August 22, 2018 Tony Morgan

Thom Rainer on How to Become a Welcoming Church | Episode 55 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

Most Churches Are Friendly… But That Doesn’t Mean Outsiders Feel Welcome.


I always enjoy catching up with Thom Rainer. We have a lot in common. We both spend our time focused on helping churches become healthier and reach more people for Jesus.

And we both have a “personal space” radius of about 2 feet. But that’s not important for this conversation.

If you don’t know Thom like I do, here are some things you should start with: Thom has been a senior pastor. He served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. He also led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period.

In his spare time he’s authored more than two dozen books.

Today he attends his son’s church-plant, which I think is really cool. And… he serves as the CEO of Lifeway.

And in my opinion, if you lead a church you need to read his new book, Becoming a Welcoming Church. Because I can confirm what he has observed: Most church members don’t see their churches clearly.

In this conversation, Thom and I discussed a few things from the book:

  • Common barriers preventing churches from becoming welcoming

  • Why small churches actually have a welcoming advantage

  • The MOST awkward moment for a first-timer at church—and how you can do a better job helping them through it

  • What to do next if you do confirm your church is unwelcoming

Join the Conversation

We’ll be talking about this more on Facebook and Twitter this week. Listen to the episode and then join in.

Some things we are hoping to discuss:

  • What practical ways have you found to help lead your church to becoming more welcoming?
  • What are some blindspots different ministries within your church may have in this area? (The need to be welcoming isn’t limited to the main auditorium.)

We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.



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Podcast Transcript

Tony: 00:00
Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast. I’m Tony Morgan, and each week we share a conversation our team’s having about getting churches unstuck. You know, if you listen to podcasts on church leadership, you’ve more than likely heard of Thom Rainer, I had a chance to sit down with Thom and ask him some questions about his new book, Becoming a Welcoming Church. No matter if you’re a pastor on staff or a lay leader in a church, I know you’ll benefit from Thom’s insights into how to become a welcoming church. So here’s my interview with Thom.

Hey, I want to welcome Thom Rainer with us today. Thom is the head honcho at Lifeway. Is that your official role, Thom?

Thom: 01:30
Close to it. Close to it. Something like that. Or CEO. One of the two.

Tony: 01:35
Well, it’s good to have you with us today and actually we could talk about what you’re doing at Lifeway and there will be a lot of fun conversation there. But my primary reason for wanting to connect with you today is because of your recent book. And look, I have it actually. It’s right here. It’s called Becoming a Welcoming Church. And, Thom, I’m just grateful that you’ve actually put this resource together because our team at The Unstuck Group, we’ve worked with 300 churches now across the country, and part of what we do with every church we serve is a health assessment, which includes a secret shopper experience. And needless to say, not every church we find is actually a welcoming church. And actually where I want to begin is with this question for you, is it possible that a church can be friendly but not be welcoming?

Thom: 02:33
It’s not only possible, it’s probable. The reality is that a lot of guests will come and their perspective will be, oh, those people are friendly to each other. We don’t notice our holy huddles. We don’t notice our fellowship patterns. We don’t notice as much that we go directly to the people with whom we’re most comfortable as opposed to going to those that we do not know. I can just tell you yesterday, I’m on the welcoming team at my church and one of the things I love about being in my church, number one, my son is my pastor. Number two, for all practical purposes, I don’t accept any engagements on the weekend anymore, just so I can be a churchman. And, I have, I have a couple of roles I’m responsible for taking out trash first thing in the morning because it’s a church plant and there’s no one there during the week. And then secondly, I’m on the welcoming team and I noticed that one of our best guys on the welcoming team let 3 or 4 new families walk right past him and he was talking to people that he knew and I’m not going to throw him under the bus because I’ve done that too. Well, I guess I did just throw him under the bus.

Tony: 03:38
We don’t know his name though.

Thom: 03:41
You don’t know. You don’t know which one it was. As a matter of fact, my son, the pastor came out and said, we just had a couple of new families walk right past y’all. Can we get them some gift bags? And he went and got them himself. My son, the pastor did. So I think my son was chastising me, but I, I saw him from a distance and it was not my fault. It’s somebody else’s fault. But that’s the reality. Tony, if I’m in a room now, I’m an introvert, so I’m going to be different than most people, but most people, if they’re in a room, their natural tendency is to go to the people they know with whom they’re comfortable. And that does not include guests, especially first time guests. So for most of us with few exceptions, we can be very friendly but we are not friendly necessarily to those who are walking into the church.

