Part of the problem we face as church leaders is that we fail to see things through the eyes of our first-time visitors. When we put ourselves in their shoes and understand their discomfort we will be able to help them much more.
#1 – Finding Out When Church Starts
Assuming that a visitor knows your church even exists (for help read this article) the first thing a visitor needs to know is when church starts. Oddly enough, many churches drop this ball without realizing it. There are four places where you need to display your service times. Your church service times should be on the first page of your website, prominent on your yellow page ad, clearly stated on your voicemail, and easily read on your exterior signage. If a visitor can’t easily find out when church starts they won’t visit. Period. As obvious as this sounds, less than 25% of churches will do all four, and nearly half won’t do any. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why most churches aren’t growing.
#2 – Finding a Place to Park
Once your visitor has decided to come to your church the first thing they need to do is find a place to park. If there isn’t any place to park the visitor will leave frustrated. Have you taken a good look at your parking lot 10 min. after your service has started? It’s time that you did. Even if there is parking available it must be accessible and easy to find. Reserving parking for visitors rather than staff can help. At my last church we had both staff and elders park on the street so that there would be more room for visitors.
What kind of impression does your parking lot give? Is it full of pot-holes? Is the church yard well-kept or is it full of weeds? What is the condition of the sidewalk? Is it obvious what door someone should enter? Your visitors have already formed a strong first impression before they have even set foot in your building. Make sure it’s the right one.
#3 – The Lobby Experience
As soon as a visitor walks into your church lobby (assuming they knew which door to come on) they immediately feels lost. They don’t know anyone, they don’t know where they are, and they don’t know where to go. This is an awful experience, and the longer it lasts the worse the impression they will get of your church. Your two biggest assets here are your greeters and your interior signage. Sadly, many churches don’t have either and they leave their visitors feeling out-of-place. Competent greeters will warmly welcome your guests, inform them of what to do with their children, point out the location of the restrooms, and direct them to the sanctuary. If you have a “My Church for Newcomers” visitor information packet it is more than helpful if the greeter hand these out to visitors as soon as they get in the door. Basic interior signage does the exact same thing. It clearly points to the Sunday school registration areas, the restrooms, the welcome/information center, and the sanctuary. Both of these tools need to be implemented at side entrances as well, since visitors use these entrances more frequently than members.
Also, make sure your facilities are clean and beautiful. I wish I didn’t need to say this, but I’ve seen far too many filthy, ugly, and unsafe churches. Though this may sound old-fashioned, but it’s really a good idea to treat sacred space as if it were sacred. Clean churches, restrooms, and nurseries are essential. Decorate them well (but be considerate of men when you do – Barbie Dreamhouse pink does not make men feel welcome). Your church should be the most beautiful public space your visitors encounter – not the ugliest.
#4 – The Main Service
A visitor’s need to be welcomed, included, and directed does not diminish when the service starts. While they almost never want to be singled out, it is nice to be welcomed and greeted by those around them. Training your people and giving them an opportunity to do this will always pay off. Be sure to introduce anyone who goes up on the platform – a visitor has no idea who anyone is – including the pastor. If your church has any liturgical form to it whatsoever, it must be explained – visitors cannot tell the BCP from the BAS and have no idea what you’re referring to. If any insider lingo is used, it should be explained – simply saying that CGIT meets on Wednesday isn’t very helpful.
Make sure the quality of the service is high. If you don’t care about excellence in the worship of our Lord – it is unlikely your visitors will. Make sure the PowerPoint is legible and correct, the sound system is optimized and working, the music is in tune, and that the sermon is well prepared and well delivered. Even the best of first impressions can be completely undone by lack of attention to the main service.
#5 – The Lobby Experience – Part II
Your job is far from over when the service ends. Your visitors are now thrust from the security of the ordered main service to the social chaos afterwards. They need to know what their next steps are, where their children are, and if they’re really welcome here. Organically speaking, if the people in the pew surrounding them welcome them again after the service you have made a solid hit. If your people invite the visitors out to lunch – you’ve hit a home run! If the visitor is invited out to a small group – you’ve hit a home run with the bases loaded! Statistically speaking, visitors who are personally invited out to a small group are much more likely to end up joining your church – according to one study – 500% more likely. Home run indeed.
Programmatically, it is very wise to direct your guests to your visitors/information center and give them some kind of a gift. At my previous church we gave out copies of The Case for Christ and an excellent DVD called The Hope. If you can get your visitor contact information at the same time all the better!
Practically speaking, make sure you visiting parents know when and where to pick up their kids. If you want your visitors to take a next step let them know what that is. Finally, thank them for coming. Greeters at the door are just as important now as at the beginning of the service.
#6 – Follow-up
With a little bit of luck and a lot a bit of planning you have managed to get your visitors’ contact information. Even if they didn’t sign the guest book when they picked up their gift, you may still have their information if they registered their children for Sunday school. Once you have their information it is very wise to send them an email to thank them for coming, and advising them of next steps they can take (i.e. a newcomers lunch, etc.). Follow this up with a physical thank you note (a $5 gift card from Starbucks isn’t a bad idea here) with the same kind of information.
If you take care of all six stages of the visitor’s first time experience you will be well on your way to both increasing the number of visitors you have and increasing the number who stay.