We’ve all heard the expression, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.’ And to varying degrees, it’s true. Granted, in more intimate, one-on-one circumstances, you may have a few opportunities to either fine tune your first impression of someone – or their first impression of you – by delving a little deeper into your burgeoning relationship, but in a larger setting like a church, you could very well only get one crack at making a first-time guest feel like they’ve found their way home.
And your pre-service is your first opportunity for interaction with everyone – from visitor to member – who walks through your church’s doors.
So ask yourself: What are you communicating to your first-time visitors before the service even begins?
You have four areas of contact through which you can influence your guests during the pre-service that will go a long way in making a powerful – and positive – first impression:
Nelson Searcy said, ‘Everything speaks to first-time guests. Everything.’ And he’s right. As we all know, what is left unsaid can speak as loudly – or often louder – than that which is said. So make sure to welcome everyone with a smile and genuine ‘hello,’ ‘good morning’, or ‘welcome.’ This may seem simple, but we have all been ‘the new kid’ who didn’t get a smile or acknowledgment. Consider setting a goal to have every guest greeted a certain number of times on their way in and on their way out. Goals help to make the qualifiable quantifiable.
Simply and politely show your guests where they need to go. Think about when you go somewhere for the first time – especially if it’s a large, crowded room. How much would you have appreciated someone giving you a quick explanation of what can be found and where? Visitors arrive needing to know three locations: the children’s rooms, the bathrooms, and the auditorium.
Good signage is helpful, but absolutely nothing beats a smile, a handshake, and an offer to walk you to where you need to go.
Guests want to feel welcomed and acknowledged. And if first impressions are important, so are last impressions. Consider offering a small token of your appreciation – a booklet, an edible treat, a refreshing beverage. Whatever it is – and you certainly have license to get creative and tailor it to your church, its mission, and its message – an unexpected little something extra speaks volumes about how much you appreciate their presence. They could’ve chosen any other church to visit on Sunday morning – but they chose your church. Let them know you appreciate it.
Your goal should be to remove barriers so your message isn’t lost before it could even be sought. Have a team in place to lead your first-time guests to a comfortable, easy-to-access seat. Again, walking into a huge church auditorium full of unfamiliar faces can be intimidating. A sparsely occupied room can also make for the same uncomfortable experience. But both problems can be addressed and diminished by the helpful guidance of a friendly usher who knows their way around.
A good way to assess how your first-time visitors perceive their first experience of your church – and formulate their first impressions – is to conduct a mystery guest audit.
Much like retailers have mystery shoppers to gain invaluable insight into how their business treats its patrons, you can enlist the help of mystery guests.
Your mystery guests should come from a neighboring church so no one knows or recognizes them – that’s the ‘mystery’ part – and should represent at least two different age groups and cultural backgrounds.
To make the most of your mystery guest audit, you should ...
… explain to your mystery guests that your objective is to make your church more welcoming and hospitable to visitors so they know your areas of concern or interest – and can gather information accordingly.
… give each mystery guest an audit checklist – yes-or-no questions focusing on your areas of concern or interest and perhaps a few short-answer questions – with a self-addressed stamped envelope, asking them to complete the audit at home, not during the service.
… ask the mystery guests to return within the next month or two as an average visitor to see if they note any changes or improvements.
… show your appreciation for their time and help by sending personal thank-you notes and even a gift certificate or other small token of your appreciation.
For long-term action items, enlist the support of your congregation. They are, after all, your best – and biggest – resource as the heart-and-soul of your church.
With the information gathered, you can begin to compile a list of actionable items you can immediately address, setting goals and assigning priorities to each. For long-term action items, enlist the support of your congregation. They are, after all, your best – and biggest – resource as the heart-and-soul of your church. Their small acts of inclusion – smiles, hellos, and friendly interaction with your visitors – can be the difference between a one-and-done visitor and a yet-untapped disciple.