How to Make A Great First-time Guest Impression
Let’s navigate the process along with guests rather than merely point the way.
In this document we will look at …
· The pre-service (from the street to the seat)
· Direct: Simply and politely direct guests where they need to go for them to be successful.
· Treat: Show respect and happily surprise guests with comfort food and drink.
· Seat: Lead guests to a comfortable, appropriate seat where they feel at home and “belong.”
· Seven minutes and counting will focus on timing.
We won't get a second chance. Seven minutes is all the time we have to make a positive first impression on the first-time guests who walk through our doors. In the first seven minutes of their experience with the church, our guests (and God’s guests) will decide whether or not they're going to come back. That's before a single worship song is sung and before a single word of teaching is uttered. Maybe that seems unfair to you but, fair or not, it's true. Blame it on the power of the God-given subconscious mind.
Certainly from our perspective people should be nobler and be looking for a congregation that teaches truth and gospel. That number of people has dwindled quickly in our lifetime. But we must be aware that the Lord’s church has something they are looking for – that is authenticity and being genuine people who truly love one another like the first century Christians.
Obviously, our guests from the streets and most of our friends we bring aren't making a well-thought-out decision based on the integrity of the preaching (they haven't heard it yet), the character of the church staff & shepherds (they've never met them), or the clarity of our doctrine (what's doctrine?). They're not weighing the pros and cons of our worship style and theological viewpoints. Instead, they are taking in clues about our church family's atmosphere and people's friendliness on a much more rudimentary level. Their subconscious minds are working overtime to evaluate their compatibility with this new environment. Without knowing it, they are asking the question, “Could I feel comfortable belonging here regularly?”
So the question becomes: How can we, as a Christian or church leader, take advantage of this reality? That is, how can we identify and strengthen what's actually being judged by them? How can each individual Christian do their part to create the irresistible environment of a church family? What factors and feelings play into a guest's first impression? How much control can we have over doing things in a way that will make the experience a positive one where they will come again until they grow up in Christ? To truly get a glimpse of the power of our church and class's first impression on a guest, let's step to the other side and look at the experience from a first-time guest's point of view.
Jon (Mr. Edmond) hits the blaring alarm clock and nudges his wife (Mrs. Edmond). Liz sits up in bed, debating with herself. Even though she has been talking about going back to church for years, she's not thrilled with the idea of following through on this particular day. She didn't sleep well last night and the afternoon is packed with activities for the kids because family is important to her. But, a friend invited them for the second time and they hated to say no again, so today is the day. Liz throws back the covers and gets out of bed.
Once up, (Mr. & Mrs. Edmond OK) morning plays like something out of a Stephen King novel. The kids, four and two, both throw temper tantrums, the eggs burn, and the dog smuggles his latest catch into the house. Tired, irritated, and already running late, Jon finally gets everyone packed into the car and off they go...
THWART THE ENEMY'S PLANS
Let's pause for a reality check. When an unchurched person or family decides to attend our church and class for the first time, what do you think is going to happen to them the morning of the service? Whatever the enemy can pull out of his bag to throw their way, right? If he can't keep them from attending, he will at least make sure they hit the parking lot stressed out and in no mood for what lies ahead. He knows that if he can sow pre-service defensiveness and negativity, 8 out of 10 American churches won't do anything to turn that guest's attitude around. In most cases, the church will just make him self-conscious, uncomfortable and, by default, more irritable. Sadly, by nudging guests to disengage before they walk through the door, the enemy usually wins the battle before it even starts. But he can't win if we don't let him. We can thwart his plans by creating a comfortable, inviting pre-service. We are in a real spiritual battle.
The pre-service is our first opportunity to interact with everyone who sets foot on our church's campus, property, and plant - from first-time guests to long-time members - but its purpose and influence is particularly important for first-timers. Our pre-service mission, if we choose to accept it, is to do everything we can to take our guest's guard down (and even put a smile on his face) before the service begins.
There are four primary ways we can influence our guests during the pre-service: by controlling how they are greeted, directed, treated and seated. Let's go back to our fictional example. Take a look at how a successful pre-service might play out at any given church on any given weekend...
Creating an environment that makes our first-time guests feel both welcomed and respected is key to winning a return visit and beginning the process of assimilating them well. When God entrusts us with first-time guests, we face an incredible responsibility. One of the best ways to acknowledge our guests as the gifts they are is by having a pre-service in place that will far exceed their expectations and create that elusive positive first impression. We will excite them to want to visit our church again and again, so that they can ultimately learn about the excellence, graciousness, hospitality and generosity of the One after whom we are modeling everything we do.
Now that we have seen what a successful pre-service experience looks like, let's dive more deeply into each of its four components:
Make sure our guests are:
Greeted: Welcomed with a smile.
Directed: Simply and politely directed to where they need to go.
