Some time ago my family and I moved to a new house and neighborhood, and in the process visited a number of churches in search of a new place to worship. The experience reminded me of how other newcomers must feel in visiting a church for the first time. New faces…new places …new spaces. The truth is, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience!
Here are a few simple ways you can increase the warmth of your church’s welcome; and, as a result, increase the number of first-time visitors who return…and stay.
- Don’t call them “visitors.” According to Webster, a visitor is “…a person who resides temporarily; one who goes or comes to inspect; one who makes a short stay at a place for a particular purpose.” May I suggest you instead use the word guest, defined as: “a person welcomed into one’s house; a person to whom hospitality is extended; a person held in honor who is due special courtesies.”
- Stop using the word “greeter” defined as “one who meets or extends welcome in a specified manner; one who gives a formal salutation at a meeting.” Start using the word host—“one who receives or entertains socially; one who opens his or her home for a special event; one who takes particular care and concern that guests are well accommodated.” And discuss with your “hosts” the new implications of their new title.
- Parking Lot Hosts. Deploy a team of your members to greet and welcome folks the moment they step out of their cars. Or, if it’s raining, parking lot hosts should have umbrellas ready before guests step out of their cars! These hosts can greet everyone coming to church, but should pay particular attention to the guest parking area or to newcomers. A warm welcome should be extended and an inquiry made as to special needs or questions guests may have. Parking lot hosts may accompany guests into the building and introduce them to the host at the welcome center. (You do have a welcome center, don’t you?)
- Celebration Balloons. It’s common to see strings of helium-filled balloons attracting your attention to RV sales and used car lots around town. Does your church have something to celebrate? Why not get folks into the mood with columns of colorful balloons reaching heavenward? How about a great arch of balloons leading into the building? “…it is appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” (Lk 15:32) Sunday should be celebration time!
- Piped-out Music. Install a number of strategically placed outdoor speakers welcoming people to God’s house with the music of heaven. If you have a recording of your own worship band or musical group, use it. Otherwise, there’s lots of great Christian music available.
- Direction signs. You can’t have too many signs on the church property. If your campus has more than one building, the name of each should be clearly visible. Direction signs should be at every major “intersection,” in and outside the church. Identification signs should be on every inside door (including closets and storage). Children’s classrooms should be marked with age/grade level. Adult classrooms should note the topic, age group, and time of meeting. (BTW, class names exclude, class topics include.) Restrooms, nursery, chapel, fellowship hall, library, and worship center should all be identified with conforming and attractive signs.
- Welcome Center Support Hosts. Many churches have a person or two working inside a welcome center kiosk or at a welcome table. That’s good. But move from a good welcome to a great welcome by also stationing hosts in front of the kiosk/table where guests will be standing. Those hosts answering questions at the Welcome Center may call on support hosts to escort guests to a particular location in the church (i.e. nursery, classroom, sanctuary, etc.), or simply make a “social hand off” of the newcomer for a more casual conversation with a church member. Such hosts engage the guests in friendly conversation and may introduce them to others in the fellowship area.
- Guest Information Packet. Every church should have an attractive packet prepared specifically for newcomers. The basic questions your guests are asking should be answered in this kit. They are: “What kind of things are going on in this church?” [The more the better.] “Is there a place for my kids?” [If not, nothing else matters.] “How can I learn more about this church?” [See “Church Tour” below.] One of the best ways to answer all these questions is with a video brochure. This is a well-produced 8-10 minute introduction to the church with words from the pastor, staff, and some new members. Put the video on a DVD in the packet, and include it on your website. A gift for guests is also a nice touch. I’ve seen coffee mugs, fresh baked bread, complimentary Bibles and CDs, donuts and cappuccino at the snack bar, even free $30 polo shirts with a Christian symbol on the front. All are nice touches.
- Class Hosts. Every adult, youth, and children’s class should have at least one host. Their task is to look for newcomers, welcome them, introduce them to others, sit with them, and generally be sensitive to their comfort and needs. Hosts may be the same throughout the year or vary from week to week.
