How To Get First Time Guests To Come Back

This post has been adapted from episode 16 of our podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast here or read the transcript below. 

Kevin Fontenot: Hey there. I’m Kevin Fontenot, and I’m here with Scott Magdalein. We’re your hosts of the Thriving Ministry Team’s Podcast, where we talk about all things related to church leadership, discipleship, and training. And on today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about how to get guests to come back to your church. And I’m feeling good about this one, Scott. We’re getting back in the groove of podcasting, two in a row after a few weeks off, so I’m excited.

Scott Magdalein: Yes. Our summer travel has waned, and we’re in between some conference travel. We’ll be at a conference soon. But right now we have some pretty consistent schedules so we can actually talk about some things and record it for each other. Okay. I’m really glad. Kevin, you picked this topic. I think it’s a phenomenal topic and I’m glad we’re starting with this topic. Now we’re starting with the second step of this, so we’re not talking about guests, getting people to come to your church. You were doing a little bit of a precursor, like a little chat beforehand. And you made a really good point. I want you to make the point again. But you made a good point about why we’re starting with getting guests to come back before we talk about getting guests to show up. Can you make that point again for us, please?

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah. Absolutely. I’m a marketing guy at TrainedUp, so when I think about a lot of the systems inside the church, I think about it through my lens of the business world too. And so when we’re talking about marketing in the business world, we always talk about funnels. When you look at a funnel, you have the top of the funnel that’s really wide. You have middle of the funnel where it contracts a little bit more. And then the bottom of funnel, where it contracts even more, where there’s just a little bit getting through at a time. And the reason that we want to talk about this first and foremost, of getting guests to come back is, if you have a block at the bottom of your funnel, and you still are trying to pour stuff up at the top of the funnel, it’s never going to work. It’s never going to get through the bottom of that funnel into whatever you’re trying to put it into.

Kevin Fontenot: And so the reason we want to talk about this is we want to make sure that the bottom of the funnel is optimized of getting guests to come back before we ever talk about getting people to come into the doors the first time because those chances are you already have guests that are coming into your church. You already have people that you’re reaching week after week. And you’re probably not doing a great job of getting them to come back as it is. So starting with this first and optimizing this process allows you to then think about the other side of it, of how to get more guests in the door.

Scott Magdalein: Man, it’s really good because a lot of the conversations I talk about with pastors in the context of church growth, they say, “How do we get more visitors to our church?” And it really does feel like it’s jumping the gun because the question is: You want to get more visitors, but what’s their experience when they show up? You know? And of course, you’ve heard the old adage, you only have one chance for a good first impression kind of thing, that first impressions last. If you’re optimizing your … I say optimizing. Okay. If you’re pushing your church invite, you’re spending money on Facebook ads, you are doing outreach in the community to get people to show up at your church, and those people are having their first experience with you is a poor first experience, those visitors or those guests are not going to come back. Not just they’re not going to come back next week, they’re not going to come back.

Scott Magdalein: In their mind, your church is not a church that is welcoming to guests. Or your church is not a church that has an engaging Sunday morning experience, or has any place for them to park, or whatever it is the reason that they had a bad first experience. They’re just not going to come back. And I mean, not just next week, but they just simply won’t darken the doorway of your church again. You’ve lost the opportunity to reach that person most likely. So focusing on first, getting your guest services, getting that first impression honed down so that you know that you’re doing a good job of getting guests to return to a second visit before you start filling, like Kevin said, filling the top of the funnel, getting people to visit in masses is the first … That order, getting the guests to come back first and then filling the guest funnel makes a lot of sense, to me at least. You don’t want to waste all those first visits from those people just because you didn’t want to put the time in first to make sure your guests follow up or your guest experience wasn’t awesome.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah. I’ve been a picky eater all my life. This is kind of an aside that made me think about when you said, “You have one chance of a first impression,” so I live in Texas. Whataburger is the place that you go when you want a burger in Texas. That’s just how it is. And growing up, I remember distinctly going to Whataburger with my parents one time. And they were trying to order me a kid’s meal. And I have a very distinct way of how I eat my burgers. It’s always tomato, ketchup and pickles. And that’s it, so I’m very picky when it comes to food. My wife gives me a hard time about it, but I just can’t help it.

