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.
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