First impressions are important to first-time guests at your church, but the half-hour after service can determine whether they'll come back—and stay. Our research reveals three insights:

  1. "Friendliness of the people" is the most important thing newcomers look for.

  2. "Friendliness" is based on how many people talk to them.

  3. The most important time for "friendly talk" is immediately following the service.

My family moved recently, and we have visited a number of churches. I've found some simple, but significant ways to increase repeat visits.

  1. After-service hosts: A greeting time during the service is good if folks resume their conversation with the newcomer following the service. It's bad if they pretend nothing ever happened. If your people are not naturally congenial with newcomers, then appoint "hosts" for after the service. They are to make a beeline to newcomers, escort them to the coffee table, introduce them to others, and invite them back.

  2. The three-minute rule: In one church we visited, the pastor reminded the congregation that no one could talk to anyone they knew for at least three minutes after the service! It worked for us. We met a wonderful person who had been attending for the past year. Our conversation lasted over 15 minutes! And we'll look for her friendly face when we return.

  3. Church tour: Guests are hesitant to wander around, even though they'd like to. So, offer a short tour after service. It's a low-commitment, limited-time, high-information event. The guide explains activities that take place there throughout the week, and guests naturally ask questions. It's a much easier next step than, say, joining a membership class.

  4. Follow-up contact. It's standard for pastors to send a "thank you for visiting" letter. We got nice ones from every church we attended. But following our second visit to several of those churches—nothing.

In typical, plateaued churches, 9 percent of all first-time visitors join the following year. But among second-time visitors (twice in a six-week period), 17 percent join. And third-time guests unite at a rate of 36 percent in the ensuing year.

The pattern is similar for growing churches: 21 percent of first-timers, 38 percent of second-timers, 57 percent of third-timers return and join.

A unique follow-up contact with second-time guests is like planting seeds in good soil. A follow up strategy for third-timers is like bringing in a ripe harvest.

Charles Arn, Church Growth, Inc. Monrovia, California