Will They Stay or Will They Go?

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Nine-year-old Elizabeth and her mother have been searching with
little success for a new church home. They’re frustrated, but still
determined to find a church they love. Recently, some friends told
them about an awesome program for children at a local church.
Elizabeth and her mom decided to give it a try.

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Let’s follow their journey.

Minute 1: After parking outside the unfamiliar
church building, Elizabeth’s mother takes her hand and they glance
around for the main entrance. As they walk toward the door,
Elizabeth asks her mom if anyone there will know her name. Inside,
they navigate a crowd of smiling faces. People greet one another,
hurriedly ushering their kids to Sunday school so they can get to
the sanctuary in time for opening announcements. No one notices
that Elizabeth and her mom are unfamiliar with their surroundings,
and no one greets them with anything more than a quick smile or
handshake at the entrance.

Minute 3: They finally locate the Children’s
Information Desk. It’s on the opposite side of the building from
where they parked, and it’s surrounded by other first-time
visitors. One volunteer is tensely instructing parents to complete
a registration card for each of their children. Elizabeth’s mom
fumbles through her purse looking for a pen. When the volunteer
finally reads Elizabeth’s information card, he tells them to go to
Room 217.

Minute 7: Elizabeth and her mom squeeze through
the hallways searching for Room 217. The halls are congested, and
the room numbers are posted on the doors, making them barely
visible through the crowd of people.

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Minute 8: Elizabeth and her mom find Room 217.
An efficient Sunday school teacher stands at the door and asks
Elizabeth’s name. She checks her in and invites Elizabeth to choose
any opening activity in the classroom. Her mom kisses her and
leaves. Elizabeth stands alone, overwhelmed in the room full of
lively children who all seem to know each other. What activity
should she choose? Will someone invite her to join in? What if she
chooses an activity center and nobody plays with her? What if no
one is nice to her?

Minute 8:30: All Elizabeth wants is her
mother!

When Elizabeth’s mom asks her how she liked church, Elizabeth
quickly says she never wants to go back. They walk in silence back
to their car, wondering if they can muster the energy to do this
all over again at another church.

We all know first impressions are important. But how
important?

According to Tom Clegg of Church Growth Institute (author of
7 Habits of a Visitor Friendly Church), “When visitors
walk through the door, they’ll decide in three to eight minutes
whether they’ll return.” Often, your Sunday school or nursery is
where first-time visitors take Clegg’s “eight-minute test.” The
clock is ticking and the pressure is on. You don’t have time to
waste a second. Read on to discover how to answer first-time
visitors’ questions so your church makes a great impression.

WHERE DO I PARK?

Assist first-time visitors by placing locator signs inside and
outside your building. Signs should identify which entry doors are
closest to the children’s area and nurseries. Use these ideas for
signs:

  • Large letters on the building
  • Portable metal or foam-core signs staked into the ground
  • Static signs on entry doors
  • Plywood cutouts of kids holding balloons marking the way

Bold, neat signs must clearly identify the children’s areas,
specific classrooms, the sanctuary, and adult Sunday school area.
Put signs high enough that they’re readable even in crowds.

See Extra Mile #1.


WHERE DO I GO?

Put a greeting team in your children’s education area. For many
first-time visitors, walking into your building for the first time
is overwhelming. Train your greeters to shake hands, welcome
visitors, answer any questions, and direct visitors to the
appropriate area. Greeters create an immediate personal
connection.

See Extra Mile #2.


WILL MY CHILD BE SAFE?

The church is one of the few places where parents leave their
kids in the care of total strangers. For many, this experience is
an anxious one. Use a central information booth to tell parents
what their children will do while in your care. Always keep the
information booth staffed with well-trained volunteers. Explain
your child protection policy, and provide parents with a secure
method for retrieving their kids. Provide brochures about your
children’s ministry and contact information. If your church is
small, set up your information booth with a portable cart and a
clipboard. This important touch will inspire confidence in
parents.

At check-in, have teachers and volunteers greet visiting
children and parents, and then share a bit about what kids will be
doing in class.

See Extra Mile #3.


WILL ANYONE TALK TO ME?

Provide first-time visitors with a special ribbon or sticker.
This signals your congregation that the person wearing the ribbon
or sticker is a visitor, and it encourages people to greet them
with a friendly welcome.