Tony: 04:32
Yeah. I actually I have a personal experience with that. One church I visited between every service and they had multiple services over the weekend between every service. I just grabbed a cup of coffee so I was pretty jittery by the end of the weekend, but I grabbed a cup of coffee and I just stood in their lobby space and not one person, not one person came up to me throughout the entire weekend. And so it’s exactly what you’re describing, Thom. And again, I don’t think anybody’s doing it intentionally to be means or not to be welcoming and friendly to guests. But, you know, we develop relationships with people and we tend to gravitate to those people and I think what you’re speaking to is an intentionality that’s required to be mindful of the guests that are showing up for the first time. You got it. What are some other common barriers that you see in churches that are preventing them from being a welcoming church?

Thom: 05:38
A lot of them, Tony, let’s just listen. Let’s go through the path of maybe a guest and I’ll be quick because I know The Unstuck Group does this in great detail and you do a great job with it. But when we start off with the website, it’s the first place that someone is going to go. Does the website have the time of the services and the physical location to put into a GPS? There are other things like can you pre-register your kids. A lot of other things, but. All right. The first, the first step is your website. Is your website a welcoming type of church?

Thom: 06:21
Second thing is when they come on campus, is the signage adequate? I have been to more than one church and I know that you have, and I know The Unstuck Group has where you’re not sure where the entrance is. You wouldn’t know where the entrance was unless you were watching where people were going because it’s not the obvious entrance. So is there signage, external signage, parking signage, once they get in, is there signage to tell them where to take their kids? If they have kids, I’d have to go into some type of childcare or preschool or children’s area. So all of those are obstacles that can be overcome immediately. I wrote this book to be able to give to leaders in our church becoming a welcoming church on how to train greeters and our greeters are some of the friendliest people I know, but some of the principles they did not know.

Thom: 07:20
So those are, those are just a few of the many issues that can confront us that are easily overcome-able obstacles.

Tony: 07:29
Yeah. We don’t think about the website, but I just ran into this in recent weeks. Now this has to do with market place, but 88 percent of people before they make a purchase, research it online. And I have to think that the percentage is probably as high for people that are considering visiting a church for the first time. It’s kinda like when we live in our home all the time, we don’t notice the things that may not make our homes welcoming because we’re in it all the time. What do you recommend for churches to determine whether or not they’re really a welcoming church? Call you so beyond that.

Thom: 08:13
You have to have a secret shopper or mystery guests or the secret guest. We did provide a very simple tool in the book, not as comprehensive as the one that y’all do, but it’s still in there. Tony, when I was a pastor—Let’s go back to right before the automobile was invented—when I was a pastor, in two of those churches, the two last churches that I served, I would actually pay an unchurched person to come to our church every six months, a different person. It did two things for us. He or she was able to tell me and our leadership team, what they experienced. That was many years ago, and it was just eyeopening for us. Secondly, it gave me Gospel conversation opportunities. It became one of a simple and not quantitatively high, but a simple way of doing outreach and the sharing the gospel with people. So what can you do is you can simply ask someone to come to your church and give you feedback. Honest feedback on what they experienced. And I said an unchurched person, I want to clarify that in one six month period I’d have someone who is not in church or purely unchurched person. Then I’d have someone who was churched but had never been to our church. And I wanted to know what they saw from the perspective of someone who sees churches on a regular basis. So every year I was getting two different perspectives on church, but both of them, both of those guests had never been to our church before. That is one of the simplest and it can be one of the most painful things. It’s kinda like my annual physical exam where the doctor says, well, step on the scale. I was stepping on the scale. I don’t want to see that number, but that’s that. That’s the reality. Sometimes we need to look in the mirror sometimes, to mix the metaphor, and we need to open our eyes to things we don’t see.

Tony: 10:23
Yeah, let me just add to that. When you do that, make sure you’re also getting a representation of younger generations in that process too. It’s amazing, but my 20-somethings have a completely different perspective of church experience growing up, so let’s invite them into the process as well. But I love that advice. It’s relatively cheap to pay somebody to come in and experience what’s happening in the church and giving their unfettered perspective of what’s happening in your ministry. All right, so here’s what I believe Thom. I mean, I love the church. The opportunity we have at The Unstuck Group—We’re working with all different size churches, churches under 200 churches, over 20,000. There were definitely some instances where larger churches I think have an advantage over smaller churches because of the resources that are required, but in this instance, my gut tells me that smaller churches actually have an advantage when it comes to creating a welcoming experience. You agree with that?

