Attracting & Retaining Parishioners - Part 1

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is one of the world’s largest providers of Christian products and services, including Bibles, Bible studies, research, church music, supplies and digital services. Previously he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism and led The Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm which provided insights into church “spiritual health” to over 500 churches and other organizations.

Thom S. Rainer

Having spoken TO - consulted FOR - and participated IN - hundreds of church congregations of various denominations around the country, Thom has had a keen insight into what works, and what does not work, in terms of attracting - and retaining - new members. In terms of our own “Get the 80” goal of the St. Monica “Parish Vision, I’ve put a number of Thom Rainer’s insights below followed by my own, personal (italicized) comments. This week we’ll look at issues surrounding our interaction with people who visit us as well as topics dealing with “information and communication.” Next week we will look at ideas involved with “liturgy, worship and infrastructure,” after which I shall add some additional personal comments as well.

See if you find them as intriguing as I did:



shake hands

Having a stand up and greet one another in the worship service. This response was Tom’s greatest surprise for two reasons. First, he was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, he was really surprised that it was the most frequent response. (Fr. Zlock: Ok, NOW what do we do!?)

Unfriendly Church Members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it. (Fr. Zlock: My question is - how would we measure this? If they only come once, and then never come again, and don’t tell anybody why - how do we fix this?)

Lack Of A Welcoming Atmosphere: An example is parish members telling guests that the guests are in “their” seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches. (Fr. Zlock …or another example are people who sit at the end of the pew, while the rest of the pew is empty, and then roll their eyes and sigh if you say, “Excuse me, may I please get into the pew?” Frankly, I REALLY hope that is not the case at St. Monica, but - again - it might be. Personally, it’s so rude and it drives me nuts!)



No Place To Get Information. If a church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, the parish probably has lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well. (Fr. Zlock: This is an issue at St. Monica. Levi Keene has recently taken the helm in re-training and re-organizing ushering and hospitality at the parish to make St. Monica more welcoming. In addition, most people are willing to call the parish office in the rectory during the week for information. Nevertheless, I would love it if we had a “Welcoming Desk” in the lobby that was occupied on Saturday evenings/Sunday mornings where a person could provide information before or after Mass. The main issues would be (1) constructing the space; (2) cost and (3) since most of our staff are not parishioners and attend their own parishes with their own families on weekends, we would need to find people willing to consistently and reliably schedule and fulfill this ministry week after week after week. From my personal experience, this is difficult at most Catholic parishes).


Poor Signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there. (Fr. Zlock: We’re talking about this currently. It’s an issue at St. Monica. We have no signage at the entrance near the gym. The sign near the church is showing its age. The sign at the third entrance was vandalized last year. Quality signage is expensive (Sorry to keep harping on the same cost-theme but it is the short answer, and solution, to many of these issues). We simply have not had, and thus have not spent, the money on such items over the past several years. However, we are aware of the issues and are discussing them as we look forward to the future).


Poor Church Website / Social Media Presence. Most of the church guests went to the church website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a website are address and times of service. It’s just that basic. (Again, this is a cost issue. Our website needs to be updated, modernized and more strategically designed. A qualityweb-design website rebuild can cost between $15,000 - $30,000. The more important - and more difficult issue - is hiring someone to regularly and consistently manage and update the data, chase after people who have “volunteered” to write articles for the website, analyze the web-site usage metrics, manufacture, edit and load video, photos, graphics, etc…. You get the picture. To keep a website first class and high-quality is a long-term and expensive proposition. And, by the way, I haven’t even begun to touch upon the management and integration of an effective, parish “social media” platform).


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