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Healthy and growing churches pay close attention to the people they count as members, as well as those people who are not yet a part of the flock. These churches know that new people are the lifeblood of a growing church. Like a spigot, they want to keep the valve open for the flow of new people, and most importantly, they want to ensure that nothing impairs or cuts off the flow of new people to the church.

With that in mind, pastors need to be aware of five significant facts about first-time guests looking for a church home.

1. Visitors make up their minds regarding a new church in the first ten minutes of their visit.

Often, before a first-time guest has sung an inspiring song or watched a compelling drama or viewed a well-produced video vignette or heard a well-crafted sermon, they have made up their mind whether or not to return. In fact, if you ask most church leaders, far more time and energy are spent on the plan and execution of the worship service, with only minimal time spent on preparing for the greeting and welcoming of the first-time guest, which is equally if not more important. Most pastors would rather not hear this: The church’s ability to connect with first-time guests is not dependent on you, but on those first lines of people who represent your church.

Are parking attendants in place?

Is there appropriate signage?

Are your ushers and greeters performing the “right” job?

Is the environment you take for granted user-friendly and accepting to guests?

2. Most church members aren’t friendly.

Churches claim to be friendly. In fact, many churches put that expression in their logo or tag line. But my experience in visiting churches as a first-time guest proves otherwise. The truth is that most church members are friendly to the people they already know, but not to guests.

Observe to see if your members greet guests with the same intensity and concern before and after the worship service as they do during a formal time of greeting in the worship service. A lack of friendliness before and after the service sends a mixed, if not hypocritical, message to new people.

The six most important minutes of a church service, in a visitor’s eyes, are the three minutes before the service and the three minutes after the service, when church members introduce themselves, seeking genuinely to get to know the visitors (not just obtain personal information like the market research data collectors at the mall), offer to answer any questions, introduce them to others who may have a connection (perhaps they live in the same neighborhood, are from the same hometown or state, or their children attend the same school), or any number of ways to demonstrate to the visitors that they as a church member care.

A church would be wise to discover their most gregarious and welcoming members and deploy them as unofficial greeters before and after each service, in addition to designated parking-lot greeters, door greeters, ushers and informational booth personnel.

Don’t make promises the church can’t keep. My wife attended a church recently that calls itself “The Friendly _______ Baptist Church,” but no one spoke to her before the service, and when she sought information from the guest information booth she was treated by the attendant as a bother. Mixed messages and unfulfilled promises do great harm in a church’s effectiveness in welcoming new people.

3. Church guests are highly consumer-oriented.

“If Target doesn’t have what I need, I just head to Kmart.” “If the Delta airfare is too high, American might have a sale.” Capitalism has taught us that if we don’t find what we want, someone else down the street or at another web site will have it. If your church building is too hard for newcomers to navigate, if they have to park in the “back 40,” if your people are unaccepting and unfriendly, another church down the street may have what they’re looking for. Or worse yet, they may decide getting into a church is not worth the effort and give up their search altogether.

Pastors and church leaders need to look at their churches through the eyes of a first-time guest. Rick Warren says that the longer a pastor has been a pastor, the less he thinks like a non-pastor. That same thought would apply to thinking like a guest.

The use of objective, yet trained, anonymous guests to give an honest appraisal is very important. Many retail outlets utilize the service of one or more “mystery guests” to provide helpful analysis of welcoming and responding to the consumer. Churches would be well served to utilize a similar service.

4. The church is in the hospitality business.

Though our ultimate purpose is spiritual, one of our first steps in the Kingdom business is attention to hospitality. Imagine the service that would be given to you in a first-class hotel or a five-star restaurant. Should the church offer anything less to those who have made the great effort to be our guests?

Hospitality is almost a forgotten virtue in our society. When was the last time someone invited you to their home for a meal? But it needs to be reawakened.

Church members can extend hospitality to guests by offering to sit with them during the church service, giving them a tour of the church facilities, inviting them to lunch after service, or connecting with them later in the week.

5. You only have one chance to make a good first impression.

More than a truism, first impressions are lasting ones. Little hope of correcting a bad first impression is possible. Your first-time guests have some simple desires and basic needs. They decide very quickly if you can meet those criteria. The decision to return for a second visit is often made before guests reach your front door.

Are you creating the entire experience, beginning with your parking lot?

Are you consciously working to remove barriers that make it difficult for guests to find their way around and to feel at home with your people?

Do newcomers have all the information they need without having to ask any embarrassing questions?

Are your greeters and ushers on the job, attending to details and anticipating needs before they are expressed?

Does anything about your guests’ first experience make them say, “Wow!” and want to return?

