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Five Fascinating Lessons From a “Secret” Guest in Church Worship Services

Five Fascinating Lessons From a “Secret” Guest in Church Worship Services

By Thom Rainer

The guests showed up, but they never returned.

Has that ever happened in your church? You speak with someone who is visiting the first time. You try to be friendly. But you never see them again. At times you wonder why they never returned.

I just read Greg Atkinson’s new book, Secrets of a Secret Shopper: Reaching and Keeping Church Guests.

What made Greg’s book stand out from similar books is his vocation. His ministry includes going into churches and reporting back his experiences to the church. He is a secret guest! So when I read the book, I knew I was hearing directly from someone who had been there and done that.

There is no way I can cover all the insights I gleaned from this book in a single blog post. Allow me, then, to address the key lessons I saw as vital for those who read

  1. There are four points of first impression before the guests ever enter the church’s building. They are, in order, social media, mobile site, website, and the parking lot. How much attention is your church giving to these four areas? How many potential guests never show up because of the first three?
  2. Parking is not only a first impression issue; it is a potential growth lid as well. Greg, citing Tim Stevens, notes three clear growth lids. The first of the three is parking. If guests have difficulty finding a parking spot, they may decide not to come to church at all. I have actually seen this reality when I was a church consultant.
  3. The children’s area is a critical growth lid. Families will not return to your church if they perceive a room is too small, if the children’s area is understaffed, or if the area appears unclean and unsafe.
  4. The 80% rule still applies to seating as a lid. While 80% is really more a guideline than a rule, it still applies to worship seating. For example, if your church worship center has a capacity of 300, it will probably be perceived full when 240 people are attending.
  5. Greeters gathered together talking to one another may be less effective than no greeters at all. If the greeters are in a holy huddle talking to one another, they give the appearance they are cliquish and not focused on the guests. Greeters in the parking lot need to spread out. There does not need to be a greeter receiving line of handshakes at the entrance.

Keep in mind that guests are often uncomfortable and uncertain when they first visit your church. Many of them are not believers. Atkinson’s book provides great lessons and poignant reminders of how we in our churches can better practice the ministry of hospitality.

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This article was originally published at on March 27, 2017. Reposted with permission.

About The Author

Thom Rainer

Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and seven grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at


  1. Anne

    1) Social media/website presence is important. It’s often where people go to get information about your church before they decide whether or not to visit your church. They want to know the times, “dress code”, type of service, etc….and even your theological beliefs.
    2) Parking and parking lot greeters are also important. We recently joined a church and were impressed that someone was outside in the parking lot every Sunday, regardless of the weather, greeting people and just being a welcoming smile and handshake before we even entered the building! What a positive impact on visitors and regular attendeess!

  2. Luke

    Not sure I agree with the whole social media thing! I think all that does is just keep you from spending time with the Lord. I personally think it’s a waste of time. Jesus didn’t need social media to get his point across, we have a whole book about him without it. Just my thoughts, thanks for letting me express them.

    • rpsabq

      Don’t let the term social media confuse you. It’s basically any and all information found digitially on the internent. the first thing I do before walking into any new church is to look at their website. Make sure your website matches and encourages people. Too many times a church’s website looks rather dead which in turn makes the church look dead and who wants to visit a dead church. If that’s accurate and the church is actually dead, well that’s another article.


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