As a “secret shopper” in churches nationwide, I report specific reasons why I wouldn’t return for a second visit and why, most likely, their guests aren’t coming back. Whether it’s a church plant of 60 people or a megachurch of 15,000, some details are universal and quickly determine the first impression your church makes.
The Front Door
Before guests ever step foot inside your church, they’ve probably checked out your website. Make sure the home page clearly features a section or button for first-time guests that takes them to a page addressing FAQs; service times; directions; parking instructions (Is there a side of the building that’s better to park on if you have kids?); what to expect (upbeat music and relevant, biblical preaching); what to wear (Are jeans and shorts OK?); and encouragement to stop by Guest Central or your church’s information booth to pick up a first-time guest packet.
Don’t underestimate the olfactory senses—the strongest out of all five senses for long-term memories. Every church has the potential for positive (coffee, citrus) or negative (mold, bleach) smells. Try evaluating the guest experience with a fresh nose, taking note of good and bad smells, especially in entrances, restrooms and child care facilities.
The parking lot experience can dictate whether or not guests will even make it to the service. Appoint someone to oversee parking, ensuring that newcomers have a parking space close by—a kind gesture in an already intimidating and nerve-wracking encounter.
Child Care Chaos
A confusing or long process for registering kids and putting them in the right classroom is one sure way to forfeit return visits. Regular attendees may know the drill, but guests need a clearly marked, manned station. Train volunteers to escort families to the class and explain pickup procedures. “Guest Check-In” signs should start where guests enter and continue to specific stations. Don’t assume people know where to go after they enter the building.
Is your child care checkout process secure? Every church, regardless of size or location, should have a secure system and well-trained volunteers who know to ask for a parent’s sticker or number. Child safety on the front end goes a long way in making a first impression.
The Invisible Pastor
Accessibility of the senior pastor makes another subtle and powerful statement. Whether the pastor is stationed at Guest Central, is part of a meet and greet, walks around the campus shaking hands or stands at the altar after the service, being present is key to guest impressions. Especially at a large church, visibility helps counter the rock star or unavailable stigma that many guests have come to expect in a church.
Would first- and second-time guests describe your church as generous? Generosity is a subtle but powerful force. Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Ala., designates an area in the coffee shop where people can get free coffee. The church also gives away message CDs and even surprises people with free ice cream after a service on a hot summer day.
Are your parking attendants and greeters as intentional with their goodbyes as they are with their hellos and welcomes? Station them at their posts after the service to say “Goodbye” or “Have a nice week.” Wrap up the entire guest experience with a lasting, positive impression.
Greg Atkinson is the owner of social media marketing and consulting company GTK Solutions. He travels the country consulting with churches, teaching at conferences and writing about innovation, technology, worship, leadership and compassion. For more information on his secret shopper service »
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Outreach magazine. Read more about this issue »
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