Kevin Fontenot: Anyway, I went to Whataburger, and they wouldn’t give us any tomato. My dad offered to buy a full on tomato, like the whole tomato, but they wouldn’t do it at all on the kid’s meal. And so I literally didn’t go to Whataburger for 15 years after that until I was an adult at that point. And so we’re talking about making a first impression. It really does make a difference. I know it’s a silly thing to think about, a food restaurant. And I wouldn’t go back over tomatoes. But the truth is, if we don’t make a good first impression, our people aren’t going to come back.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah. What’s amazing is that there are so many interactions that a guest has on their first visit that they evaluate every single interaction. Not just: Was there a parking space close enough to the building? Was there somebody there to greet me to show me where to go? When I dropped my kids off, was it hectic? Every interaction along the way. I needed to find the restroom. Was it easy to find the restroom? While I was sitting in worship, did I have a place to sit, where I could sit with at least one chair buffer between me and a stranger? All these different little things that are small interactions that you don’t know what thing could be the tipping point for someone that is kind of a deal breaker for them to return. And so it takes a lot of work, a lot of attention to detail. I think, though, in my opinion, all that attention to detail really pays off when you have a good system for welcoming guests, making them feel at home, making them feel comfortable, and giving them that opportunity to return. It’s a lot of work that pays off, in my opinion.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah. Let’s kind of dive into some of those thoughts. There’s a lot of research out there, a lot of studies, and kind of depending on which one you look at, we can figure out that guests typically make a decision about whether or not to come back to your church for a second time within their first 10 minute of arriving at your location. Scott, why are those first 10 minutes, those kind of mystical 10 minutes, so important for first time guests?

Scott Magdalein: I think the easy answer is because as much as we say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” you do judge a book by its cover. We are quick to make judgment calls because that’s how we kind of organize the world. And so when we have an experience, our first experience with something shapes all of the subsequent experiences, which is why when Andy Stanley says, “The sermon starts in the parking lot,” he means that when people are starting to experience your church as soon as they … Honestly, a lot of times before they even pull off the main road. If you’re one of those churches where you have maybe a difficult time getting onto your property because the traffic stops because people are backed up out of the parking lot and into the road, you’re going to have a first experience where it’s hard to get a parking space.

Scott Magdalein: And so if there’s an emotion of frustration, if there’s a sense of people aren’t paying attention to get me and my family in on time, or whatever it is, then that’s going to start to shape how they experience the rest of things. They start with frustration in the parking lot, or they can’t find the place, or whatever it is. And then they get to the front door, and they’re not sure which entrance to go into. Maybe they go into the wrong entrance. If you go to church here, then you know to go into the back entrance, or you know to only go into the front entrance. Or if you have kids, you know to go into the secondary entrance. Those people are going to not know that thing, and then feel a little bit lost. And so the frustration then starts to build, and not just because of the one thing. It tends to kind of compound. So if they have a second frustrating moment, it’s not just a little bit annoying, it’s doubly annoying because they’ve already been annoyed when they were in the parking lot, or prior annoying stuff.

Scott Magdalein: And so no matter how good the sermon is, or how engaging the music is, or how many clips from movies you play, or whatever it is, they’re already lost in their head frustrated with something that they already experienced. And it’s going to take a lot of work to undo negative experiences that they experienced in that first 10 minutes.

Kevin Fontenot: One of the things that’s really interesting in the culture of the church today is the guests and visitors for the first time, they have so much information available to them before they even ever step in the front door, and so where 20 years ago, people would never be able to hear a sermon unless they went to your church or someone handed them a cassette tape, because that existed at the time, and gave them a sermon of your church, they would never know what that would sound like. But in today’s world, I can Google churches in my city. I can find a list of 25 different churches right there, go to all their websites, see what the church looks like on the inside. I can see who’s on staff at that church. I can see what the music’s going to sound like. I can hear what the preacher is going to preach about, what it’s going to sound like every single Sunday. And that gives a lot of value to the people that are coming into the church for the first time. And so that’s really been a big shift in the eyes of the church.