See Extra Mile #4.


WILL ANYONE ASSIST MY CHILD?

Assure parents that their children will be well cared for by
assigning an adult “connector” to their children. The connector
introduces visiting children to other kids and to the classroom
activities and routines. Connectors help kids and their parents
feel safe, secure, and valued. They also help kids overcome the
anxiety they feel when they enter a room full of children and
adults they don’t know. For infants and toddlers, the connectors
serve as personal contacts for parents so they can find out how
their child adjusted to the new surroundings.

See Extra Mile #5.


WHAT’S THAT SMELL?

Sights, sounds, and yes, smells are key to making your
children’s ministry a place to remember — for all the right
reasons. Take a walking tour of the rooms you use for your
ministry. What do you smell? If there’s an odor — dirty diapers,
stale food, or mustiness — parents will think twice about leaving
their children in your care. Make certain the nursery and
children’s areas are properly disinfected and tidied. Decorate
areas so they’re bright, cheerful, and inviting.

See Extra Mile #6.


WHAT HAPPENED TO MY CHILD?

Explain your checkout procedure to parents and provide them with
written instructions when they check in. If you normally release
older kids without a parent pick-up, stay with new kids in the
classroom until their parents arrive.

See Extra Mile #7.


WHO’S IN CHARGE?

Many churches provide a reception area where first-time visitors
can meet the pastor or children’s ministry director. Create an area
where first-time visitors can connect with children’s ministry
leaders, ask questions, and get additional information.

See Extra Mile #8.


WILL ANYONE EVEN KNOW WE WERE HERE?

Follow-up is important. It shows visitors that you’re grateful
for their presence and you hope they’ll come back. It also gives
you an incredible opportunity to get feedback and invite them to
return the following week. Consider providing a feedback survey
with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for visitors to respond
with comments about their visit.

See Extra Mile #9.


WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE?

As a simple exercise, re-sensitize yourself to how it feels to
be a first-time visitor by attending a church where no one knows
you. Make notes on what the church does and doesn’t do well. Test
the results against what you see happening at your church and what
you hear in the follow-up with your visitors.

See Extra Mile #10.


The week after Elizabeth and her mom had their frustrating
experience, I checked on them. They’d visited another church. When
they arrived, they were warmly greeted by a woman who personally
took them to Elizabeth’s classroom. The classroom teacher
introduced Elizabeth to another girl named Elizabeth. The two
Elizabeths participated in the classroom activities the remainder
of the day. When I asked Elizabeth to tell me the best part about
her experience, she said, “Somebody knew my name!”

She’s going back to that church.

Children and their parents want a place to belong and feel
accepted. Friendliness isn’t enough. The way you respond during
your visitors’ first eight minutes may determine whether they’ll
decide to call your church home — or not. What will you do?


EXTRA MILES

  1. Reserve visitor parking close to the children’s area and the
    main entrance.
  2. Have parking lot greeters assist visitors into your building.
    Once inside, parking lot greeters can introduce visitors to hallway
    greeters, who can answer specific questions about your
    ministry.
  3. Personally guide visitors to each of their children’s
    classrooms, then direct the parents to an adult Sunday school class
    or worship area.
  4. Imprint the ribbons or stickers with the name, address, and
    service times of your church.
  5. Have kids in each classroom serve as first-time visitor
    ambassadors. As an ambassador, these kids invite visitors to join
    in an activity, sit next to visitors in class, and introduce
    visitors to new friends.
  6. Empty trash cans after each class rather than just at the end
    of the day. Have a volunteer regularly check the bathrooms to see
    that they’re well-stocked and clean. Also, visit other churches and
    classrooms to get decorating ideas.
  7. Send off visitors with the same friendliness you offered when
    they arrived. Most churches do a good job welcoming guests, but
    they don’t give the same personal contact as guests depart.
  8. Serve coffee or doughnuts, and offer parents tours of the
    classrooms and facilities.
  9. Have connectors send a personal note to the child they were
    responsible for, or create a welcome card that the kids in the
    classroom have signed to send.
  10. Find three or four people in your community who are willing to
    be “secret” visitors to your church. Provide them with a checklist
    and have them give feedback about their experiences.

Debi Nixon is the director of Catalyst Ministry at the
Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Please keep in mind
that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to
change.

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