Q: Who is More Important Than Your First-Time Visitors? A: Your Second-Time Visitors! (Charles Arn)

My Experience…

Ten years ago my family and I moved into a new home and neighborhood, and used the summer to search for a new church home. In 8 of the 10 churches we visited, I filled out a visitor card or signed a guest register. (Two churches had no way for visitors to identify themselves.)  Of the churches visited, 6 of 8 sent a “Thank you for visiting” letter, and 2 had a representative phone us the following week.

My family especially enjoyed three of the churches and decided to go back for another visit. I again completed the visitor information and, the following week, checked the mailbox for a follow-up. Monday … Tuesday … Wednesday … no letter … Thursday … Friday … Saturday … nothing. No card. No call. No contact.

We returned to the same three churches for a third visit in our search for a church home. Visitor card? Completed.  Left with the church? Check. Received any follow-up contacts the next week? None.

My Questions…

Do you have a way to let your first-time guests know that you are glad they came? A letter? Phone call? Post card? Hopefully so. But what about your second-time guests; the ones who liked the experience enough to come back? By their presence, they are telling you: “We’re interested in your church.”

And, what about those who visit your church a third time? They are telling you, “I’m really, really interested in your church!” So, 1) Do you even know who your second-time guests are? and, 2) Do you do anything about it?

It should seem obvious that people who visit a church are more likely to join than those who don’t visit. That’s why most churches have a follow up process for first-time visitors … to encourage such affiliation. So, why are we often missing an equally obvious conclusion that people who visit twice are more likely to join those who visit just once? And, three times more than twice?

The Research

A few years ago I was part of a research study on the topic of “visitor retention.” We asked participating churches to go back into their records 2 to 3 years and select a continuous six-week period (such as Sept. 1 – October 15 or January 1 – February 15). Then, they were asked to examine their data and identify all those people who had visited the church one time during that six-week period; next, identify those who had visited twice; finally, identify the people who had visited three times during those six weeks. The churches were then asked to jump forward one year and identify which of those visitors had become regular attenders. We divided the churches into two categories: those growing in worship attendance, and those not. Here are the percentages of visitors who were in the church one year later, compared with how many times they had visited in the six-week period…

Percentage of Visitors Who Stayed

Number of visits in
six-weeks
Non-growing Churches Growing Churches
One Visit 9% 21%
Two Visits 17% 38%
Three Visits 36% 57%

There are some important insights from this study:

  • The typical declining American church sees 1 in 10 first time visitors (9%) become part of their congregation.
  • The typical growing church see 2 of 10 first-time visitors (21%) become active.

KEY QUESTION: “Do you know your church’s visitor retention rate of first-time visitors?”

  • But, when visitors return a second time, the retention rate nearly doubles (in both growing and non-growing churches).
  • When people visit the same church 3 times in a six-week period, over 1/3 of them stay (36%) in declining churches. And over half (57%) stay in growing churches.

KEY QUESTION: “Do you know your church’s visitor retention rate of second- and third-time visitors?”

To put this research, and the apparent facts, into a simple conclusion: The more often people visit, the more likely they will stay.

My Suggestions…

Analysis of your weekly worship attendance will provide you with a wealth of insights. Just as the information from a barometer will help you forecast coming weather patterns, information from your worship attendance will help you forecast coming growth patterns. I’m talking about more than just counting heads on Sunday. You need to know that last week Mike and Denise McKay visited your church for the third time in the past two months. (And, as long as you’re tracking attendance, wouldn’t it be helpful to know that Patty Culver, a regular member in your church, has not been in worship for three Sundays now.)

