Recently, I began interviewing folks who were first-time visitors to churches to listen to what they experienced and see what we can learn.

A couple weeks ago, I met with a couple who’d attended an Evangelical Free Church near them. Let me begin by saying that they had a pleasant experience and have considered returning (though to date, they haven’t). I’ve changed the couple’s name for privacy purposes.

Jerry and Carol’s First Time Visitor Experience

Jerry: We found the information about the church on the internet …

Carol: [Interrupting] Well, I found it. Jerry’s not much of an internet person.

Jerry: Okay. Carol found out what time the services started. We decided to go to the early service, so parking wasn’t an issue. There were plenty of parking spots.

Notice that worries about parking is a concern to first time visitors. This particular church has plenty of parking, but it has no designated guest parking … a serious oversight, especially if the church intends to grow! An over-crowded parking lot may say “Popular church” but without available parking for visitors it also says “but there’s no room for you.” 

Jerry: There was a greeter standing outside the door, so we knew where to go in, which is a good thing, since we saw three different doors that faced the parking lot. We didn’t have much of a conversation with the guy who held the door, but he was friendly enough.

Carol: He wasn’t chatty, but he did say good morning and welcomed us. I think he knew we were visitors, because he was all smiles. And he did point out where to go when we got into the narthex.

Narthex. That’s the word the greeter used. He did pretty much everything right in his greeting, but we all need to be aware that no one outside the church knows what a “narthex” is. The real world calls that big open space between the front doors and the auditorium (or worship space) a lobby. And since there’s nothing “holy” about a narthex or a lobby, it shouldn’t be a theological stretch for most of us to relegate the ancient Greek word to those where people speak Greek, not English. 

Jerry: Even though this was their traditional service, they had what looked like a worship team on the stage. No drums or guitars, but a couple vocalists with microphones. The music was okay … one of the singers had trouble keeping on key, but it was okay.

Carol: I felt really sorry for him. He was trying, but one of the songs was out of his range and he couldn’t quite get there most of the time.

Smaller and mid-sized churches sometimes err on the side of being nice rather than on the side of excellence. A church with an average attendance of less than 50 can get away with “cute” and “nice,” meaning putting on smiles when Little Bert or Grandma Lilly does their best, but their best is off-key. But the larger the church … or the larger the church wants to be … the more important excellence is. The church does nobody any favors, least of all a would-be musician or vocalist, by allowing someone to perform when they lack the gifts, talents, or skills to perform publicly on key. Yes, the Bible says make a joyful noise, but it doesn’t say to put those who are tone deaf or inexperienced up front. A church with an average attendance of 50-200 should have musicians and vocalists that perform and blend well. A church of 200-350 should have musicians and vocalists who could each do a competent solo performance. By the time a church hits 350, the level of excellence should rival local professional performers. And at 500+ we should expect CD quality music. In other words, after a church sees 200 in average worship, it’s time to start doing auditions, even for those who sing in the “chancel choir.”

Jerry: After the second song or so, they did the meet and greet thing. I’m not wild about those things, but it was okay. I hate shaking hands with strangers.

Carol: Yes, but did you notice that no one was wearing name tags and that people came up and asked us our names? But I don’t think a single person told us their name. It was all a bit odd to me. It’s like they wanted to know us, but we weren’t supposed to get to know them.

Personally, I’m a name tag advocate … but not of those embossed plastic “member” tags that announce “I’m an insider and I can see by your paper name tag – or that you have no name tag – that you’re an outsider.” If everyone wears identical style name tags (paper or holders with lanyards, etc.) then it’s a win-win situation. However, if you’re not a name tag church, then teach your members how to greet effectively. “Hi, I’m Bill. I don’t think we’ve met.” And after the guest (or the member who hasn’t attended the early service before) has introduced themselves you can ask the two “I’d like to get to know you better” questions: (1) “How long have you been coming to First Church?” (safer than asking “Are you a visitor?” and having the charter member take your head off); and (2) “What keeps you busy during the week?” (better than asking “What do you do for a living?” of someone who’s been looking for a job for the previous 28 months). 

Jerry: I liked the sermon. It was too long, but anything over 10 minutes is too long in my opinion. He did keep my attention.

Carol: When we left I needed to “powder my nose,” but I couldn’t find the rest rooms. I had to do the potty dance all the way to lunch. It’s a good thing Ruby’s was just around the corner.

Jerry: It didn’t help that the pastor literally chased us across the parking lot. He was caught up with talking with some people after the service and we escaped through another door. I’m pretty sure he knew we were visitors and wanted to talk with us.

Carol: It was nice that he wanted to introduce himself, but I really had to use the bathroom!

Here’s a test. Stand in your lobby and pretend you’ve never been to the church before. Can you immediately see a sign that points to the rest rooms? Is it big enough that you can see it from across the lobby? If not, your guests are likely experiencing Carol’s dilemma. Get some signs up!

Jerry: We’ve been talking about going back. We haven’t made it yet, but we’re thinking about it.

At the time of this writing, the church hadn’t made any attempt to contact Jerry and Carol outside of the standard “Gee it was nice to see you” Mail-Merged form letter. If the church sent them a postcard or a handwritten note inviting them to some upcoming sermon series or event that was aimed at those similar to this couple, they’d probably have visited again by now.

How’s your church’s first-time visitor return rate? If it doesn’t surpass 50% then there are issues that you should be addressing. The Effective Church Group offer a number of resources to help churches turn the Jerrys and Carols into returning guests and ultimately into faithful followers of Jesus and committed members too.

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