Thom: 11:27
I agree with that because I’m in one. Year two, averaging about 150 in worship attendance. Here’s what I know because I’m there almost every Sunday I can tell you who the regulars are and I can tell you who is brand new for the most part, someone that I’ve never seen before. So can most of the others who are part of the regular attendees of the Church at Spring Hill. And so one of the immediate advantages is we know who are the first or second time guests without even having them fill out the card even before they get there. So that, that is one of the advantages. Another advantage that I think small churches have is we can’t depend upon others to do it. So there’s not this huge welcoming team. Sure. We have a few people, but we know that all of us have to be welcoming because there are relatively few of us and so the advantage is we’re all, most of us, thinking with intentionality that we have to connect with these people who are coming to our church. And then another advantage is, in a large church may have 20, 30, 40 new families in one week depending upon the size we have three or four new families we’re able to connect with them with a level of intensity that I hope is not violating their space, but we are able to connect with them. One of my ministries at the church, Tony, that I exercise probably once or twice a month is I actually asked those firsthand families to go to lunch with me and the relationship begins to connect a little bit more. Of course it has to be appropriate. If my wife is not with me, I’m not going to ask a female. That would be obvious. If we’re together, we can ask anyone. But, once or twice a month, I’m taking someone out to eat and I want to tell you the sticky factor is huge just because I’m able to recognize them in because they’re relatively few guests compared to the big church. Those things are really, really cool for the, for the smaller church.

Tony: 13:30
That’s good. Before I get to my final question here, you kind of alluded to, is it possible for church to be overwhelming?

Thom: 13:38
Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, you’re talking to the king dude of introverts. If someone gets in my face and starts asking me what I would perceive to be intrusive questions, and Tony, I got to have my space. I mean, just don’t get too close to my face so you can overwhelm someone. I mean, you’ve seen churches where, oh my gosh, we have first time guests here, everybody attack, go, go, go. And so you have five or six families going up to this one family and they’re just absolutely overwhelmed. So yeah, use discretion. You use common sense, put yourself in their shoes and ask how comfortable you would or would not be.

Tony: 14:29
You and I might be wired similarly. I did a personality profile several years ago and it specifically said, stay outside of two feet of Tony’s personal space. All right. So here’s the final question I have for you then. Let’s assume the church goes through some process and indeed confirms today, “We’re not welcoming.” What are some of the first steps that the church can take to move forward from there?

Thom: 15:01
If you’re not welcoming, you need to be trained on how to be welcoming. So basic training, again, without too much self promotion, that’s one of the things I do with the book. And that’s what a number of churches have done with the book. They actually use that as a training manual. Then, once you begin to hear back why you are not welcoming, most of the things are easily remedied. Signage is not expensive anymore. Our welcome center is a table with a cloth on it, and it’s probably donated or either we got it from the junk pile somewhere. So the types of things that you can do that will make a significant difference to people, whether they’re in the parking lot or in the foyer. And by the way, Tony, we actually have worship service greeters. They’re not the people who are at the door. They are people in the worship center because here’s one thing that we have found: the time that people feel most awkward guest is after they sit down in the worship center and no one talks to them or sits near them. We have two people in our little church who are assigned to be on the lookout and not only to engage them conversationally ourselves, but to introduce them to others, to sit by them. So again, that is become a real sticky factor. Of course, I got that language from you. So I’m really borrowing information from The Unstuck Group, but that has become a real sticky factor for, for us. The bottom line is it doesn’t take a lot of money and it usually doesn’t take a lot of time. It can be very basic to become a welcoming church.

Tony: 16:38
Yeah, that’s very good. So, I saw some research a number of years ago. The number one reason people show up to church for the very first time is because a friend invites them, but the number one reason people stay at a church I would have thought would have been the preaching or the worship or things like that. But the number one factor he found for people actually returning was the church was the welcome area.

Thom: 17:08
I can believe it.

Tony: 17:09
And you might not think of this as a theologically weighty point of having a healthy church, but that’s one of the reasons why at The Unstuck Group we take it so seriously as it’s the coming back factor. We want people to come back and hear the Gospel and take steps of faith and being a welcoming church is pretty essential to that. So again, Thom’s new book, it’s called Becoming a Welcoming Church and it’s a small resource. I won’t say how much it is, but it’s relatively cheap. I would have charged more, Thom.

Thom: 17:43
My little plug for this is if you order it in bulks of 20, it’s is five bucks each.

Tony: 17:49
There you go. And that’s what I was going to offer is this, you mentioned training resource for your whole guest services team. This would be a great resource to put in their hands and help with that training. So Thom, thanks for putting together the resources. Yeah. Thanks for joining us today.

Thom: 18:03
Great to be with you, Tony. Thanks for letting me come again.

Tony: 18:06
Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation. Please be sure to subscribe to the podcast and if you want to learn more about how to get your church unstuck, check out what my team does at

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Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group, For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and