Welcoming and retaining your visitors
No matter how many visitors your church attracts during the year, you want them to return. You want to retain those visitors.
Studies indicate that of those who visit a church once, 10 percent eventually become members. If they visit three times, they are nearly as likely to become members as they are to move on to another church. That seems to indicate that you have a maximum of three opportunities to bond with them. So, you must prepare to have them return.
How do you and your congregation make such preparations? The suggestions outlined here are guidelines any congregation can follow. They will introduce your congregation— its members, programs, and ministries—positively to the unchurched seekers of your neighborhood and to those who have chosen to visit.
1. Create an attractive introduction to your church. Announcing the sermon title and time of worship services on a signboard in front of the church building does not constitute a sufficient introduction. Signboards were made for a time when people lived in the neighborhood and walked to church. Today, people often drive a long distance to attend a church, and listings on signboards are not made for people who drive past your facility at a moderate speed of 45 miles per hour.
A person’s first contact with a congregation after moving to a new home would likely be the telephone directory’s advertising section (Yellow Pages) or the church’s Internet Web site. It makes sense, then, to have your information properly and attractively displayed in an ad or through an eye-catching Web site. (For help in designing your church’s Web site, see the sidebar.)
2. Make the first impressions the best impressions. Most members don’t notice what visitors notice. The surroundings, style of worship, how people relate to each other, and the condition of the facility have all become too familiar for long-time members. But for first-time visitors, everything makes an impression. Sometimes, when first impressions and encounters are not inviting, guests decide to move on.
Guests don’t arrive at your front door anticipating a negative reaction. They arrive expecting to experience something positive. When they arrive in the parking lot, they will notice whether or not the lawn has been mowed or if the paint is peeling from the building or if windows are broken. The guest may ask the question, “If they can’t care for their physical property, can they care for my spiritual life?”
Visitors will notice if your congregation takes pride in its place of worship. A good first impression, even on such a superficial basis, invites the guest to take a closer look. If the grounds communicate “we care,” the visitor can assume that these people are proud of their congregation, and therefore, are enthusiastic about their shared spiritual life.
3. Make sure that visitors are recognized and appreciated. When guests enter the building (possibly even before they enter) the members of the church make the next and most important impression. At this point, people really decide whether or not to return again.
To arrive at a worship service as a visitor is difficult for some people. I remember the greeting I received one morning at a church I was visiting while vacationing. On that day no one spoke to me. I surmised that if I were looking for a church home I likely would not return. That incident was so similar to an earlier time in my life, a day when I was looking for a church home after moving to a new community to do graduate studies. I attended a church where I thought I would be recognized by professors and staff as one of the students of their institution of higher learning. What I received that morning was a complete lack of recognition or acknowledgment of my presence. The following week, I attended another congregation where I was warmly greeted. Which congregation do you think I chose to join?
As a pastor who has been accustomed to long pastorates of ten years or more, I found it easy to forget that lesson. My life, however, changed in more recent years as a full-time interim minister and, then, as a retiree who attends a variety of congregations regularly.
In some churches, I get a smile or a head nod but nothing more. In others, people say, “Hello,” or “Nice to have you here today.” Seldom does anyone ask my name or my reason for attending their church that morning. Rarely does anyone guide me to other people or through the order of worship.
So imagine my surprise when I encountered a church where I was showered with surprise after surprise. At the door, the deacon greeted me with a friendly “Hello. My name is George.” He thanked me for choosing to come to their church that morning. George was forthright enough to say that he didn’t recognize me, and he asked my name.
As we talked, a woman approached us. She introduced herself as Kelli. She also asked my name. The two of them stopped someone who was walking past and introduced me. I’d hardly entered the front door and already I knew three people. George and Kelli handed me off to this last person, and he walked with me into the worship area and asked me to sit with him. I suspect that George and Kelli returned to the church lobby, looking for another new face.
When we sat down, the man introduced me by name to the people in front and behind us. He helped me to move with ease through an unfamiliar worship service. After worship, he took me to the fellowship hall for a hot drink and introduced me to the minister. I feel confident that all of this didn’t just happen. I suspect that the interplay was well planned and executed behind the scenes.
By the time I left, I felt wanted. Remember, Jesus intended evangelism to be by personal contact and inclusion.
4. Make your visitors feel that they are wanted. People may visit a church for the first time because of its location, attractive Web site, inviting and attractive facilities, lots of growth opportunities, or a vibrant worship service. But they will return only if they feel wanted.
With people moving so frequently, they often find themselves in the process of searching for that place where they can find a sense of belonging. Every visitor is searching. Every guest is looking for his or her place.
To have those official greeters at the doors is essential. More important, however, is the unofficial greeter, the worshiper who introduces himself to the visitor. I felt more at home and more comfortable because George and Kelli didn’t appear to have an obviously assigned job of greeting me. These “unofficial” folks made me realize that I was noticed. I was attracted by their thoughtfulness.
I’ve rediscovered what it means to be a visitor who arrives at a new congregation, a visitor with uncertainties. This may be a time of stress because of the unfamiliar or a sense of being an outsider, unaware of the traditions, values, history of the congregation, and relationships that already exist there. Under these conditions, a visitor looks for a church where they will feel wanted and welcomed.
5. Be hospitable. Most congregations pride themselves as being a friendly church, but Jesus calls us to be more than friendly. Jesus calls us to be hospitable. Hospitality means more than an invitation to a fellowship lunch. Hospitality means the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, and generous manner.
Jesus did not wait for people to come to Him. He made every effort to go out and meet them and their needs; He approached the people. The discussion with the woman at the Samaritan well, the encounter with Zacchaeus, the interview with Nicodemus, and many other instances teach us that Jesus was deeply interested in people. That’s what made His ministry unique. Likewise, church members who want to share their faith and ministry with visitors must first provide an inviting atmosphere, recognize and appreciate the visitors, and treat them with a spirit of Christian love and grace. Christ’s grace is sufficient to meet the needs of those searching for something deeper in life.
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