Kevin Fontenot: And so now instead of having to convince people through things like the music and through the sermon of whether or not they’re going to come back, they’ve already experienced those things online based on what your website is telling them about your church. Now it’s really about that personal interaction, making sure that they’re feeling welcome, because we live in the busiest society that has ever existed. There are countless things that are all grabbing our attention, sports where it used to be sacred, where you didn’t take Sundays for sports. Now there’s Little League every single Sunday. There’s basketball every single Sunday. And so there are so many different things that are pulling our guests into different directions that those first 10 minutes are so important.

Kevin Fontenot: If I go somewhere for the first time and I’m walking around for 10 minutes and no one greets me or no one helps me at a store, chances are I’m never going to that store again. The same thing happens inside of our churches. One thing that I’d really love to see is a study that also took into account the research done before coming for the first time because I think that puts an interesting dynamic into that first 10 minute type of research as well, to figure out if people that haven’t done a lot of research beforehand, if they have a little bit more grace. Or if they have less grace if they’ve already done a lot of research online.

Scott Magdalein: It does. Yeah. What’s interesting to me is that kind of research would frame that guest experience better, in a better context. If there were a way to, like we do with our website traffic, be able to drop a cookie inside someone’s car when they visit our website, and then they drive to the church and that cookie goes with them to the church, we can know that they showed up to the 10:00 service. And then they sat down in the left most section, and they talked with so and so, and so and so, and so and so. We can track their whole experience. That would be awesome.

Scott Magdalein: At the very least, doing some really good visitor tracking and visitor followup. And doing some work to be able to map some of those people, not map everybody, but map some of those people to where they came from, how they heard about the church, how they got information about showing up, how they made a decision to show up to that particular service. And then what do they experience when they came through? That kind of survey data is really helpful for you to know. How are people mapping from doing a Google search to landing on our website, to researching when to show up, and then actually getting their family to the church campus on time? That’d be really critical information to have, in my opinion, to be able to shape their Sunday morning experience.

Kevin Fontenot: Let’s shift a little bit before we talk into systems and how to do some of these things a little bit better. I’d love to hear your thoughts, Scott, on some things that churches can do in those first 10 minutes to make a greater impact.

Scott Magdalein: I mean, most of the interactions that you’re going to have are going to be shaped by volunteers, so a guest shows up, there are some things you can do that are not volunteer oriented. Things like better signage or really good signage to help people know where to park, where to walk into the building, where to drop kids off, where to get to the main auditorium if you have a campus that’s a little bit less obvious. Most churches don’t have the ability to willy nilly kind of change the organization of their campus, so good signage is going to help with that.

Scott Magdalein: Most churches know that they need to have good signage, so if you’re sitting around and you’re like, “Man, we don’t have any signs,” man, you just please go start with some good signage. Map out. Get somebody who doesn’t go to your church and ask them to find the children’s area and watch them try to find the children’s area. We would call that doing user testing or user experience testing. But you can do the same thing with some people who don’t visit your church.

Scott Magdalein: Let’s assume that you have decent signage. From there, the rest of the interactions are going to be volunteer oriented, so the parking is going to be either good because you have volunteers helping people park, or it’s going to be bad because you don’t have volunteers helping people park. People getting to the right door and then getting into the door and finding where they need to go is going to be heavily influenced by the volunteers you have at those doors. Generally, even if you don’t have great signage, or if the signage is pointing but people don’t like to read signs maybe, they’re going to generally see, okay, there’s a door with a lot of people. And the people are holding those doors open. I’m going to go toward those doors, not the doors at the other end of the building that I see that are closed and there’s the lights off behind the door.

Scott Magdalein: Even just having volunteers positioned in the right spot with some basic training on what to do, their job is going to help with those interactions. Of course, better training in my opinion, I’m a big fan of training, better training for that initial, those first two steps, the parking and the door greeters, guest services, are going to help them have a good first impression just showing up on a campus. Those are some big impacts. And honestly, those are small training areas that you don’t have to have somebody who’s a mature disciple to do those things, just somebody who will show up early enough to where you can get them a T-shirt, or a badge, or a … Not a neck brace. What’s it called? A necklace or whatever it’s called. A lanyard, that’s the word, lanyard. So they have their name on it, you know that they’re a volunteer. And make sure that they’re smiling with a stick of gum in their mouth so they’re not going to offend anybody.