Unfortunately, most churches either don’t take regular attendance, or don’t capture the information they need, or don’t glean important patterns of their people flow.* Here are three “to-do’s” that will enhance your stewardship of the people God has put in your trust…

  1. Obtain attendance information
  2. Monitor attendance patterns
  3. Respond to attendance indicators

Obtain Attendance Information

How do you know who was at your church last Sunday and who was not? There is not one “right” way. But, here are ideas from other churches…

  • A pew pad at the end of each row that is signed and passed from one end to the other. Most people sign a sheet that is handed to them, so it’s usually a good indicator of who’s in the service and who’s not. The downside is that it’s not very private and thus difficult to add more information (i.e., prayer requests, name/address, notes to staff, etc. ).
  • Registration cards in the seat back in front of the worshipper. A good approach is to ask each attendee to complete a card, not just the visitors. Newcomers don’t like to be publicly identified, so asking them to (awkwardly and obviously) reach forward and fill out a “Visitor Card” lowers the percentage of people who will do so. A Lutheran church of over 5,000 in Houston uses one card with two sides—the blue side for all members and regular attenders, and the green side for those who still consider themselves newcomers. Good idea.
  • A perforated flap inside your bulletin or printed program. Each attendee is asked to complete and then tear off the “communication note” and drop it in the offering plate when it comes by. This approach allows for more confidential information to be shared, gives members and visitors an opportunity to all participate, and provides an “easy out” for putting at least something in the offering plate. (Of course, some pastors prefer a different approach for that same reason. )
  • A church in southern California prints peel-off labels with the names of each member and regular attender on 4-across computer labels (each is approximately 1” x 2”). The continuous form labels are torn into 5’ lengths and taped to the wall in the lobby. Worshippers enter the building, find their nametag (listed in alphabetical order), peel it off and stick it on their shirt/blouse for the morning. It’s also a handy way to give people a reminder of “what’s his name” who they met last week.  And, coincidentally, the nametags that are remaining on the 5’ sheets after the last service indicate who was not there.  (Visitors/guests can get a similar nametag printed at the guest center, which also gives the church a record of visitor information. )
  • A smaller rural church in Kansas has appointed a woman to be their attendance checker. She sits in the choir at the front of the church and then, during the service, compares her membership roster against the people in the pews. Before you laugh at this idea, the same woman practices her spiritual gift of hospitality by introducing herself to those newcomers after the service.
  • Small groups and adult Bible classes can be asked to check worship attendance for the people in their group.
  • And, a few examples on the higher tech side…one large church in Atlanta has two video cameras mounted in the worship center that scan and record those in attendance using facial recognition software.  (Other churches just use the video to later identify attendees.)
  • A church in Las Vegas issues electronically coded ID cards to members and regular attenders that are used for child-care check-in, financial contributions, member voting, etc.  Sunday morning a scanner at each door records those who pass by…without even needing to remove the card from their wallet. (Members are aware of this process and think it’s great!)

Monitor Attendance Patterns

Here, the computer is your best friend. Whether it’s a bells and whistles church software program, or a home-made spreadsheet, you’ll need a way to enter and evaluate the data. At the beginning of each week print a report that provides you with:

  • First-time visitors (names and address, if available).
  • Second-time visitors, plus the date of their first visit.
  • Third-time visitors, plus the dates of their first and second visits.
  • Number and percent of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd time visitors to total attendance (5% or greater is healthy).
  • Members and regular attenders who were absent (totals and percentages).
  • Members and regular attenders who have missed three services in a row. (Half of these people will be gone within a year if their absence is ignored. )
  • You may want to include additional information in your report, such as a comparison of these same numbers with the report from a year ago.

Respond to Attendance Indicators

To get started, I recommend you sit down and compose two follow-up letters, one to 2nd time guests, and one to 3rd time guests (assuming you already have one for 1st timers).

Next, invite a group of 4-5 people together (including some new members) who would be willing to help design a system to identify, follow up, and track 2nd and 3rd time guests. The goal is to connect these newcomers with people in the church who share similar interests, marital and family status, age, gender, etc. Then do some “sanctified match-making” with newcomers and regular attenders. Research clearly shows that the more friends a newcomer makes in a church, the more likely he/she will become active and involved.  And, of course, for those long-time members who have been gone the last few Sundays, let them know that “We missed you…you’re an important part of our family…we’re looking forward to seeing you next week.”

Visitors represent 100% of your church’s growth potential. It’s a wise investment to give them the time, honor, and attention they deserve.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”  (Heb. 13:2)

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* I find it sad to hear suggestions from some church leaders that “counting people” is too much of a worldly focus on numbers…despite the fact that they carefully count their dollars as part of the church’s business.