Mystery Guests Share What Keeps Them From Coming Back
By Aaron Wilson
As churches drift into ministry routines, it can be easy to overlook blind spots—aspects of the church service or culture that keep guests from returning.
For this reason, the company Faith Perceptions sends mystery guests to churches to help them see their service through the eyes of a visitor and understand what can be improved so guests will be more likely to return.
“We send real people from the church’s mission field—people who aren’t regularly attending church anywhere—to visit and share feedback on their experience,” says Melanie Smollen, founder and president of Faith Perceptions, whose company has now deployed mystery guests to more than 10,000 worship services across the nation.
With over a decade of experience reporting feedback from church mystery visits, Smollen shared four of the biggest blind spots churches face while striving to make an impression on guests.
Blind Spot #1: Friendliness Is Enough
Churches who think they’re the friendliest church in town are often surprised to discover otherwise from mystery guests’ feedback, Smollen says.
Such churches may have an extremely close-knit bond between long-standing members, but that friendliness doesn’t always translate into reaching out to guests.
And even when guests do experience friendliness, that alone isn’t enough to drive them back the next week, Faith Perception reports.
“We hear guests say, ‘The church was really friendly, but that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to want to come back,’” Smollen says. “There are a lot of friendly, dying churches out there.”
Smollen says a church’s friendliness is important, but that guests are also looking for things like a good worship experience, faith formation opportunities, a healthy kids ministry, and opportunities to engage in activities that do good for the world.
If your church offers these things, make a point to communicate it from the stage, via church signage, and on the church’s website.
“People who regularly attend may be aware the church offers Sunday School, kid’s ministry, or a Bible study throughout the week,” Smollen says. “But a real blind spot for churches is to assume guests know about these things when it may not be listed on the church website or anywhere else.”
Takeaway: Don’t derive false security from overused superlatives like “we’re the friendliest church in town.” Use all the tools at your disposal—physical and digital—to communicate a holistic vision of what your church offers to guests.
Blind Spot #2: We Follow Up, Right?
“First impressions are really important,” Smollen says. “But what I see churches fail to do is focus on what happens after the service.”
Smollen calls this “farewell ministry”—what happens after the church service and during follow-up. Faith Perceptions did a yearlong study on what happened after guests voluntarily left their contact information with churches.
The results proved sobering.
“Out of the guests we surveyed who left their contact information, only 24 percent received follow-up,” she says. In other words, these churches squandered 3 out of every 4 of the visitor leads they worked so hard to collect.
The simple solution for churches to overcome this blind spot related to follow-up is to follow Nike’s advice: just do it! Follow up with your follow-up ministry to make sure visitor opportunities aren’t falling through the cracks.
Smollen also encourages churches to avoid passing around sign-in books during service. Guests have reported this makes them feel uncomfortable since it’s presented as mandatory and makes their personal information available to everyone who touches the book after them.
Instead, Smollen recommends churches use voluntary connect cards guests can fill out and drop off in the offering plate or welcome table. Consider offering an incentive such as the church giving $5 to a charity for every connect card turned in. Allow guests to select a charity from a list presented on the card.
Not only are you helping them to connect with you, but this also lets them make an impact in the community.
Takeaway: Collect visitors’ contact information in a non-threatening manner. Then, let your “yes be yes” by actually following up with guests.
Blind Spot #3: Age Diversity Doesn’t Matter
“One thing that surprises a lot of people we work with is to learn that if the church lacks age diversity, people aren’t likely to return,” Smollen says.
Although the local church should be made up of people from all walks of life, guest feedback reveals visitors want to be part of a church that has a representation of people their same age.
This can be intimidating for churches that skew heavily in one age demographic, as it’s not something that’s easy to remedy overnight. However, Smollen says age diversity is attainable for churches that are willing to put intentional effort into outreach.
“The majority of churches we work with think they’re doing outreach, but what they’re actually doing is more related to giving,” Smollen says.
“We call this transactional outreach—meaning churches are opening their wallets and donating a lot, but they’re not connecting with the people they’re trying to reach,” she says, pointing out Jesus had meals with many He was evangelizing.
“If we have a canned food drive or drop backpacks off at a school, but never really meet or engage the people we’re trying to help, then all we’re doing is conducting a transaction,” she says. “It takes a lot of courage to change the DNA of a church and to do something different.”
Takeaway: Do an outreach audit for your church to see if efforts to reach varied demographics in your community are merely transactional or if they also have a relational component.
Blind Spot #4: People Know Us in the Community
As part of the church mystery guest experience, Faith Perceptions sends visitors to local stops located within the mission field of the church—locations like gas stations—to ask directions to the church.
“Often, a church will think they’re well-known in their city, only to discover that’s not the case,” Smollen says.
Churches can increase their footprint in the community by having helpful signage, leveraging their church building during the week to bless the community, working with local schools, and participating in community events.
Takeaway: Even if you’re an established church, don’t assume people know about you. Strategize ways to be proactively visible within the community.
Faith Perceptions’ mystery guest program measures 14 categories that are important in a guest’s experience. Learn more at FaithPerceptions.com.
Aaron is associate editor of LifewayResearch.com.