In my blog I have referred many times to my days of church consultation, particularly those experiences where we sent one of our consultants to be a first-time guest in a church. He or she would return with a report of those experiences, and the report would eventually be consolidated with other information for the church.

I have nearly 300 of these “mystery guest” reports. Both Chuck Lawless and I have posted about them on this blog.

In the past, the mystery guests would “grade” the visit based on several criteria. Less than 20 percent of these reports were graded “B” (good visit) or higher.

The Recent Surprise about Guest Visits

In light of the woeful reports from mystery guests, I was very surprised at one facet of some recent research we conducted as we interviewed pastors across America.* One of our questions asked if the pastor’s church does a good job of meeting the needs of first time guests. Surprisingly, 90 percent of the pastors said “yes.”

Did you get that? Less than 20 percent of the guests said their visit was good, but 90 percent of the pastors perceive the opposite, that most guests have a good visit.

Why is there such a discrepancy between the pastors’ perceptions and the real experiences of the guests? May I suggest five reasons many pastors have blindness regarding the first-time guests?

  1. Gradual slippage is hard to detect. The pastors see the church almost every day. Daily deterioration of the facilities and slight slippage in ministries are almost impossible to detect. Over time, though, the slippage can become a major deficiency.
  2. Relationships can blind them to reality. The pastor has many good relationships in the church. The people he knows are friendly to each other and to him. He does not perceive that they are not so friendly to strangers.
  3. The pastor has received positive feedback from some guests. But the pastor rarely hears from those who have had a bad experience.
  4. The pastor does not intentionally ask for feedback from all guests. There is no system in place that attempts to hear from everyone who visits.
  5. The feedback from members is positive. Pastors and members often feel positive about the friendliness of members to one another. The pastor then assumes the members’ attitude and friendliness to each other is the same for guests.

Two Possible Approaches

When I was a pastor, I took two approaches to keeping myself grounded and aware of how our church was perceived by guests. I subsequently used it as a church consultant with a lot of success.

First, I hired two mystery guests to visit our church. Each visit was six months apart. I paid them a small stipend for their efforts. One of the guests would be a Christian and a regular churchgoer. But he or she could have never been to our church before. The other person was not a Christian and, likewise, never visited our church. I gave them a form to complete and left room for open comments. Their insights were invaluable.

Second, each guest who was willing to complete a guest card received a letter from me. Included in the letter were a $10 gift card to Baskin Robbins and a stamped response form. We specifically asked them not to use their names, and to write frankly about their experiences at our church. We often received many of these evaluations back; they were of tremendous value in helping us discern how guests perceived us.

So why do you think pastors have such a positive view of the guest experiences of their church? What would you do to stay better informed?

*LifeWay Research conducted a telephone survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors from September 4-19, 2013. The calling list was a stratified random sample of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister, or equivalent. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution and denominational (or non-denominational) groups of Protestant churches. The complete sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.1%.


  1. Ron Bartels says

    Revision after correcting errors:

    For over two decades, I have believed that any church can permit itself to become the victim of the Peter Principle. That is, they advance in growth beyond their ability to effectively “minister” to the needs of each attendee.

    That is why in the small coffee shop group we are founding, we are assigning one or more “ministers” as needed, to each family and person. Many times, when new groups are founded, they begin with Christ Followers who have burned out at their last dysfunctional church. Boiled down to the basics, I have discovered two interesting phenomena.

    1. They did not have an assignment to minister, and/or if they did have one, they felt they failed or just didn’t do well enough. There was no connection tree so they were not reassigned or retrained or reassured. Many times, people feel they have to be perfect in their service at the church but perfection never should be the goal. Identifying needs is far more important than being able to handle them or even meet a particular need. Not all needs can be met this side of destiny. Understanding, prayer and care can always be provided however.

    2. These people were never assigned to get acquainted with newer attendees and make their acquaintance. They were never trained, coached and encouraged by the connection tree of the ministry. The three things that must be offered, whether accepted by them, or not, is understanding, prayer and care. No one has to be or become an expert on anything. All that is expected is that they learn to get comfortable with understanding, prayer and care. Others within the connection tree can fill in at expert or connective needs.

    That is why the goal is to immediately begin to train every attendee who becomes a Christ Follower to become a UPC Minister. We are in the process right now of finding a way to issue a neat identification card for each person who advances to that level. They will also be issued 250 business cards when they graduate and take their first assignment. Thier trainer will go with them until they are comfortable with the simplicty of their ministry. Then we join them to another person so they go out two by two and not alone. We do not expect anyone to feel comfortable alone.

    A simple report for each ministry visit is all that is required. We are also going to issue ministry post cards to each UPC Minister and it is their duty, (not job) to look after their assignees. If there needs to be reassignments, that is OK. The success of the effort is not measured by results for results are the roles of the Holy Spirit. Our duty is to lift Christ up.

    UPC Ministers duties are very simple. It may be just to visit and listen but above all understand, pray and care.

    The UPC Ministers will be plugged into a connection tree, where one branch is connected to another so the result becomes that all are plugged into Christ and become fruitful in well doing. Each person’s goal is to hear Christ say, well done, thou faithful servant.

    The goal is not size. It is meeting needs by lifting up Christ by understanding, prayer and care. Denominations do not matter, no denomination will enter heaven, just people.

