one another” still works. Make the investment, and show them they are important to you!

I hope these ideas have been a help to you. Are you currently implementing any of these in your ministry? What have been the results? What other ideas would you add to this list? We’d love to hear from you with a comment below!