There has been so much change over the last year and a half and so many shifts for people in their personal and public lives. Many people are excited to get back to their “old life” and attend things in person after missing that for so long, and some have taken this opportunity to visit a new church or churches. This presents exciting opportunities for hospitality, and now more than ever is an important time for churches to consider the church guest experience and how to make first time visitors feel welcomed.
When guests attend your church, you want to meet them where they are, regardless of their reason for walking through the doors. We are called to treat our guests with hospitality and let people know we care. So how do we do that? What are the expectations of first-time guests? How do we put our best foot forward? One thing I know for sure – you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And research shows that we have less time to make that impression than we might think.
According to Nelson Searcy in Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests Into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church:
“Seven minutes is all you get to make a positive first impression. In the first seven minutes of contact with your church, your first-time guests will know whether or not they are coming back. That’s before a single worship song is sung and before a single word of the message is uttered.
Obviously your guests aren’t making a logical decision based on the integrity of the preaching, the character of the church staff or the clarity of your doctrine. They are not weighing pros and cons of worship styles and theological viewpoints… Instead, they are taking clues about your church’s atmosphere and the people’s friendliness on a much more rudimentary level. Their subconscious minds are working overtime to evaluate their compatibility with this new environment.”
I’m not saying people should choose a church home before hearing a single sermon, but I am saying people can tell pretty quickly if they feel welcomed and if they are able to connect with people. I enjoy attending church as a guest. When I do, I try to pay attention to my first impressions. Does anyone talk to me? Can I find my way around? Is the children’s ministry space clean and secure? Where is the coffee? After talking to countless church guests as well as doing my own “secret shopping,” here are the top things that make a tangible impact on the guest experience.
Good signage is absolutely a make-or-break for guests. There is no such thing as too many signs. Display them in the parking lot, towards the children’s ministry or check-in, to the welcome center, to the worship center, to the restrooms, and most importantly, the to coffee bar. Eye-catching signs help people build confidence that they are in the right place, going the right way, and reduces stress trying to make your way through a large campus where you are trying to find several places on a deadline.
Parking sets the tone of a church experience before people ever get to the building, so you want to make it as easy as possible to navigate. If your parking lot is very large, one thing to consider is to offer rides on golf carts for older guests, those with young kids, or whoever needs it.
If you have volunteers working the parking lot, put up signs around the parking lot entrance inviting guests to turn on their flashers so you can easily identify them and direct them toward parking or provide additional assistance. Additionally, if you have designated visitor parking, make sure you have clear signage indicating where that is. Make sure it is close to an entrance.
Greeting at the Door
This may seem like an obvious one, but seeing a friendly face as soon as you walk in the door is very important – this could be one of the first interactions guests have at your church! If you’re able to identify guests at the door, let them know where the important spots are – welcome center or info booth, restrooms, coffee, etc. Many guests bring kids, so children’s check-in (or clear signage) should be visible from the door, or have an extra greeter there to escort families to check-in.
Welcome Center or Info Booth
If a guest misses a greeter, the welcome center or some sort of information & greeting hub is the next place you want them to arrive. Whatever this space looks like for your church, make sure it is easy to find, clearly marked (again, good signage), and in a prominent place near the entrance. The most common time that guests will be passing by is right before and right after services, so make sure it is staffed well at these times! People may be arriving unexpectedly early or late, but whenever they arrive, you want them to be able to find someone at the welcome center.
If you are displaying books, journals, sermon recordings, bookmarks, or any other type of material, make sure you clearly designate if those items are free or for sale. More than once I have picked up a resource when visiting a church, and ended up putting it back because I didn’t know if I should take it or not.
A small thank you gift is nice, but not a make or break on returning to the church. In my experience visiting churches, I have preferred items that helped me engage with other people while I was there (free coffee) over church branded swag (t-shirts, journals).
Escorting people to the place of worship is a nice gesture, but make sure to ask their preference before escorting them to seats. Some people may prefer to slip in and seat themselves quietly towards the back and will not want to be pointed out as guests. Some people may prefer assistance finding seats if the room is already full. Let your guest guide you based on their comfort level.
Safety and Cleanliness
While security measures differ widely from church to church, here are just a few things to consider. Access-controlled space for your kids ministry area is great and gives parents peace of mind while they are separated from their children. Some churches tout armed security on campus, which can make some people feel very safe. However, remember that guns don’t make everyone feel more safe or more welcome. From a cleanliness perspective, be aware of the different comfort levels of guests post-COVID. Providing hand sanitizing stations is a great way to be accommodating but not overbearing.
We all get used to our own mess, but your guests will notice everything because they are seeing it for the first time. Have someone unfamiliar with a particular ministry space walk through with a notepad and note what stands out. They can give you insight into what needs to be repainted, cleaned, or reorganized, if light bulbs need to be replaced, etc.
58% of parents say the children’s ministry is their primary reason for choosing a church, so this is a big one. Kids love to walk in someplace with something fun going on. Have some easy games or an activity out during welcome time — something they can slip right into reduces those new-kid nerves. For older kids, introduce them to a couple other kids to hang out with for the morning. Highlight your safety procedures for visiting parents (name-tag codes, training for volunteers, etc.).
While this might sound harsh, consider it tough love: be personal or don’t bother. People fear being put on a mailing list when they give out their personal info. Don’t put first time guests on the mailing list for every event and update.
Instead, send a short, personalized follow-up email or put a note in the mail. Do not underestimate the power of a handwritten note! It takes the same amount of time as sending an email does, but the sentiment travels much farther, in our opinion. Kids LOVE to receive mail, so consider sending a a letter directly to them as well saying “nice to meet you, it was fun having you in class…” That would certainly stand out.
We hope these spur your creativity and heart for hospitality, and encourage you in your ministry as you take these opportunities to welcome new faces into your church home.
Written by: Melody Parlett, Managing Director DFW Office at Enable Ministry Partners