    Many times, I hear the focus on souls. There is nothing wrong with that but each soul is a person. They are in a corruptible body now and destined for an incorruptible body later. Their body now has an appearance and their new body later will also have an appearance or likeness. Therefore, we are focusing on their person, knowing they have a soul. Their destiny is to transfer from one corruptible body type to an incorruptible body type.

    Their duty and and their duty now is to follow Christ, lift up Christ and to serve Him by ministering to other members of the body of Christ. They are to welcome in new persons and offer them understanding, prayer and care. Then when they are ready, we all are responsible to help equip them to become a Christ Following Minister who provides understanding, prayer and care while lifting up Christ.

    No one has to become an expert. Materials, guidance, coaching, assistance, understanding, prayer and care are provided. The next level of duty is to advance to UPC Minister Trainer and resource provider.

    In this way, we do not count people, we account for people for they are our responsibility, not that of the person doing the central training from the front of the group, or the pastor. Jesus recruited and trained followers to follow Him. We must recruit and train follows to also follow Christ, not us.

    This concludes my comment. I anticipate appropriate responses. I know not all I could, I know not all I need but Christ is sufficient for all for in Him, I am complete. He is our all-in-all. I am but a servant following the master.

    Ron Bartels

    • Ron Bartels says

      A UPC Minister is not a pastor. He/she’s ministry is simple. UPC stands for Understanding, Praying, Caring Minister.

      Common complaints I hear from people who answer the question; why did you leave or quit attending your last church, boil down to; the did not understand what I am dealing with or going through, the church was too self-centered. When asked who was “assigned” to understand; who was “assigned” to pray with you; who was “assigned” to care about your situation; the answer was usually no one. Most churches have protocols where certain people do certain things and the common people drift. They drift in and out then drift away. If you love my sheep then you will care for my sheep. You will not act as a hireling does to my people. Since these are God’s people, we ought to treat them as such. They can learn to do the work of a UPC Minister by experiencing the process. They are literally graphed in. Grafting takes a while. If you have ever grafted a plant or tree, you know the process takes a season. During that season, certain levels of care are administered. Certain safeguards are deployed. The modern large church seems to fail in administering this concept.

  2. says

    I agree with number one, although I suspect it is often stuff that was never visitor friendly to start with. If you grew up at a church or have been there a long time, its quite likely that things like how clearly signed where the bathrooms are or how easy it is to understand how you do communion aren’t things you notice.

    My guess is that some of the visitor/pastor perception gap is also partially to do with personality types.
    Perhaps the methods of engaging with new people chosen are ones that work for the personality type of the people determining them without the realisation that what works for their personality type might not work for others. I’ve been to churches where during the announcements they encourage new people to go to the visitors lounge or other special welcoming point and to introduce themselves there. If you are more extroverted and enjoy meeting new people you might be quite happy to take the initiative of introducing yourself. If you are shy, you may be much more comfortable with somebody else initiating the conversation. Some personality types may prefer to keep to themselves entirely.

  3. says

    On vacation, we and our mid-30s children visited a church in which, in that service, we were the youngest by many years. We were greeted during the welcome time. After the service I went to the welcome desk, they were not prepared for visitors. The only reason the Pastor spoke was I stopped him when he walked by. Our kids recently moved to that community, they were legitimate prospects. When they were asked to write their info on scrap paper, they refused.

  4. Kevin Carrothers says

    What is the criteria for a “good” visit? Should we use our own expectations when we visit another church to help guide us for own visitors?

  5. Dan M. says

    Our church has been using, as a measure of whether we are doing a good job with guests is the the ratio of the number of people who join the church vs. number of guests who could possibly join the church (we exclude people like family from out of town or people who won’t be in town for the vast majority of the year (e.g. people staying for the weekend). If that retention rate is high, we are doing something right (although we still should look for ways to improve). If that rate is low, something is wrong. We have calculated that about 40% of in town visitors who are possible candidates for membership do become members.

    So, I have two questions?

    1) Is this a good measure?

    2) Is 40% a reasonable percentage.

    We are not planning on sitting on our laurels. But, we are thinking that our focus now needs to be on increasing the number of visitors who are possible candidates for membership. Possible excludes only those who would not join the church no matter what because, typically, they aren’t in town often enough so.

  6. HD says

    Does guest attention show up in the NT lists of pastoral qualifications? Doesn’t this topic perpetuate the problem of consumerism in churches by suggesting that pastors ought to cater to visitors?

  7. says

    I am a Pastor and I have a strong background in assessment and planning. Therefore I appreciate the idea of guest surveys. However, the thought that a church is giving $10.00 gift cards to people who walk through the door does sound a lot like consumerism to me. I Pastor a church in Metro Atlanta ( not in the suburbs) most of our members and people in the commumity live below the poverty line. Maybe the $10.00 gift card strategy may work for you but not us. Our church growth strategy will have to depend a little more on the power of God to convict men’s hearts.


  1. […] Thom Rainer featured a post recently about ‘Guest blindness’, the inability to perceive our churches the way that newcomers see it. A local church gets used to its culture and facilities and can overlook a lack of hospitality or incremental decline. Over time a pastor who worked away on these issues develops fatigue about having to encourage constant maintenance or simply starts to overlook the issue. […]

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