Have you ever been to a restaurant and immediately been turned off by the experience? I know I have. Whether it’s employees who walk past without saying anything, a rude hostess, or just an unclean building, a bad first impression instantly sets the tone for the rest of your experience.
Chances are your overall impression of any institution will be closely related to your initial experience unless the rest of the experience is over-the-top great.
This post isn’t about creating great first impressions at restaurants, though. However, the same way you judge a restaurant is how first time guests at your church will judge their experience. The old adage, “you only have one chance at a first impression” is truer than ever. In fact, a bad experience today can be more damaging to your church’s reputation than it would have been ten years ago because of the ease of sharing experiences online.
The Importance of Church First Impressions
Each week the majority of your planning and preparation likely centers around two aspects of service: the sermon and worship. While these two aspects are incredibly important, they’re most likely not the things making the biggest impact on whether or not people come back to your church. The reality is that most people make a decision about whether or not to return to your church within their first ten minutes of arriving on your campus.
That begs the question, if most people are making a decision on whether or not to return before the pastor preaches a sermon or before the worship leader sings their first note, why do we put so much time into those areas while neglecting others?
Please hear me out, I’m not advocating that you stop preparing for worship and preaching. I am, however, advocating that you also intentionally prepare for other areas of your guest experience.
Get an Honest Evaluation
Before you can ever start to make changes in how guests perceive your church, you must first get an honest evaluation from the perspective of a first time guest. While you can certainly find some downfalls on your own, ultimately you need an outside perspective.
As ministry leaders, it can be hard for us to step out of how things are supposed to work to focus in on how things are in reality. Because of this, I strongly recommend that you recruit others that you know to play the role of a guest. There are great consultants that you can hire to do this or you can recruit friends and family to play the role instead. If you do decide to recruit someone you know, make sure that you approach it without any preconceptions and without getting defensive. Chances are the results are going to sting.
You will need to be purposeful in facilitating an evaluation. Even friends and family may not want to be truly honest if they think it will upset you. It may also be easier to create a form for the person to fill out instead of asking them to verbally tell you their observations.
Create A Plan Of Improvement
Once you have an understanding of the areas that needs improvement, it’s time to make a plan. There are likely to be areas of concern in three main areas: building, people, and process. The building concerns are usually the easiest to address, adding things like better signage or fixing a hole in the wall are easy. The concerns around people and process can be more problematic.
People problems should be addressed as quickly as possible. If your evaluation showed concerning behavior around specific individuals you should address it with their ministry leader and have them talk with the volunteer in a one-on-one capacity. This is an unlikely concern to arise during an evaluation, but if it does arise it should be taken very seriously.
Process problems are most common and are more difficult to deal with. Things like insider language may make complete sense to the people in your church, but to outsiders they can be completely lost. For instance, you may ask a guest to take their connection card to the welcome center for a free gift, but unless the welcome center is in a plain location that the guest saw while entering service, they’re going to have no clue where to go.
Some other examples that are likely to come up in the evaluation are: kids check-in, connection cards, giving, and interactions with volunteers like greeters or ushers.
Implementing A Solution
After you’ve planned on areas that need improvement, it’s time to start implementing a solution. You’re likely going to need to change some policies, but you may find that a lot of the problems found in the evaluation are things that you thought people should have been doing already. In either case, you’re going to need to put solid processes in place and make sure that your team is trained on those processes.
Training existing team members can be tricky especially if they don’t see the need for training. Before you ever talk about training with your team, you need to first layout the mission and vision for training and why it’s important given the findings from the evaluation. I won’t go into the specifics of how to create a training program in this post, but you can read more about creating a training program for first impressions here.