Last year I began to notice that though Fulkerson Park was attracting a fair number of visitors to our church, we did not seem to be keeping very many as long-time church attendees or members. So, I started asking “why?”
Several months ago, I read a helpful book by Gary McIntosh called Beyond the First Visit: The Complete Guide to Connecting Guests to Your Church. I usually tend to read books which focus on theological precision, spiritual depth, and church health – and steer clear of stuff on church growth. McIntosh’s book certainly fits the latter category, but I found it helpful in addressing some of the common reasons people do not return to churches they have visited.
Nothing can replace the centrality of Christ and the gospel in our worship and there is no substitute for genuine love and hospitality. These should be at the top of our priority list in our church culture. But even when these things are present to a great degree, there are a few practical things that can make a big difference, for better or for worse, in our ministry to those who visit our church.
I addressed many of these things in a Sunday evening message entitled, “How to Be a Guest Friendly Church.” The following is a summary of what I learned from Gary McIntosh and communicated in this message.
1. We need to change our vocabulary.
Have you ever had someone drop in for a visit at your house – unexpectedly? Perhaps dishes were in the sink, the bathrooms were not freshly cleaned, and you were wearing your old sweats! My guess is that even if you were glad to see your friends, you felt a little less than hospitable, because you were not prepared for company. Compare that scenario with the last time you invited someone over dinner. Everything was well prepared. You pulled out your nicest dishes. You removed the clutter. You swept the floors and cleaned the bathrooms. In short, you did everything you could to make your guests feel at home. Your mentality was different.
Vocabulary can affect mentality. I would therefore suggest that we not refer to newcomers to Fulkerson as “visitors” but as “guests.” This may seem like an inconsequential detail, but as McIntosh says, “There is a big difference between being a visitor . . . and being a guest . . . Visitors are often unwanted; guests are expected. Visitors just show up; guests are invited. Visitors are expected to leave; guests are expected to stay. Visitors come one time; guests return again. I suggest you begin to change your vocabulary. It will make a difference” (p. 14).
2. We need to see what guests see.
“People make 11 decisions about us in the first 7 seconds of contact” says McIntosh (p. 30). We live in a world where first impressions matter, snap judgments are common, and expectations are high. We may not like it, but that’s the reality.
Just consider the “moments of truth” each guest will experience in their first visit to our church.
· Receiving an invitation to church. Who will invite them and how will they feel about that? Will it be a friendly invitation or a high pressure appeal?
· Driving to the building. What will they see when they drive up? Try looking at the property as if you had never seen it before. Is it clean? Is the yard well kept? Is the building in good repair? What about parking? Are there parking places close to the building?
· Walking to the door. “Surveys reveal that 75 % of people say they are more anxious the first time they enter a new place, such as a business, church, or office, than at most other times in their life,” according to McIntosh. Will the people be friendly? Are they coming through the right door? Are they dressed appropriately?
· Entering the door. What’s the impression in the first 30 seconds? What will they hear, see, smell? What impression will signs, pictures, bulletin boards, paint colors, lighting, and décor make?
· Meeting people. Will they encounter someone who takes a genuine interest in them? Will they meet a friendly face?
· Experiencing ministries and services. Are there clear directions to where they need to go? Sunday schools? Child care? Restrooms? What is the quality of each of these areas?
· Entering the sanctuary. Will they be able to find seats near the back (few newcomers want to sit up front!). Will they be greeted without being put on the spot?
This is just a sampling of the kinds of things people are thinking about when they visit Fulkerson for the first time. And all of this happens before the Sunday morning service even begins! These are also the kinds of questions we need to be asking. Trying to see Fulkerson from a first time guest’s point of view may surprise you. Give it a try. Then be thinking of what you can do to help make Fulkerson a friendlier, more inviting place.
3. We need to help people connect quickly.
McIntosh says, “Research has demonstrated that newcomers who remain in a church more than six months have an average of seven friends in their church, while people who drop out of a church average only two friends” (p. 25). How many newcomers have you befriended?
