Your church visitor will have an invisible list in their mind. They will use that list to evaluate their visit and it will influence their decision to return.
As a leader of hospitality and welcome ministry, what can you do about that list?
How can you respond or be prepared?
How I Re-discovered the List
Our family moved to a new city where we had no church going friends. In fact, we had no friends at the start.
We wanted to find a church in our new town. It wasn’t easy to be a first time church visitor. After a few mediocre visits to different churches around town, we eventually found a new church development for Spanish speaking immigrants.
This fit our life mission, and would be the fourth new church development our family would be a part of. For two years, we found a spiritual home in that startup congregation.
But due to unforeseen circumstances, the tough decision was made to close this congregation and people dispersed.
Thus, we were once again looking for a church, a spiritual home, a place where we could give our life away in the kingdom of God.
It was time to shop for a church for my family again.
During our church shopping two times in two years, I discovered that we had a list of what we want in a church.
This list is the filter we brought in our quest to find a church where:
- we could give our life away,
- we could give our tithe,
- we could find a community of care, and
- we could serve with volunteer hours.
After we visited the same church for three Sundays (after visiting 5-10 others), I discovered that I had a list that shaped what we evaluated.
Your Church Visitors Have a List
Your church visitor may be a Christian family looking for a new spiritual home because a job transfer brought them to your city.
Your visitor might be a non-believer that hasn’t walked into a church before.
Your church guest might be one who hasn’t been to a church since they were a teenager, but life circumstances have brought them to your door as something familiar and comforting.
No matter their faith background or prior Christian experience, there will be a list.
No matter their background story as to what brought them as a visitor to your church, there will be a list.
Sometimes that list is clear.
In our family, we had a reasonable list of things to look for as we seek what God has for us. Our list was flexible enough to bend to our circumstances and options in this city, but that list was a great opening filter.
Sometimes that list is vague.
Perhaps your visitor had an upbringing in a particular faith tradition and is looking for something similar. Perhaps they are looking for something radically different. Their criteria is not clear, but it is there. They want a similar experience to their past, or something radically different.
Sometimes that list is unspoken or unconscious.
If you were to ask this type of church visitor what they look for in a church, you might get a simple “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.”
But if you ask them about their experience afterward, you will hear their mismatched expectations or a well met expectation. They have made a comparison to something.
Several years ago, I was asked what I looked for in a church when I was asked to coach them. Here was a short list of things I consider as a consultant.
What do you do with the invisible list?
As followers of Christ (who have planted three multi-cultural churches as an associate pastor, served in youth ministry, and involved in cross cultural missions,) we discovered that we had a list that we measured a church against.
Even if we liked our experience at a church, we still ruled out a return visit, if it failed to meet many of those items.
Your visitors will come and go as they seek churches that match some of their criteria.
There is not much that a church can do about the whims of such visitors (and I include myself).
But, you can use your best guesses to help improve your first impressions ministry.
Two examples from my list
1. Sermon Quality.
For our family, sermon quality is a criteria we bring as we visit churches to decide where to invest our life.
We have visited one church three times as part of our process.
In spite of an invasive church greeter that makes me want to use a different entrance door, we have made repeated visits.
The music and congregational singing has been a joy to participate in.
Each sermon we have heard has been intensely practical.
Sermons have featured solid biblical theology, exegetical depth, and a simple structure.
Most of all, each application has been consistently clear. Our family continues the conversation during the week about how to apply the sermon to our own life.
Consistent sermon quality is part of the attractional draw that is on our list.
Knowing that fact about your visitors as part of your evaluation grid should drive continuous improvement in your sermons and preparation.
2. First Impressions are Important
Your first impressions are important.
From the helpfulness of church greeters, to volunteers who smile, to volunteers that ask meaningful questions at the welcome center, to clean bathrooms — all of these play a role in first impressions.
First impressions can help make it a no-brainer to return (see this moving first impressions story).
I discovered these on my list for positive first impressions:
- Do volunteers seem happy to serve?
- Are volunteers excited about their church?
- Do any volunteers notice or detect us as a first time visitors?
When you realize how important first impressions are on the mental checklist your visitor has, you’ll want to minimize the friction of awkward experiences.
You will constantly find ways to help your first time visitor get to their seat and experience your church.
You will constantly look for ways to see hospitality as a ministry and not a chore.
A List Discovery Exercise You Can Do
Next time you are with your volunteers, ask them what they look for in a church. Help them see they have their own list.
See what is on their own lists and then think of ways your church could improve in the areas those lists reveal.
If you lead your church’s welcome ministry, consider this list a valuable help to find ways to improve your ministry.
Watch this church visitor mindset video and use it as a hospitality team discussion starter for your volunteers.
Lessons Learned from our Church Visits
We share some of first time visitor experiences from our 2014 church shopping experiences. You’ll see more evidence of our list in here.