Where I live in Texas there is almost literally a church on every corner. There are old churches, new churches, large churches, and small churches. There are churches that young people love and churches where the average age is 70+. I believe that in each of these churches, there is an opportunity to learn ways that we can better serve God and people. My experience this weekend solidified that thought.
I’ve been involved in ministry since I was in high school and have always served in some capacity in my local church. It’s a rare occurrence for me to truly be able to experience church as a first-time guest. This weekend was different. In addition to attending our home church, my wife and I decided to sneak in a second service over the weekend. My experience was eye-opening and not for the reasons you may think.
The church we attended did a lot of things incredibly well. As we arrived on site, there was clear signage that pointed us in the correct direction. Walking towards the entrance, we experienced music from the church’s worship team that had been pre-recorded. As we walked through two sets of double doors, there were greeters at every door with a smile on their face.
Once we were inside the building it was very easy to figure out where to go. There was a place to get coffee, a first-time visitor desk, and a few more greeters holding open the doors to the sanctuary. By all accounts, our first five minutes on site were incredibly pleasant. A feat that isn’t always easy.
We entered into the sanctuary and found some seats in the back row as the pre-service countdown started. The countdown featured some great b roll shots of people at the church as well as the church campus. One minute before the countdown ended, a person appeared on the screen that shared about what to expect from the service. As the countdown faded to zero, the worship team began to play.
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We worshiped with three to four songs and then greeted a few people around us before being seated. As we sat down, a few video announcements played on the screen including a segment relevant for first-time guests about the church and how to get more information. The video announcements were concise and helpful to both first-time guests like myself as well as those regularly attending.
We sat through a great sermon by a guest speaker who I had heard many times before. He’s a great communicator and I always feel motivated to love God and love people better. He did a great job of honoring the senior pastor who was not in attendance which made me as a guest feel compelled to come back to hear the pastor.
As the service began to wind down, there was a final song of worship and an opportunity for people to respond to the message. The service ended with prayer and the race was off for everyone to get out of the parking lot.
Overall, the experience was great and as a first-time guest, everything seemed to be well done. However, there were a few things that made me think. As someone who gets to talk with thousands of pastors through what we do at TrainedUp, I wanted to share some of my takeaways that would have turned a good experience into a great one where I would have no question on whether or not to return.
Takeaway #1: Names Are Important
One of the most interesting observations is that even though we shook hands or were acknowledged by almost a dozen people, not a single person told us their name or asked us what our names were. I had never even thought about the importance of this for first-time guests.
The church we attended probably had an average attendance of about 1500 to 2000 people every weekend split up between 3 services. The campus and auditorium were large and that coupled with nameless pleasantries created an experience that made it seem like we could never truly have a community. Even though I know based on the church’s website that there are a lot of opportunities to get involved, in the moment it felt like I was just another person in the crowd.
In your volunteer training and coaching, make sure to encourage your volunteers to go beyond a smile and nod. Every volunteer should have this phrase down: “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Kevin.” This simple introduction slices through all awkwardness and opens the door to a conversation where first-time guests, as well as regular attendees, can feel connected and known.
Takeaway #2: Have Floaters In The Auditorium
My wife and I are early for everything. In fact, a funny story is that we both arrived over 30 minutes early to our first coffee date and waited in our cars without the other one knowing. This Sunday was no different. We arrived about 15 minutes early and after sitting in our car for a little while, we finally made our way inside. As we sat down, the five-minute countdown began to play.
As first time guests, we sat in the back on the auditorium and there weren’t many people around us. There were plenty of people having conversations and walking past us. Yet, not one person came up to us and introduced themselves or asked anything about us. Those five minutes were incredibly uncomfortable. We had no clue what to expect and would have welcomed a conversation. This again solidified the feeling that we would never be able to have a community.
At the very least, you should have a couple of floaters in the auditorium who are focused on having conversations with people that they do not recognize. This is something that I would recommend all regular attendees do, but that is harder to encourage. Finding a couple of volunteers for this role and training them to seek out people like my wife and I is something that is attainable.
Takeaway #3: Have Volunteers In Place After Service
The first two takeaways would have most likely impacted my decision on whether or not to return because they were pretty obvious. However, a third takeaway that wasn’t obvious was related to what happened at the end of the service. As soon as the speaker dismissed the church, there was a rush to the parking lot.
The church had put a lot of thought into the length of the service in order to give people enough time to leave the parking lot and for the next service to arrive. However, there were no volunteers in place on our way out of the service. No one was at the doors inviting us back next week. In fact, all of the doors were closed which was creating a bottleneck for people trying to exit.
This most likely would not have impacted my decision to not return. However, it could have made a good experience much better. Having volunteers, especially greeters, in place after service to say goodbye to people and to invite them back the next week provides another great touch point for the first time guest.
It was incredibly enlightening for me to visit another church as a first-time guest. I was able to observe a lot of great things, but in the end, I found some things that would have most likely influenced me not to return. This was surprising because on the surface this church did everything right. They had volunteers in place to greet me, signage was clear, and the service was full of excellence. Yet, at the end of the day, my wife and I did not connect with anyone and were able to leave without a feeling of belonging. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to visit another church as a first-time guest and see what you can learn. If you have any questions about my experience, please reach out via chat and I’d be happy to share more!