As I mentioned earlier, nothing substitutes for genuine love and hospitality. We can help people connect quickly by greeting them, remembering their names, inviting them to our small groups, and investing time to get to know them on a personal basis. As a rule of thumb, be on the lookout for new faces every Sunday. Avoid cliquishness. Let’s be welcoming to others.
4. We need to cultivate a spirit of excellence.
Quality counts and reveals the level of importance that we attach to something. From preaching and teaching content and the music in our worship to the cleanliness of our classrooms, restrooms, and sanctuary to the general repair of our property, we should strive to make it the best it can be. This is one of the ways in which we adorn the gospel (or not). The quality of our church services, ministries, and properties is an indication of how highly we value them – and how greatly we treasure the glory of Christ whom we serve.
Good thoughts -- and interesting to read, as one who was a first-time "guest" at Fulkerson just a few months ago! :)
Thanks Bethany - would I put you on the spot to ask for a report card on how we're doing? What was good and what wasn't?
I'm coming to visit soon, and will have some of those questions in my mind. Will share the answers with you, if you'd like. For now, just call me "mystery shopper."
That sounds like a great book and some great tips. Being someone who has moved around for work a lot, I know the anxiety felt when church seeking. First impressions certainly count; it's rare that we go back to a church for even a second visit.
Hope all is well.
Wesley, we will look forward to meeting you when come.
Brian - Sorry it's taken me awhile to respond; I've taken to reading blogs via an RSS reader, and I often forget to come back and check for follow-up comments.
At any rate, I can share some of my initial impressions of Fulkerson, since you asked. :)
We found the church through 9marks.com, so we didn't know anyone at all on our first Sunday at Fulkerson. I believe a couple people sitting near us introduced themselves, and we met Brian and the Hulls and talked to them both in a bit more depth than the people who were sitting around us. Everyone was, and has always been, very friendly to us. For the first several weeks, people would consistently introduce themselves to us. That's tapered off lately, perhaps due to us having been around long enough that people recognize us, or perhaps because we know enough people now to socialize with after church, and don't sit around looking lost and forlorn as much anymore. :) Or a combination of both.
While I was always impressed by how many people introduced themselves to us, I was also a bit surprised that on quite a few occasions, that was all it was - an introduction. Someone would come up to us, tell us their name, we'd tell them ours, and then they'd scoot off. It's difficult when that happens for the newcomer/guest to remember the person who introduced themselves, feel any point of connection, or strike up a conversation the next time they see them. If someone takes the time to have (even a very brief) conversation with you, it gives you a lot more of a feeling of having actually met them, and that they care about getting to know you. Getting a cursory exchange of names followed by nothing else can give the impression that they know they should introduce themselves, but don't really want to get to know you.
I assume very good intentions on the part of everyone we've met/has introduced themselves to us at Fulkerson. Certainly it's difficult to approach anyone you don't know, even just to exchange names, and frankly most people won't do even that much, so it is very much appreciated. But it's just a point of observation from the vantagepoint of a newcomer. (Also, I am not very skilled in the art of small talk, and so I both understand other people's discomfort in talking to strangers, and allow for the fact that my own awkwardness and lack of initiative is as much to blame in these situations as anyone else's, if not moreso.)
We were pretty highly motivated to get involved at Fulkerson quickly, so we sought out a small group on our first week, but I was encouraged by how many people we met over the next couple of weeks invited us to their small group, too. I might suggest having more information on the website about small groups - maybe not so specific as where they meet, etc., but enough to give a potential guest an idea of what sort of small groups they'd have access to at Fulkerson. Something like a list of current groups' topics would be enough, I'd think.
A somewhat odd point of miscellany that I'll tack on at the end here: It took us weeks to figure out where the bulletins were stashed. :) I finally asked someone who was holding one, and they showed me where they are.
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