Recently we had the hallway in our home painted by some professional painters. We were constantly reminded of this each time we left and returned to our house. You see, once we spent enough time in the house our noses got used to the strong smell. We got to where we didn’t even notice it. Then I went out to get the mail and walked back in and “Whoa!”—I was hit with the strong smell of paint once again.
What am I saying? I think most churches have something that stinks to a first-time visitor, but the leadership has been there too long to notice or remember. They’ve lost their fresh perspective, new eyes and as in my case, new nose.
Why does this matter? Because people matter and you’ve only got one chance to make a first impression. You’ve heard it said before, but it’s true: People have made up their mind whether they’re returning to your church long before you stand up to preach.
So what have I learned from my experience? Things like your website, Facebook/Twitter presence and your church’s voicemail when people call after hours or on Saturdays are very important. Potential worshippers check all the above-mentioned before ever visiting your physical church campus.
Once they visit your actual church location, the experience starts in the parking lot. You’ve really got about ten minutes (some say seven) to facilitate and create a welcoming atmosphere or you’ve lost them for good. If you’re happy with the people currently at your church and aren’t interested in reaching any new people, then please stop reading and go back to what you were doing. But if you have a desire to reach more and more people for Christ—changing your community, city and eventually the world—then pay attention.
Put your brightest, sharpest and best looking people on your greeter team. Unfortunately, too many churches have greeters as an afterthought or somewhere you serve if you don’t have any “real” talent. This is wrong on so many levels. The faces I see in your parking lot, your front door, lobby and as I walk into your worship center are the unforgettable impressions that will haunt or help me.
These dear servants will put me at ease, ignore me or give me a bad taste in my mouth. The outcome is truly up to you and how you lead your first impressions/hospitality team. My plea to you is to not take this for granted or dare I say not even factor this in to your weekend experience. To put this another way, “Your music may be amazing, you may preach your best sermon ever, but the usher that just sat me on your front pew has helped me decide that I’ll never return.”
Another often overlooked area is your church’s restrooms. A positive restroom experience goes a long way. I was recently at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama (they’re the fastest growing church in the U.S.) One thing that made a huge impression on me was their stress relief soap located at every sink in all their restrooms (I’m assuming it was in their women’s restroom, too).
One thing to keep in mind if you’re a new or young church meeting in a movie theater or high school is you may have to have your own cleaning crew clean the bathrooms again before people arrive. Have you ever been a boy’s high school or middle school bathroom? Gross!
A lesson that I could write a separate paper on is the smell of your church. I sincerely believe that the sense of smell is the strongest of all our senses. I’ve traveled the country teaching on multisensory worship and engaging the senses in worship. I can have a woman pass by me and get a whiff of her perfume and instantly be transported back to my third grade math teacher’s perfume or my first date. Smells are powerful and potent and very important to your situation. One thing I often talk about is positive and negative smells.
Coffee is a positive smell. Mold is a negative smell. Citrus is a positive smell. Bleach is a negative smell. How your facility smells (again, I refer you to the high school bathroom) is huge when it comes to making a lasting impression. Sometimes people leave in a bad mood or not wanting to return solely based on smell—though they may not be able to put their finger on what they didn’t like. They just know they won’t return.
There are department stores that have spent thousands and millions of dollars studying the science of smell and shopping. There are stores that have machines unseen in the corners of their areas that are pumping out pleasing senses that encourage you to linger, shop and spend more money.
Are we selling shirts or shoes? No. I bring this up to demonstrate how significant something as simple as smell can be. If companies can spend millions to increase sales of clothing, shouldn’t we pay attention, too? We’re trying to reach the lost for Christ and that’s far more important. Overall, the things I look for are hospitality, cleanliness, appearance and a special focus on your main worship experience. I can’t emphasize enough how crucial cleanliness is to making a visitor feel comfortable. Why do we want them to feel comfortable? Because we want them to encounter God. We’re in the business of removing any obstacles or barriers that would hinder one from experiencing the presence of our Living God.
