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 K-Mart.” “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.