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Lessons from a Church Secret Shopper

Recently, we had the hallway in our home painted by some professional painters. The smell constantly reminded us of this each time we left and returned to our house.

Once we spent enough time indoors, our noses got used to the strong smell, and we got to where we didn’t even notice it. Then I went out to get the mail one day, and when I walked back in—whoa! I was hit with the strong smell of paint once again.

What am I saying? Churches can have something about them that “stinks” to a first-time visitor, but perhaps the leadership doesn’t notice or remember. Church leaders can lose their fresh perspective—their “new eyes” or, as in my case, new nose.

Why does this matter? Because people matter, and you’ve only got one chance to make a first impression. You’ve heard it said before, but it’s true: Many people will make up their minds whether or not they will return to your church long before you stand up to preach. It’s easy for a church to drift into ineffectual ministry.  There are endless examples of stagnated churches.  But if you have a desire to reach more and more people for Christ—changing your community, city and eventually the world—then I think I have something to share that will help you do that. We simply cannot afford to grow easy with the way our church presents itself to new guests, any more than we can grow easy with our discipleship, our worship, or our preaching. There’s simply too much at stake in the spiritual health and safety of visitors; they’re people like my parents, your children, his co-worker, her best friend, and countless others throughout the community who need to know Christ.

First Impressions Matter. Things like your website, Facebook/Twitter presence and your church’s voicemail when people call after-hours are very important. Potential worshippers check all of the above before ever deciding to visit your physical church campus. Once they actually visit your church, their experience starts in the parking lot. You really only have about 10 minutes (some say 7) to facilitate and create a welcoming atmosphere, or you’ve lost a visitor for good.

The greeting ministry in churches sometimes takes a back-seat or supporting role to some of the more specialized ministries, such as the worship team or caring for children. This is dangerous on so many levels. The faces I see in your parking lot, at your front door, in your lobby and as I walk into your worship center are the unforgettable impressions—they will help me, or they’ll haunt me. To put it another way, your church’s musicians may be amazing, and you may preach your best sermon ever, but the usher that sat me in the front row on my first visit can be the deciding factor for between another visit and another church. Make sure to put your brightest, sharpest people on your greeter team, and train them well in hospitality and service.

Another often overlooked area is your church’s restrooms. A positive restroom experience goes a long way. If your church meets in a building you don’t always control, such as a movie theater or high school, you may need your own cleaning crew to hit the bathrooms before people arrive. Have you ever been a boy’s bathroom on a high school or middle school campus? Gross!

In addition, I could write a whole separate article on the smell of your church. I’ve traveled the country teaching on multi-sensory worship and engaging the senses in worship. The sense of smell is certainly one of our most powerful and under-rated senses. I can have a woman pass by me and get a whiff of her perfume, and it instantly transports me back to my third-grade math teacher or my first date.

One thing I often talk about is positive and negative smells. Coffee is a positive smell; mold is a negative smell.

Citrus is a positive smell; bleach is a negative smell. How your facility smells (again I refer you to the high school bathroom) is huge when it comes to making a lasting impression. Sometimes people leave a church in a bad mood or decide not to return based solely on smell, though they may not be able to put their finger on what they didn’t like.

Department stores have spent thousands and millions of dollars studying the science of smell and shopping. There are stores that have machines, unseen in the corners, pumping out pleasing senses that encourage you to linger, shop and spend more money. I bring this up not to encourage a consumer attitude, but rather to demonstrate how significant something like smell can be. If companies can pay such close attention to this just to increase sales of clothing, shouldn’t we pay attention, too? What we have to offer is far more important!

Why focus so closely on making visitors feel comfortable? Because we want them to encounter our Living God, we must make sure to remove any obstacles or barriers that would hinder them from experiencing His presence. For the same reason your worship team works on service flow and tries to remove “dead time,” it is important to locate hurdles that one would have to overcome to have a pleasant and positive experience at your church. Ultimately, this would encourage a second visit.

Look at your children’s ministry. Whether or not you have kids of your own, you know the importance of a good children’s ministry to keeping a church healthy and vibrant. I’m not just talking about fun and life-giving ministry; I’m talking about safe and secure kids. To put it plainly, if I’m worried and distracted about my child’s safety, I’m not listening to your message, and I’m not engaging in your worship. Believe me, I’ve been there before—I’ve gotten up and walked out of the service to check on my kids when I didn’t feel good about their check-in experience.

Make sure that your children’s ministry workers are fully trained in tried-and-true methods of check-in, security and check-out. Keep your workers accountable for using these methods consistently and correctly. Explain these procedures to new parents, and briefly describe them in your weekly bulletin to reassure parents that you’re serious about their children’s safety.

So what can you as a church leader do? Encourage, encourage, encourage. Empower, train and vision-cast to those that work on your website, answer your church’s phone, serve in your parking lot, nursery, lobby, children’s ministry and yes, the person that came on Saturday to clean the high school bathroom (again). Everyone wants to make an impact and be a part of something significant. If you can lead, pastor and shepherd your servants to grasp how vital they are to your church’s ministry, you all win, and so does the Kingdom.

Offer an excellent worship service. I will unapologetically say that your worship experience should be done with excellence. Regardless if yours is a traditional or contemporary service, emergent or liturgical—your service should clearly show how you’ve put a lot of prayer, thought, effort and energy into what you present. I’m not talking about offering a great performance; I’m talking about offering a sacrifice of praise to a God who deserves our first-fruits, and I’m talking about honoring the listeners who have chosen to consider your church as a spiritual home.

I recently met with a pastor of a well-known (mega) church, and he said that he watches other pastors’ messages and takes notes. He’s constantly learning, growing, stretching and becoming a more effective communicator. He gets it! The Gospel is paramount, and great care should be given to presenting it clearly and in a compelling way.

I’d be willing to bet that most people in your community have experienced at least one unfulfilling and/or unsatisfying church experience. Unfortunately, you often only get one shot with a visitor before they decide not to return. This is why a first impression is essential to your mission as of obedience to the Great Commission.

Consider employing an outside opinion. A good “secret shopper” can give you feedback on the environment your church creates in worship, i.e. the music, set, stage, technology (sound, video, graphics and lighting) as well as the message. A secret shopper or mystery worshipper can offer a new nose, new eyes, new ears—an outside and objective opinion on a church experience. And afterward, you should receive an honest, “speak the truth in love” opinion from them.

Finally, approach the experience humbly and with a teachable spirit—I say this especially to large churches and megachurch pastors.

A church can see a few thousand people in their services and begin to think nothing needs to be changed or fine-tuned. Some of a secret shopper’s best work is done at large, “successful” churches that haven’t reevaluated why and what they do in a long, long time. For more on this idea, you can read this article that was in The Wall Street Journal last year on mystery worshippers.

I’ve only scratched the surface here (I haven’t even gotten into signage and how important that is to a first-time guest!), but these are crucial first steps that you must master if you want guests to make it peacefully to your service and actually have a chance to encounter Christ and hear from God. Train, shepherd, encourage and empower your leadership seriously on the subject of a great first-impression, and keep looking at yourselves with fresh eyes and humble hearts. God is never satisfied with a ministry missing his best, and we shouldn’t be either.  

Originally published on SermonCentral.com. Used by permission.
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Greg Atkinson is an author, speaker, consultant, and the Founder of the First Impressions Conference and Worship Impressions—both specializing in guest services and hospitality.