You may be the most skilled preacher and your church may have excellent small groups or the best children’s ministry in the city. Your first-time guests will never know unless they make a second or third visit. Will they come back? It all depends on the impression you’re making. Make it the right one the first time.

Copyright 2006, Rick Ezell.

Rick Ezell is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Greer, South Carolina. Rick is a consultant, conference leader, communicator, and coach. He is the author of six books, including Strengthening the Pastor's Soul.

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John D Jones

commented on Jul 27, 2011

This is a tremendous article and I agree 100! The church needs a revival of hospitality. A few years ago my wife and I invited a family to our house for a meal. Their children came to our Sunday School but the parents never visited our church. When my wife phoned the mother, there was a long pause and then through sobs the dear woman said she and her family had never been invited to anyone's home for a meal. They were unchurched and uninterested but around the table they opened up and we had a wonderful opportunity to witness to them. Hospitality works!

John E Miller

commented on Jul 27, 2011

The point and thrust of this message cannot be stressed enough. We have visited church fellowships where the preaching and teaching has been good, but the welcome and interest shown to us by those in the adjoining seats has been non-existent. Usually the circumstance arose because we were on holiday (vacation) so the likelihood of us returning to that particular church was minimal. At our church, if visitors appear, every effort is made to make them feel welcome and to show that their visit is appreciated. The gospel message and the teaching that follows, proclaiming God's provision and welcome for the needy sinner or returning backslider must be accompanied by the expression in the faces and actions of believers, showing that Christianity is the finest fellowship that mortals can enjoy in this life, not only a future blessing.

Pastor Gabriel Idowu

commented on Jul 27, 2011

Thank you, pastor Rick. I do hope that all workers in His vineyard pay close attention to this wonderful and beneficial piece. I'll call the attention of my workers and members to practice this.

Rick

commented on Jul 27, 2011

I agree with what you have written or I think I do. However the reality seems to be different. I think the largest church that I have ever visited was not friendly. I have attended there several times and no one has spoken other than give me choice of going before them through a door or up steps. There were greeters there that give us announcements but they never spoke except for saying good morning. I don?t attend there because it is too greater a distance for us to drive. I don?t know what to make of this but it may be the difference between southern and northern culture.

Rodger Coale

commented on Jul 27, 2011

Nice read, but I see a real problem and it feeds itself. You visit a congregation and the people in the seats don't really offer much hospitality because they like you are expecting someone to offer them the special attention. It become very hard to move people who are the consumers into being the providers of the hospitality. When they are asked to switch they feel its unfair. So, you end up with a majority looking to be welcomed and pampered. and the new visitor expecting to be welcomed by the attendees, but misses that all the other attendees are expecting to receive the hospitality. Has this led to the consumer church? r

Sterling Franklin

commented on Jul 27, 2011

Many of these points are very American

Fernando Villegas

commented on Jul 27, 2011

I'd say I agree with the overall message of the article. But I would like to share a few observations, which may seem to be quibbling over details. But it is often in the details where our assumptions are revealed. First, the church is not in the hospitality business. It is in the business of displaying the glory of God. This puts hospitality in its proper context. It means we practice hospitality as an expression of our belief that God welcomes everyone into his presence. This may seem like semantics, but it is what makes us different than a five-star hotel or restaurant. Second, yes, church guests are highly-consumer oriented (a significant portion of church members are, as well, but that is for a different discussion!), and it is good and necessary to be aware of that. BUT the fact that they may decide to go to another church down the street should not be a significant factor in determining how we practice hospitality. Finally, regarding the first and last points, we need to understand that when a person visits our church for the first time, there are more significant forces at play. The Holy Spirit is at work in the life of that person. I'm sure Mr. Ezell would agree that that is a basic assumption in the article, but I believe it is important to articulate it clearly as a reminder for all of us. So, yes, let us practice hospitality to the best of our abilities. But let us do so because we worship and serve a God who welcomes everyone into his presence, and let us do so because we recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who has lead this person to visit us today. Let's not do it simply because we want them to have a good impression of us.

Tom Lambert

commented on Dec 5, 2014

Amen and Amen !

Karl Frank

commented on Jul 28, 2011

The points are good, but we are talking about people attending a church service, people for the most part that want to worship G_D. Would add that the entire staff for the service, pastor, ushers, musicians, teachers should all have have a a time of serious prayer !