Scott Magdalein: And get them to hold a door with a smile open, or hold the door open with a smile on, or park cars with a smile. And those, you can take care of a lot of those initial frustrations that people have just with a little bit of work. Beyond that, you have other guest services roles that are things like ushers and information desks, and then you can talk about how room greeters in children’s ministry will greet parents when they drop off kids. And those are all interactions with volunteers that go into kind of deeper training, I think, than just the door holders and the parkers. I think the biggest simple impact can happen with the parking team and the door holders.

Kevin Fontenot: I agree. I think people are the biggest portion of what churches can do better in this area. That doesn’t take a lot of work. You know? When we’re talking about reorganizing your entire campus and putting up crazy signage and redoing landscaping and things like that to make a better visual impression, those things aren’t nearly as important as the actual people and the interactions that people are going to have. I’m quick to forgive a bad looking building or a bad looking piece of property when I drive up onto it if I’m getting a better interaction with the people. If the same thing happens to me inside of a store, it’s not necessarily the cleanest store or the cleanest place, I’m going to be willing to forgive that if I’m having great interactions with people.

Kevin Fontenot: Of course ideally, we all want to be the Chick Fil As out there that just look immaculate when you walk into it, and they just have really friendly people all the time. But the truth is, we can’t always do all those things well. And so focusing in on the people first, so things like volunteer training. The great thing about all those different areas that Scott mentioned is, we’ve already built a lot of that training out inside of TrainedUp’s library for all those different roles based on the best practices we’ve seen from talking with a lot of different church leaders. And so you don’t even have to think about the content that would have to train on because we’ve already created a lot of that.

Kevin Fontenot: But beyond that, beyond the volunteers, the interactions with just the average everyday members inside of your church to a new guest is also paramount because if I’m going into a new church and I have great interactions with the volunteers, I hear a great message, but then no one else greets me besides those volunteers and hearing a great message, I’m going to be a little bit weary about the church itself. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. They have great people at the door. They have a great message. But no one actually came up to me, or shook my hand, or knew that I was there,” anything like that, and that makes a big impact as well.

Kevin Fontenot: One of the things that I would actually encourage is to talk about the importance of guests inside of our churches preaching a series on why guests matter and how your members can practically be more welcoming makes a huge impact on the way the those people are going to see guests. They’re going to naturally search them out. Also, just talking about that with all your leaders that aren’t serving in any particular week because in a lot of churches, our volunteers aren’t serving every single week. Our small group leaders aren’t serving on Sunday mornings, and so those are people that can kind of be designated greeters inside of the sanctuary as well, so when they’re seeing someone new, they can go up to them, welcome them as just a plain clothes person inside of the sanctuary. And that’s going to make your people, your first time guests, feel a lot more welcome inside that time as well.

Scott Magdalein: It does. That’s a good point about having people who are not necessarily identified or assigned as volunteers for that particular Sunday to also be just having a culture of hospitality and greeter welcoming-ness. Like you said, you may have 10, or 15, or 50 people at a door. But those people are obviously there to greet. It’s different when you’re walking into the sanctuary, or you’re walking across a foyer, or atrium, or whatever you call it in your church. And people are just friendly. And then it’s a friendly church and not just a well organized church that you had a good experience in. But people actually want you there. That’s a big difference. It’s a big impact thing.

Kevin Fontenot: It could also go in the other direction as well, where you have just a lot of interactions with people, and none of those interactions are really well done. My wife and I visited a church one time, and it was obvious that we were the only visitors there when we arrived because every single person inside the church came and greeted us. But it wasn’t a get to know us or anything like that, it like, “Hey, I’m so and so. Nice to meet you.” And then they would go away. Then the next person would come you five seconds later with a terrible handshake and do the exact same thing. And so we got a lot of greeting done, but we didn’t get to know anyone. And ultimately, it wasn’t a great experience for us.