Treated: Shown respect and happily surprised with comfort food and drink.
Seated: Led to a comfortable, appropriate seat near loving Christians.
GREET: WELCOME GUESTS WITH A SMILE
Memorize the next sentence and make it our mantra:
Everything speaks to a first-time guest.
From the moment a guest sets foot on our property, he tunes in to receive the message our church is sending. And our church and/or classes are always sending a message, whether we realize it or not. The condition of our building, our sign, our lawn, and our parking lot all speak to him. He's already making gut-level judgment calls. He's not necessarily being critical (although he may be, depending on his history with church); he's just being human. He's reading his environment. Knowing this, we have to make sure we're sending a welcoming message.
We have an obligation to strive for excellence. We don't have to be perfect, we just have to do the very best we can with what we've got – which is the definition of Godly excellence. We don't have to have a brand-new building or a big shiny sign to make a good impression, but chipped paint and overgrown grass will certainly make a bad one. If you're like most church leaders, we may be so familiar with our building and our land that we don't really see them anymore. Take a fresh look around. Drive into our parking lot and intentionally examine our church and/or classes through a guest's eyes. Are we communicating the right message?
While the appearance of our church building is extremely important, the most crucial part of the "greeted" area of contact is who our guests meet when they get to the front door – our greeters. A friendly face offering a warm welcome speaks volumes. Greeters should practically radiate the underlying message we want to send to our guests: "We're nice people, and we're glad you are here!"
As we put people in place as greeters, they must clearly understand the importance of their responsibility and know exactly what is expected of them. It seems the best volunteers want and need clear direction. They will feel more comfortable at their post if told what they should say and how to say it. Greeters, along with all volunteers, have an innate fear of not pleasing their leaders, while at the same time leaders have a fear of asking too much of them. This can create a vicious cycle where everyone is tiptoeing around everyone else, and guests aren't being greeted as effectively as they could be. Remind greeters that they are expected to offer a big, authentic smile, say hello, and put a program in each person’s hands.
FLASH OUR “SMILE PRACTICE”
I’ve read of a congregation to take the idea of greeting their guests with a smile so seriously that they do smile practice! Their volunteer system was a little different from most. They never knew who was going to show up to help with the service on any given Sunday. They had developed a culture where their people always had the option of coming an hour early to serve, so every week they trust God that one hundred to two hundred volunteers will show up – and they did! Once the volunteers arrive, they divided the responsibilities among them. They wanted to make sure the friendliest people, with the most genuine smiles, are stationed as greeters so sometimes they did "smile practice" in their pre-service volunteer meeting to make sure they choose the right people. Not only does everyone get to practice putting on a huge smile, but the ones who end up as greeters understand that the smile they give guests is so important that it just landed them the position.
DIRECT: SIMPLY AND POLITELY DIRECT GUESTS WHERE THEY NEED TO GO
The second step in a successful pre-service is to make sure our guests are quickly, simply and politely shown where they need to go, either by a sign, a volunteer, or preferably by both. Imagine if Jon and Liz had walked through the door of this unfamiliar church and had no idea where the restroom was. Since their child needed one, not only would they be facing a minor emergency, but they would have been put in the awkward position of having to stop someone and ask. Automatically, this would have made them feel more uncomfortable and out of place. Their level of anxiety would have risen, at the expense of their positive first impression. The same story applies if they didn't know where or how to drop their kids off for the children's ministry. Here at the Edmond Church of Christ, we have a strategically located information and direction for the children’s ministry.
THE SIGNS...SHOULD BE EVERYWHERE!
When it comes to real estate, we all know the importance of location, location, location. Within the church, the equally important and correlating phrase to remember is "signs, signs, signs! – people, people, people! -- smile, smile, smile!" Signs are the single best way to ensure that our guests are told. Smiling and informed people for each guest is an important addition so they feel more comfortable in finding what they need. The two areas in particular that demand clear signs are the restrooms and the children's area. It is vital that first-time guests can find the front door and entrance. Since our front door is not easily discernible from the parking lot, we can make sure they are directed as we arrive at church too. Hopefully our new construction will have a better sign in place for it, too.
A common tendency is to think that our guests will figure out how to find what they need - that our building is "pretty easy" to navigate. For you, that's true. For our guests, who have never set foot in our door and whose anxiety levels are already registering high, it's not. They have taken a big step by simply crossing our threshold. Make sure you throw them the safety net of letting them know exactly where to go next. Even if we think we have enough signs, we need more. Our building layout can become confusing, it is large, and frequently new people get lost in the circle. Our building does not sit on the lot in a typical “square” and clear direction. Consequently it is common for people to forget which door they came in and which parking lot their car is located. That tells me it is easy to get lost in our building. Again, please walk with new guests to their location and partner someone with them to get to their next destination.