An Innovative Approach to First Time Visitor Follow-Ups

Churches often have visitors. However, their experience determines whether or not they return. Here are the two steps to effective visitor follow-up.

Every church has them, every church wants them, but not every church treats them right: first time visitors.

When it comes to first time visitor follow-up, there are two steps: visitor experience, post-visit contact

Step 1: The Visitor Experience Should be Inviting and Informative

Visitors should feel welcomed into a warm, inviting, and well-organized church.  This means being friendly, but not over-friendly.  It also means having things clearly signed, ushers and greeters trained to assist, and printed information available to visitors.

Sadly, too many churches fail in all of these.  Churches think they are friendly, but they aren’t to visitors.  Signs are unclear or non-existent.  Ushers and greeters are either robotic and cold, or they are aggressively friendly.  Finally, those assigned to help visitors get around don’t know how to answer basic questions.

Worse than an unfriendly, unorganized church is one that turns visitors into a spectacle.

How many of us have been to a church where the visitors were asked to draw attention to themselves?  Some have visitors stand, others require them to raise their hands, and some use other methods of public display.  Whatever method is used, the visitor is asked to identify themselves.

This is embarrassing.  In a way, it’s a form of visitor intimidation.  Numerous articles by Thom Rainer, Greg Stier (Dare 2 Share Ministries International), and Sarah Robins (Vanderbloemen Search Group) have noted that visitors do not want to be put on the spot.

When it comes to visitor follow-up, the first step is to treat them right.

What might have worked 50, 20, or even 10 years ago does not work today.  In today’s world, visitors want to be welcomed, but not pointed out.  They approach churches as consumers (we can say it shouldn’t be that way, but in reality it is).  The first impression a visitor has will color the rest of his or her experience.  Finally, they want to remain anonymous until they choose to reveal themselves.  Nonetheless, they welcome a greeter saying hello, asking their names, and inquiring if they’ve been to the church before.  When they indicate that they are visitors, the greeter need only ask if they have any questions, answer those questions, and end by encouraging them to enjoy the service.

Now that the service has come and gone, and the visitor has left campus, we now come to the second step of visitor follow-up.

Step 2: The Post-Visit Contact should be from a Regular Member, not Staff

The pastor or any other member of the staff should not be the first person to contact a first time visitor.

That’s right.  When it comes to calling or dropping by the homes of first time visitors, the first contact should not be from a member of the staff.

In my previous church, a regular member came by the office to talk about how to best reach out to church visitors.  He recommended I, as pastor, make the first contact.  I encouraged is thoughtfulness and his passion to reach out to visitors, and then turned the question back to him.  I said, “Put yourself in the shoes of the visitor.  You went to the church, and a couple days later you get a visit or call from the pastor.  What’s your initial thought?”

He replied, “It’s nice, but their probably doing their job.”

This member was absolutely right.

People expect the pastor or staff to call or come by.  It doesn’t convey much more than they are doing their job.

I continued, “What if the first person who called or came by was a regular member?  What would be your first thought?”

He said, “I’d think that the church cares.”

Again, he was right.

People expect a staff member to contact first-time visitors; it’s part of their job.  However, if a regular, non-staff member of the church takes time to contact the visitor, then that conveys a more caring body of believers.

At this point we need to address three issues: how to contact them, when to contact them, and what to say.

How the Member should Contact Visitors

Some churches prefer going by the homes of visitors, others call first.  Which is right?  The best approach is one that works in your community as it is today, not as it was in the past.  We learn from the past, we do not live in it.  Personally, I favor calling first and asking if a personal visit is desired, then honoring that preference.

When the Member should Contact Visitors

The visitor should be contacted within 72 hours.  This shows that the church respects their privacy, but also values them.  It gives the visitor time to breathe and not feel like the church is hounding them, but also feel like they matter to the church.

What to Say when the Member Contacts the Visitor

The first contact by the member should be brief and friendly.  Introduce yourself: “Hi, this is _____ from ______ Church.”

Next, let the visitor know that you (not the church) are glad they came by the previous Sunday.  If the member talked to the visitor, say that you enjoyed meeting them.  Otherwise, apologize for not having the chance to meet them.  Finally, see if they have any questions about the church and if there is anything the church can do to help them.

This approach to visitor follow-up is, in some ways, antithetical to how some churches do it.  While it may seem radical, this approach is built on specific, biblical premises:

  • Love God, love man.  By showing visitors that your church respects them and cares about them, you are showing them that you love them because you love God.
  • Serve others.  This approach turns visitor follow-up into a way of serving others, not serving the church.

If a church follows these steps with visitors, then they will find a higher number of them returning.

What has your church done to improve the experience of first time visitors?  Repeat visitors?

About John L. Rothra
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