Scott Magdalein: What’s funny is in my experience, churches that are a little bit smaller tend to be better at naturally being hospitable because it’s a smaller church, then more of the people in the church are going to notice. Oh my gosh, a guest. There’s a guest here. We don’t know that person. For the most part, they’re going to come up and greet you or welcome you to the church and ask you a little bit about yourself. It’s when you get up into those larger churches where people tend to be less welcoming to people they don’t recognize because it’s a big enough church, that person may have been going here for 10 years and I just don’t know them yet. But you can still as a pastor, or as a volunteer ministry leader, or whatever it is, be talking to your people about welcoming and being hospitable to people that they don’t recognize, don’t know.

Kevin Fontenot: Absolutely. One of the things that I want to talk about next, Scott, as we kind of wrap up this talk about guest services and getting guests to come back is, I want to talk about systems. It’s something that you and I are both big fans of. We both think in systems. And so let’s talk about what should happen after a guest visits for the first time. How can a church follow up with guests better?

Scott Magdalein: We’re all big fans of systems. We have toyed with automated follow up systems for our own website visitors. We’re moving and trying some things with some less automated, more human touches. But generally with a church, I’m a humongous fan, big fan of phone call follow up. Even though I think people are incorrectly worried that they’re going to offend somebody by calling them at their house. I think you’d still need to do a phone call. If you can get a phone number from somebody on a connection card or whatever your church calls that card that they fill out as a guest, give them a phone call.

Scott Magdalein: Now different churches might have different flow to this, but usually phone call is just one piece of the puzzle. There should be other pieces. In my opinion, the person should be also getting an email follow up or something in the mail if you can get their mailing address. It feels nice to get a little package or a thick envelope in the mail with some information and something helpful or nice for your family. And so those different multiple touch points are … In a business world, business perspective, you’d call that brand impressions or brand affinity impressions, so you’re actually building trust in your brand and the organization because you’re having positive touchpoints with somebody from the brand provider. But it’s also just a matter of human to human when you make an interaction with somebody and that interaction is positive, they’ll tend to develop a trust for you and more of a comfort with interacting with you again in the future.

Scott Magdalein: So a good phone call, it doesn’t have to be a sharing the gospel or going into depth about the values of the church, just a phone call to say hello. We saw that you signed up or that you filled out the connection card. If you want to make that call about prayer requests and get prayer requests and actually pray for those people, that’s great. You want to make that phone call just a touch point to say, “We’re glad that you came. If there’s any questions I can answer, I’d love to answer. Otherwise`, just want to say hello and we love you.” Even a simple little phone call touchpoint like that I really helpful to build that affinity and trust and to influence those people to come back.

Scott Magdalein: And again, I’m going to say that in my opinion, you should have multiple types of touchpoints, so there should be some email follow up. There should be a phone call follow up. If you can, do a physical mail follow up, do that as well. And in my opinion, I’m going to take this one step further, I think those people that are guests should go into an email drip where they get some information about the church, but they also get into some helpful emails that might be kind of … Not telling them more about the church, but tell them about what the church cares about. So the next week they might get an automatic email about how you guys read through the Bible once a year. Or maybe get an automatic email about some of the events coming up in the church that are pretty standard events, things they could get involved in, Christmas, or Easter, that sort of thing, so they can know a little bit about the church without having to ask those questions.

Scott Magdalein: Those are some things you can set up, kind of set it and forget it with email drips. And then of course, after the first phone call, I don’t think you need to make a ton more phone calls in my opinion. But those systems of automatic follow ups from email and maybe some mailing, I think is really helpful.

Kevin Fontenot: Those are really good points. I love everything you said there. And I want to take it a step further on some of those and just kind of elaborate on them. Scott talked about connection cards and getting people’s information. I think that’s the most important step of the follow up process, is making sure that you get some information. And so a lot of churches do this. We have connection cards inside of the pew or the chair rack in front of you. But it’s hard to get people to actually fill those things out.

