Written by: Adam McLaughlin, AdamMcLaughlin.net
I can’t imagine a church that isn’t interested in being welcoming to guests. We all have a moment of excitement as people who have never visited our church before show up for the first time. We want to do everything we can to make our guests feel welcome and comfortable while helping them get connected at our church where they can build friendships and grow in their relationship with Jesus.
Wanting to make someone feel welcome is part of who we are as the church. Knowing HOW to make someone feel welcome takes some strategy, and sometimes the effort backfires on us. It’s like asking out your first date in high school. Sometimes the low-key approach of “Hey, would you like to go see a movie” is more likely to get a yes than a flash mob, helium balloons and a bouquet of flowers so “she knows you’re really interested”.
In church, this overbearing approach can really distract from the goal of getting someone connected who otherwise may have loved your church. Calm down the flurry of excitement, breathe and consider if your approach to one of these is discouraging guests from coming back.
1. Too much attention
We want to recognize our guests to let them know they’re welcome.
Ever been to a restaurant for the first time where they made you raise your hand or stand or introduce yourself into the microphone to let everyone else in the room know? Probably not. Why? Because it could be embarrassing and feel isolating. Everyone else is a regular. You’re here, not sure what’s next and now everyone knows it.
Recognizing that someone is here for the first time is important, but just like at a restaurant, recognize them one-on-one or allow them to identify themselves as a guest. At a restaurant, the server may say ‘Is this your first time here?’ or ‘If this is your first time, check the box on your receipt and write in your email address so we can send you a coupon for a free appetizer on your next visit.'
How this could work at your church...
• Have friendly people assigned to each section of seats in your church. When they see someone they don’t recognize, they can casually walk over before or after service and introduce themselves.
• Door holders or greeters can introduce themselves to someone they don’t recognize. If that person says this is their first visit, they can direct them to the “guest services” desk for a gift.
• Mention during service that you’d like your guests to fill out a connection card and bring it to the information center or front door after service to pickup a gift from your church.
• Use a text number that someone can text “new”. Make sure you’re giving them a reason to want to do this - maybe they will receive a video from your Pastor telling them more about the church, or they can find out about your next members class to learn about your church and ask questions, or they’ll get texted a barcode for a free drink at Starbucks.
2. Too much information
There are a lot of ways for people to get connected at our church, and each way may get a different person connected, so we need to let them know about all of the ways.
I hate shoe shopping at a mall. It’s not just because I wear flip flops every day of the week except Sunday’s dress shoes (even flip flops need a break). To me, shoe shopping comes with too many possibilities when I know exactly what I already need: either a new pair of flip-flops, size 10, or a pair of slip-on black dress shoes, size 10. There are hundreds of options in every shoe store, and sometimes dozens of shoe stores in a single mall. That’s like a dozen-hundred options. I’m actually feeling like I need a nap just considering the possibilities.
So what do I do when I need a new pair of shoes? I ask my wife to shop for me. She asks, “Do you need flip flops or dress shoes?” Those are my kinds of options.
Too often, we bombard our guests with too many options thinking that if we give them a long enough list, they’ll find something that they like. Small groups, midweek service, sunday school, youth and community events are all important, but rather than giving a detailed overview of every event, give a brief overview of a category of events and a way to find out more.
How this could work at your church...
• In your bulletin: “On the first Saturday of every month, we do a community service day as a church because we love our city. Visit example.com / community to learn about next month’s event.”
• In your announcements: “If you’re here with us for the first time, we’re honored that you’ve chosen to spend part of your weekend with us. We have pizza with our pastor after service today. You’re welcome to stay for lunch with your family, meet our pastor and ask any questions you have. During that time, we’ll provide you with more information about all of the opportunities to get connected at our church.”
• Welcome time: “If you’re here for the first time, then your next step is getting connected with one of our small groups. We’ve got 23 small groups that meet through the week at homes and coffee shops in our city. That is the best way to get to know other families that call our church 'home'. Text “groups” to (text number here) and we’ll send you a list of groups with a registration link that you can browse after service."
3. Not enough follow up
We don’t want to bother people with too much communication after they visit our church.
So you went to a movie with this girl from high school (if you’re like me, it was probably on a Tuesday for cheap night). After the movie, you asked if she’d like ice cream and that went well. She gives you her cell number. You drop her at home and she doesn’t hear from you until you text the following Tuesday “Hey, It’s cheap night again. Would you like to see a movie?”
It’s going to be a 'no.’ Because you aren’t taking time to build a relationship, it sounds like you just don’t want to go to the movies by yourself.
So at church, when someone gives you their email or phone number, why wait until Easter, Christmas or Summer camp to connect with them about coming back? Let’s pretend that someone is 25 years old, has never been to church in their life and visits your church on Sunday. They have a 25-year routine of sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Do you think that because they visited your church that they’ll break that 25-year routine 6 days from now?
This is the counterbalance to too much information. Not following up is like not trying to build a friendship with the girl after your first date.
How this could work at your church...
• Have a follow-up system where you provide bite-sized pieces of information about what’s next. A text message about your community event with a link, or an email with an invite to coffee with someone from your church.
• Give bite-sized pieces of information a few times a week for 5-6 weeks. Remember, you’re helping build a new routine of getting involved, hearing from your church and building a friendship.
• Have someone assigned to sections at your church. Have that person follow up with someone from their section who visited for the first time and be sure to connect with them when they come back the next week.
• Include something in your welcome package that encourages people to come back a second time - a free coffee at your paid cafe, or a coupon for a t-shirt.
Even with the best intentions, we sometimes miss the mark on helping someone feel welcome. How can we determine if what we’re doing creates an unwelcoming impression?
Consider each step of your new visitor process from how you connect with them before, during, and after service, then imagine it in the context of a restaurant or mechanic or your library to get an objective perspective on how you may feel in that situation.