In the Service…
- Worship Center Hosts. Don’t stop being a good host at the Welcome Center. If your sanctuary/worship center is a bustle of activity before the service begins, why not ask some of your members to host a pre-determined area of seats? When newcomers sit in their area, a good worship center host will go over and welcome them to the church, and engage them in conversation. If there will be any special activities in the service which might need explanation, it’s a good chance to give a “heads up.” Hosts should introduce the guests to the person(s) next to them. Perhaps even sit with them.
- Pastor’s Welcome. During the service I like to hear someone from the platform tell me they’re glad I’m here. Not personally, of course. No newcomer likes to be singled out in public. But when the pastor spends valuable time in the service telling me that I’m valued by the church, it makes a big difference. And it’s more than just, “If you’re visiting today, welcome.” It means explaining a little about the church, what a wonderful place it is, how great the people are, and why the benefit of getting involved is worth the price of my anticipated anxiety.
- A Time of Greeting. Many churches include a moment during the service to shake hands and greet those around them. This is either a good idea or a bad idea…and it depends on what happens after the service. It’s good if folks continue their initial conversation with the guest. It’s bad if they pretend nothing ever happened a half-hour earlier and beat a hasty path to the exit. If your people are naturally congenial with newcomers, then a greeting time in the service is great. If not, try the following idea…
After the Service…
- After-service Hosts. Our research reveals three insights about church visitors:
- “Friendliness of the people” is the most important thing newcomers are looking for in their visit.
- “Friendliness” is assessed on the simple basis of how many people talk to them.
- The most important time for such “friendly talk” is immediately following the service.
After-service hosts are responsible for making a beeline to newcomers after the service to welcome them, walk with them to the coffee table, introduce them to others, and invite them back. A variation of this strategy, in one church we visited, was when the pastor reminded the congregation of their “three minute rule”—no one could talk to anyone they knew during the first three minutes following the service! It worked for us. We met a wonderful woman named “Rose” who had been attending for the past year. Our conversation lasted over 15 minutes! As you might guess, we looked for Rose the following Sunday when we returned.
- Church Tour. Newcomers are hesitant to wander around a new church uninvited, even though they’d like to. So, why not offer a short tour of the facilities after each service? Such a tour is a low-commitment, limited-time, high-information event for anyone interested in learning more about your church. The tour leader guides the guests through various halls and rooms, explaining what activities take place there. It’s natural for guests to ask questions about various ministries or upcoming events. And it’s a much easier “next step” for newcomers who are interested in learning more, but not ready to sign up for a membership class.
- Follow-up Contact. It’s standard procedure for pastors to send a “Thank you for visiting” letter. We received nice ones from every church we visited. But following our second visit to several of those churches …nothing. In the typical (non-growing) church, 9% of all first time visitors join the following year. But among second-time visitors (those who visit twice within a six-week period), 17% join. And third-time guests unite at a rate of 36% in the ensuing year. In growing churches, the pattern is similar: 21% of first-timers stay…38% of second-timers …57% of third-timers join the church they visited. Whether your church is growing or not, the insight is clear: the more often people visit, the more likely they will stay. Have a unique follow-up strategy for second time guests and another for third-timers.
Your church probably can’t implement all of these ideas. Nor should you try. But circulate this list among your leaders and see if they resonate to any of them. Get a group together and brainstorm how some of the ideas might work in your church. Set a target date to have the plan in place. Then begin.
After you’ve successfully implemented one idea, find another and consider how it might work. While more than just an outside music speaker or an inside classroom host is needed to see newcomers become active members, such new ideas will raise the awareness level of your members to the importance of welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable in your church home. The newcomers who enter your front doors are the ones Christ wants you to welcome in the same way He would do so, Himself. After all, we are the caretakers of His house…at least until that day when He invites us to His eternal home. And then we’ll find out what a good first-time welcome is really like!