Richard Hahnemann

commented on Sep 26, 2011

I believe Fernando's comments are right on target but stated with more sensitivity than I would use. I would say that if your congregation does not have the love of Christ in their heart, if they do not exhibit the humility and love of ?one beggar showing other beggars where to find bread,? then let the visitor go find a church that does. You may already be too big to effectively minister to your congregation. The goal is to reach the lost -not to build your numbers with saved Christians from other churches who may find your facilities more comfortable and you secular characteristics more inviting.

Jeff Ecklund

commented on Dec 5, 2014

If the church is not in the hospitality business then why is being hospitable part of the qualifications listed for an Elder in 1 Timothy 3?

Tom Lambert

commented on Dec 5, 2014

Being hospital to all is indeed important. But is that the Number 1 business of the church? I think it is part of the whole package of being Christian, not just for leaders, but for all. But the "business" of the church is making disciples (not just converts or members), wouldn't you say?

Nom De Plume

commented on Dec 5, 2014

Speaking as a lay individual, if I am a first-time visitor, my primary concern is, do they make the Word of God the focal point in worship and in all matters of activity; and, is glorifying God their highest and single-minded focus.

Gerald Graham

commented on Dec 5, 2014

The question I have is Christian or non-Christian visitors? Is there a difference in opinion from the two? Could be some good information to know the difference.

Gerald Graham

commented on Dec 5, 2014

The question I have is Christian or non-Christian visitors? Is there a difference in opinion from the two? Could be some good information to know the difference.

Nom De Plume

commented on Dec 5, 2014

I'm not sure I understand.

Tom Lambert

commented on Dec 5, 2014

Well, I know you are sincere and you have made several good points on how to better connect with visitors, and we can certainly all learn from those. But let me add a little perspective from the "other side" of the pew. While churches need to be "hospitable," we are NOT in the hospitality business. As a matter of fact, we should not be in a business at all. So many of the Christian ministry "helps" are based on the business world (how to make friends and influence people, the next new method for reaching, saving and keeping people) that I think we lose sight of the real purpose of the church: to make disciples. Yes, being hospitable is part of that, but not nearly the most important. We also negate the power of the Holy Spirit to add to the church the ones He wants there, rather than try to "persuade" people to join. A lot of so-called Christian growth comes from Christians switching churches. As you mentioned, this generation is very "consumer" oriented. So let's kiss up to that mentality and give them what they want, to the detriment of what they really need: the gospel. Yes, they need love, but is it really the love of God we are showing if we think that the greeting is just as important as the declaration of the Word of God? If a person doesn't return to a good Bible believing (and preaching), Christ honoring and worshipful assembly because every felt need wasn't met in the first 10 minutes (like the intro to a good film), do we really want them at all? Now of course, for those who are not saved, this needs to be balanced, but most small churches are dealing with disgruntled, displaced or self-indulged professing believers, "shopping" for the next new thing to meet their needs. Whatever happened to servanthood? What ever happened to selflessness? The American church is dying from a diet of "what I want," instead of the Word of God.

Jonathan S Spurlock

commented on Dec 5, 2014

Beloved, we're all missing the point. First-time visitors may be believers or unbelievers. They (we) should treat them with the same kind of respect and, yes, hospitality we would reasonably expect for ourselves. Agreed, the church is not a hospitality business, per se, but shouldn't we extend hospitality to visitors? I mean, if they don't look familiar, they probably aren't!

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Dec 6, 2014

Good article, highly relevant for "big" Churches, in smaller,growing fellowships warmth amongst members' is the key for a visitor (believer or otherwise) to see the love of Christ amongst brethren (John 13:34-35) in action and be attracted to it.

Charles Bavier

commented on Dec 6, 2014

I agree with Pastor Rick 100 I want to make just a few pointers from 28 years of Pastoral Ministry. First impressions are critical. They will know if the people genuinely love each other. If the church is "run" by a few people that too will come out. First we don't know if a Visitor is a Christian or not and it really doesn't matter. We are trying to get the First Time Visitor to come back. The use of Greeters does work if the greeters are genuinely are interested in the Visitor. Believe me the Visitor will know. Usually the Visitor will reveal if they are Vacationers, Coming from another Church or looking for a Church home. If these things are not revealed in the first visit, they certainly will be if the visitors return. If the Church Atmosphere is a positive experience the visitor will be back if they are looking for a Church Family. Second Directions to the Facilities in the building such as the Rest Rooms, A Nursery, Ministries offered are all essential to visitors returning or going elsewhere. Preaching and Teaching the truth or watering down the truth will also be evident.

Ds/Dominee Martin Barnard

commented on Dec 9, 2014

It is important to let people feel welcome, thereafter their need to be a plan to get them involved in church life and mostly important in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Research shows that if new comers don?t make friends in Church in the first 6 months they are out of here.

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