This issue is not for church leaders only, but for all members. As a pastor I continually struggled with the feeling that our first-time guests were not getting the best experience at our church. I knew it was true and I tried a lot of things to improve it. You can do your pastor and your church a huge favor by taking some of this on. Your pastor has enough on his plate. Every member should be concerned with this one and overarching value that needs to be reinforced every week: The indispensable value of hospitality.
If you are a church member, you can be a huge influence for good. You don’t need a title or a job description. Just look around and speak to someone who looks like they are new. Brag about your church. Your pastor will be grateful, your church will benefit, and you may just make a new friend for yourself and the kingdom of God.
Churches are friendly places to the people who are the initiated. For some members, it has been a long time since they have been a guest. They have forgotten what it is like to not know where to park, where the children’s ministry is located, or even how to find a weak cup of coffee. For many, they don’t know the Christianese we speak: Words like “fellowship” and “backsliding” or phrases such as “I don’t feel led” or “I’m praying about that.”
If you need a laugh, spend an extra three and a half minutes watching this hilarious video on “Christianese” entitled "Translating the Christian Language".
I know what you're thinking: "The best thing about Jimmy's blog is this Youtube video from someone else!" Anyway, if you are still interested, here are my five suggestions on how to improve the first time guest experience at your church.
1. The guest experience starts online.
I’ve written a few blogs on your church’s social media and website presence. You can refer to them here:
I do want to add one more critical observation on your website: We are long past the days when the first experience with you church was in person. Long before they set foot on your campus, they are looking at your website and social media. That is where they will decide to visit or to go somewhere else, or nowhere else. Your church may be losing guests before you ever know they were there and before you knew they ever wanted attend. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
· Is our website up to date?
· Is it visually attractive?
· Is the information accurate?
· Does the website function well on mobile devices?
· Are your Facebook and Instagram representing your church well as a front door?
Many churches have a “Plan Your Visit” section on the home page. It should include details of where to park and where guests can enter the buildings, including for children and youth.
2. Train a Welcome Team
This is more than ushers. This team needs to recruit certain kinds of people. If you are wanting to welcome young families, then have young families on your welcome team. They need to be happy to see people coming for worship. Prioritize using women and youth on your welcome team. They generally make the best impression. Sorry guys, but you know it’s true.
Train them for parking lot greeting (but not stalking). Have maps and directions to the children’s ministry. When a greeter meets a new guest, instead of just giving directions, consider just walking them to where they need to go.
Create a “Welcome Center” that is operational 30 minutes before services start and 20 minutes after they are over. Set up a coffee and juice bar just off to the side of the welcome center. Included a “New Here?” kiosk where guests can enter their information and find out more about the church.
3. Everything is clean and the signage is clear
You’ve heard it said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” This statement is doubly true for guests in your church. Everything, and I’ll repeat it, everything needs to be clean. It needs to look clean, smell clean and be clean. This is especially true in the restrooms and children’s/nursery areas. The pandemic has made cleanliness even a bigger deal. It is a make-or-break deal today.
You know where most things are, but a guest doesn’t. They need good clear signage. One sign that points to the Welcome Center is not good enough when there are three turns before a person gets there. At each juncture and at every entrance there should be signage for the Welcome Center. Same is true for restrooms, children’s ministry, nursery, and worship center. It demonstrates to your guest that you really care about them.
4. Allow Guests to self-identify
Don’t ask your guests to raise a hand in the service, or to stand up, or to introduce themselves. I’ve been to some churches recently who did just that. It’s not helping them. They need to stop it right now. Look, I don’t like it myself and I’ve been a pastor for 22 years and served in full time Christian ministry for 36 years. A guest who doesn’t know anyone or the customs in your church will like it even less. If you want to never see them again, just “out them”.
During the worship service there should be a general welcome to guests. It should be concise and clear as to how happy the church is that they are here and how the church would like for them to respond.
You can have them respond in many ways: Guest connection cards in the seats, a QR code stuck on the back of the seat for scanning, have them text a number during the service. Offer them a gift if they turn in their connection card at the welcome center after service. There are any number of ways to help them feel welcome and for them to give you information without putting them on the spot.
5. Give an Invitation to a next step
Consider this question: How do people get connected to your church? If someone wants to move beyond just visiting or attending, what do they need to do? What steps do they need to take? How can you help them to do that? How can you let them know how to do that?
I’ve been to churches that if a person wanted to commit their life to Christ, or to ask for prayer, or to join, there was no opportunity. We’ve lost the spirit of Jesus when we forget that we are to encourage people to move from where they are to where God is calling them to be.
A church should have a simple, obvious, and clear next step for their guests. This would not only assure them that they have the encouragement to connect further, but it also lets them know what steps to take to do so. What is unclear will be left undone.
If you have not done so, spend some time thinking through next steps for your guests. Perhaps your church will need to move beyond just a welcome team to a full-blown assimilation team. This moves guests from the first click on your website to becoming a baptized member.
That’s my five things for improving your church’s first-time guest experience. It is a lot of work and details, but you are not in it alone. The whole church should be working on this. There are many more than five, but I think you will agree that these five are a good place to start. I’m Jimmy Kinnaird and if you’d like further help on your guest experience or an assimilation plan, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org