Being a first-time visitor at a new church is listed up there on my least favorite experiences, along with starting high school and having the stomach bug. It can be incredibly uncomfortable and unfortunately, I’ve visited a few churches that did not seem to work at making it an enjoyable or easy experience.
Believe it or not, most first-time visitors decide in the first 10 minutes whether they will come back again. This means before they have heard the worship band or the introduction to the sermon, they usually have made their decision. In many ways their experience in the parking lot, entering your building and signing their children into the children’s ministry are initially more impactful than the message they’ll hear from the stage.
Hopefully, the leadership at your church is working toward making a first-time experience a WOW, but just in case, here are my top 6 things I hope you don’t do to your first-time visitors:
1. Don’t waste my time with an outdated, lackluster website.
Most people initially check out a church’s website before even truly considering an in-person visit. Their initial first impression will be based on what they find online. It’s great to show pictures of what they’ll actually experience and walk them through a first visit. Make your website easy to navigate and keep the information up-to-date. It’s worth hiring a professional to create and manage your website. This is an ideal way to make a terrific first impression both in appearance and communication.
2. Don’t make me park on the back side of the parking lot at the wrong entrance and end up late for my first service.
The parking lot experience should be the first place they’re greeted with smiles. It’s easy to create First-Time Visitor parking spots near the front. For families with small children and older adults, having parking near the correct entrance can start their visit off with comfort versus anxiety. This is also an easy and excellent way to help your superstar greeters identify first-time visitors.
3. Don’t expect me to know my way around when you don’t have adequate and clear signage.
There are enough reasons for first-time visitors to feel unsure. However, creating clear and easy-to-spot signage is a great way to make them feel comfortable from the start. It should be easy for them to come into the lobby or entrance and find restrooms. For families with children, it’s a great idea for there to be a separate check-in area or station just for first-time families. Most churches have registration information that needs to be completed, so having a separate area will make things flow more smoothly and quickly. Your children’s area and classrooms should be clearly marked, and when possible include the grades or ages for the children in the rooms, and an extra bonus would be to list the name of the teacher!
4. Don’t let me walk to my seat without being greeted intentionally more than once with a smile.
Our churches should be known for being filled with people looking to connect and include our visitors. There are very few things more intimidating than walking into a building full of people you don’t know and being treated like an outsider or completely ignored. Sadly, I’ve had that experience and have friends that after attending a 90 minute service they were never spoken to even one time. That’s a tragedy! Your guest services team should be folks who you know are comfortable with making other people comfortable. Make sure you train your greeters to be superstars in making people feel like VIPs!
5. PLEASE… don’t make me stand out awkwardly by having me raise my hand or stand up as a first-time visitor!
I realize that many pastors have great intentions and want their visitors to be seen, but nothing makes a newcomer feel more awkward than this. If you train your greeters well and create a culture of inclusiveness and hospitality among your volunteers, you won’t need to do this to your visitors. If your parking attendants and greeters are speaking with each person they see coming in, and watching for folks who look like they might be new, there should be many points of contact that could allow for questions to be asked or introductions made. You can also create other opportunities or environments during or after the service where visitors can connect with a volunteer to ask questions and pass on their contact information.
6. Don’t show up at my house during my Sunday afternoon nap and expect me to be excited about your church’s brochure.
Following up with first-time visitors within the first 24-48 hours is essential and as important as making great first impressions. Some ways have proven to be more successful than others. A personal phone call from a staff member or volunteer within the first 24 hours is a great way to say, “Thank you for attending!” A brief email welcoming them and giving them some more information about your church is usually well received. And don’t forget about your ChMS – it can help you with some crucial steps in your process of assimilating newcomers. For example, with Realm, you can place first-time visitors into a defined pathway to ensure they stay connected and don’t slip through the cracks.
If you realize that your church may be struggling in this area, there are many ways to make impactful changes. A culture of hospitality is what we are called to in Scripture (Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9) and it starts with the staff and lay leaders.
What is one way your church could improve this Sunday in making first time visitors feel incredibly welcomed?