Thom-Rainer-headshotIn 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 my 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 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 them 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 was a $10 gift card to Baskin Robbins and a stamped response form. We specifically asked them not to use their names on the response form 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 Sept. 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 nondenominational) groups of Protestant churches. The complete sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.1 percent.

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. For the original article, visit

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