Kevin Fontenot: If your church is doing something where you have a connection card, maybe it’s in the bulletin, it’s in the chair, and you’re just like, “Hey. Fill this out. Put it in the offering,” and that’s it. A lot of people, you’re going to get some of those people to fill out the connection cards, but you’re not going to get as many people to fill them out. Instead, you need to give them another option as well. Instead of just saying, “Hey. Fill this out. Put it in the offering as it passes by,” give them the ability to get a free gift out of that as well. Even a small $5 gift can go a long way, whether it’s a tumbler with your church’s logo on it, or take it a step further and do a Chick Fil A gift card or a Starbucks gift card for $5. Those are going to make a big impact on the impression that your church is going to leave on that person. And you’re also a lot more likely to get someone’s information if you’re going to give them a gift, and they know that’s what’s going to happen.

Kevin Fontenot: Having that physical point of saying, “Hey. Fill out this connection card. Take it to our welcome center over here. They’re going to hook you up with a free coffee next week at Starbucks via gift card.” I’m going to be much more willing to fill out that connection card if I know there’s something in it for me as well. And so starting with that is a great way for you to get more information inside of your church so that you can develop a better follow up system.

Kevin Fontenot: And then after that, it’s really about what Scott’s talking about, making sure that people are inside of some sort of process. Don’t just try and leave this to chance. Don’t be like, “Okay. Yeah. Here’s the connection cards.” Every week, hand them out during [inaudible 00:25:05] and hope that someone gets to connect with them. Make sure that you have some sort of system in place, whether you’re using process cues and church community builder or work flows and planning center, or even using a free tool like Trello. It’s really easy to build a system where you can input information and make sure that people are going through the steps that you need them to take.

Kevin Fontenot: One of the other ways that you can do this really effectively is, Scott talked about email sequences and putting people in a drip email campaign. One of the big problems with drip emails is one of the most common problems that I see people make, whether we’re talking about businesses, organizations, churches, is they don’t personalize them enough. Instead of sending out an email from First Church at a generic email address, make it come from an actual person instead of that generic church name, because if I’m getting an email from First Church, I’m not as likely to open that as I’m getting an email from Scott Magdalein. So put an actual name of that person, preferably that person that’s at the connection desk already, that welcome desk, that they’ve handed that card to.

Kevin Fontenot: You can do that with some fancy merge fields. It’s not that difficult to do. Just takes a little bit of tweaking. And that’s going to make a much bigger impact because it’s a personal connection rather than an organizational connection because your brand as your church overall is just a collection of people. And that’s ultimately what your brand is. It’s the people inside of the church, not the church itself. And so if you can make those connection points highly personal, you’re going to have a much better chance of getting that person to connect, to get a reply to that email, and to get them to come back the next time.

Kevin Fontenot: Don’t just worry about things like open rates and click through rates on your emails themselves. Worry about replies more than anything because if you’re not getting replies to those emails, they’re not doing a good job of actually connecting with them. Because if you get that reply, you can respond back. You can start a conversation, figure out what their needs are a little bit better, send them over some more context. And it’s really simple to do.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah. I honestly could not improve on anything you just said. I’m going to let you close this out because I’m done. You said everything.

Kevin Fontenot: Awesome. Well, that’s going to do it for today’s episode of The Thriving Ministry Team’s Podcast. If you’re interested in more of what we talked about here, head over to We have a chat box on our website. If you want to ask more about these sort of things, or ask about how to do training for these particular areas that we talked about, go over to Let us know. If you are interested in using a tool like TrainedUp to handle some of this training for you, we have a library of over 600 videos that you can use out of the box, and unlimited room for you to put up your own content as well.

Kevin Fontenot: If you’re interested in doing something like that, head over to Use the coupon code thriving. We’ll give you 50% off your first month. You’ll get a free hour coaching call with us. And we even have a 30 day money back guarantee if it doesn’t work out. But we promise you it’s going to be a great system for your church. But just in case it isn’t, we have that refund policy as well where we’ll happily give you your money back. And so we’ll see you guys next week.

Scott Magdalein

Scott is the founder of ServeHQ and has over a decade of experience as an Executive Pastor, Worship Pastor, and College Pastor. You can chat with him directly using the widget at the bottom of this page.

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