For the same reason that your worship team works on service flow and tries to remove dead time, we as secret shoppers key in on hurdles that one would have to overcome to have a pleasant and positive experience at your church and ultimately to encourage a second visit. Again, if you’re not focused on reaching the people that aren’t currently at your church, a lot of this will seem like a waste of time to you.
Whether you have kids or not, you know without me even having to tell you how important a good children’s ministry is to a healthy and vibrant church. I’m not just talking about fun and lifegiving, I’m talking about safe and secure. The quickest way to make someone uncomfortable during worship and distract a worried father or mother during your message is to have a sloppy and nonassuring check-in experience.
To put it plain and simple: if I’m worried about my child’s safety, I’m not listening to your message and I’m not engaging in your worship. Believe me, I’ve been there before and I got up and walked out of the service to check on my kids.
Important First Steps
Notice we’re not to your worship service, yet. All of this (and I haven’t even gotten into signage and how important that is to a first-time guest) are crucial first steps that you must master if you want guests to make it peacefully to your service and actually have a chance to encounter Christ and hear from God.
So what can you as a church leader do? Encourage, encourage, encourage. Empower, train and vision cast to those that work on your website, answer your church’s phone, serve in your parking lot, nursery, lobby, children’s ministry and yes, the person that came on Saturday to clean the high school bathroom (again).
Everyone wants to make an impact and be a part of something significant. If you can lead, pastor and shepherd your servants to grasp how vital they are to your church’s ministry, you win. If you want, forward this article to them and let them know how crucial they are to accomplishing your mission of reaching people for Christ.
Honestly, if you master everything we’ve covered so far, it doesn’t really matter how you preach. I’m only kidding, but seriously, so much is out of your hands when it comes to making that first impression. You must take locating, training, shepherding, encouraging and empowering these leaders seriously. The best way to find these people in your church is to have some type of growth or discipleship track in place that allows people to discover their gifts.
Many churches have people take the DISC personality profile along with a spiritual gifts test to help people see what they were created to do. Once you identify what someone enjoys and is passionate about, you don’t have to “recruit” them, you simply point them to where they can use their gifts and ultimately be fulfilled and happy in their role of the Body of Christ.
The Worship Service
Having been in worship ministry for over fifteen years, and having taught at countless worship, tech and preaching conferences, I do have a sharp eye for what goes on in the worship service. A good secret shopper can give you feedback on the environment you’ve created in worship, the music, the set, stage, technology (sound, video, graphics and lighting), as well as the message.
Worship should be upbeat (unless it’s Good Friday), relevant and lifegiving. I’d be willing to bet that most people in your community have been to a church before, but were unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their experience. Unfortunately, sometimes you get one shot and then they could never return; that’s why what we’ve covered so far is essential to your mission as church that wants to be obedient to the Great Commission.
I will unapologetically say that your worship experience should be done with excellence. I don’t care if you’re a traditional or contemporary service, emergent or liturgical—have your act together and show you’ve put a lot of prayer, thought, effort and energy into what they have gathered for. I’m speaking to your teaching pastor as much as your worship leader. Often pastors will talk about excellence, but come across unprepared and lifeless.
I recently met with a well known pastor of a well known (mega) church and he said that he watches other well known pastors’ messages and takes notes. He’s constantly learning, growing, stretching and becoming a more effective communicator. He gets “it.” The Gospel is paramount and great care should be given to presenting it clearly and in a compelling way. I’ve seen too many preachers read a manuscript, never looking up. May it never be!
A New Nose. New Eyes. New Ears.
What can a secret shopper or mystery worshipper offer? A new nose. New eyes. New ears. An outside and objective opinion on his or her experience. What can you expect? An honest, “speak the truth in love” opinion. I, personally, try to encourage as well—pointing out things that you and your team are doing right and well. But if you bring in a secret shopper or mystery worshipper, ask them to shoot straight and hold nothing back. For more on this, you can read this article that was in the Wall Street Journal last year on mystery worshippers.
Finally, approach the experience humbly and with a teachable spirit. I say this especially to large churches and megachurch pastors. Often churches see a few thousand people and can easily get a misconception that nothing needs to be changed or fine tuned. Some of a secret shopper’s best work is done at large, “successful” churches that haven’t reevaluated why and what they do in a long, long time.