Here’s why you must answer church visitors’ top-10 questions in the first 10 minutes or all you’ll see is their tail lights as they drive away.
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.
Let’s follow their journey.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
First Impressions are Key
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.
First-Time Church Visitors’ Top 10 Questions
Read on to discover how to answer first-time visitors’ questions so your church makes a great impression.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
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 for 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?
- Reserve visitor parking close to the children’s area and the main entrance.
- 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.
- Personally guide visitors to each of their children’s classrooms, then direct the parents to an adult Sunday school class or worship area.
- Imprint the ribbons or stickers with the name, address, and service times of your church. 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.
- 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. 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.
- Serve coffee or doughnuts, and offer parents tours of the classrooms and facilities.
- 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.
- 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.
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