October 18, 2016

What I Know About the Guest Experience from Church Hunting


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Sometimes I really like being the “new” person.

Last Wednesday it was rainy, my husband was out of town, one son had a cancelled field trip, another son had a cancelled get together with a new friend, and we were generally having a bummer day. We opened the mail to find a “welcome to the neighborhood” free pizza certificate from our local pizza place. A few hours later we had a new favorite.

Days before we had another welcome note with a certificate for free entry into our local high school homecoming football game. We felt noticed. Included. Welcome. Like we were starting to belong. We had an excuse to be somewhere and make it a priority. We’ve become raving fans.

Churches have been more of a challenge.

Week 1

Followed the signs for “VIP/First time guest” parking and ended up at a locked, gated entrance to the church. Many times during the service we were encouraged to do something with our GIG. (No idea what that means.)

Signage matters. Acronyms matter.

Week 2

Arrived early but parking was already a premium. I parked in the rear of the building and wondered the entire time if I was going to get towed or if that parking area was “legal.”

Parking matters.

Week 3

After an amazing opener, service began with 3 minutes to “Discuss these three questions on the screen with three people around you.” I was there alone. Awkward. Or horrifying (even for my extroverted self). Another church had a 60 second timer on the big screen for greeting – longest 60 seconds of my first time here visit.

Your people can chat with their friends before and after the service.

Week 4

Finally made our kids come (we had been alternating and letting kids stay home). Well-meaning children’s volunteer kept trying to hug and get in my 6 year-old son’s face. Please. Save that for kids you know. After two of our kids ended up in service with us, a well-meaning usher informed me that “We have a fantastic children’s program.” Thankfully, she didn’t push as we were all close to tears (and had one crying before we left home, wanting to go back to Georgia to go to church).

First impressions matter. Children’s space matters.

Weeks 5 & 6

Got an awesome postcard for the child who actually went to kids’ ministry. We love good mail. Then got a follow-up letter from attending another church (finally filled out a contact card) – it included a one-line welcome and their statement of faith/statement on “key” issues such as marriage. Felt a little less “Welcome, come check Jesus out” and a little more “Believe what we believe.” On a side note, if your first time visitor wants to know your statement of faith they might  already be a “churched” person and just might drive you crazy if they choose to stay.

Follow-up matters. Belonging matters.

church new guest experiences

I could go on, but you get it. Your church, as amazing and healthy and wonderful as it is, has things that are “weird” to the outsider. Your volunteers are amazing and have a heart to serve. Train, coach, encourage those behaviors you desire. Even the church we loved and our kids ask to go back to has things that would be weird to an outsider. We invited friends; we got nervous hoping everyone was on their game the week they came for the first time.

If you’re going to do something out of the ordinary, explain, but don’t feel the need to “convince.” Thunder sticks to celebrate baptism and baby dedication? Love it! If you’re going to use an acronym, define it! If you’re going to use churchy language… please just stop (after you leave the house of God to be washed in the blood of the lamb).

Is there hope? Sure! Invite a friend or family member who has never been to your church to attend. Offer to buy them lunch or dinner in exchange for all their impressions, observations, questions. If you have things you want to “warn” them about in advance, that’s probably an area of the guest experience you should address. When I was on staff leading youth, I encouraged my student leaders to attend a service or youth group at another church to remember what it felt like to be the “new” person. Encourage your staff to do the same. And hey, if you’ve got the budget, give people gift certificates for free pizza.

Sarah Bouma -

Sarah is a ministry consultant at The Unstuck Group. For more than 12 years, Sarah has focused on leadership training, human resources and organization effectiveness. She has had a breadth of experience with positions at Granger Community Church, the University of Minnesota and the Kellogg Company. She also has experience in local church leadership including staff performance and structure and capital campaigns.

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