This month, our church is completing an overhaul of our assimilation system. We are evaluating and improving everything that first-time guests experience from the moment they drive their car onto our parking lot to the point when they call our church “home.” To be honest, I didn’t think it would be this hard–although the hardest part isn’t what you’d expect. The hardest part hasn’t been the large numbers of volunteers we need to recruit and train, asking for a substantial budget increase, or moving where the offering is in our service (gasp!) in order to give people a better chance to fill out their connection card.
The hardest part has been learning to view a first-time visit to our church through the eyes of someone who doesn’t yet know Jesus and isn’t familiar with church.
As we thought about how we’ve welcomed and tried to connect with first-time guests, it became clear that we’ve looked at our assimilation process only through our own eyes: the eyes of Christ-followers who have been around church awhile. The result was a process that was confusing and even intimidating to people who perhaps haven’t ever been a part of a church. We were expecting guests at our church, but our assimilation system communicated that the guests we were expecting were those who were familiar with church, rather than unchurched folks who might not have a relationship with Jesus.
When our churches are confusing or hard-to-figure-out, we aren’t being good stewards of the first-time guests that God sends us. It doesn’t matter how friendly your church is (or how friendly you think you are); without a simple system for helping unchurched first-time guests get connected, most of the unchurched individuals and families who walk into your church probably won’t come back for a return visit. So, how can our churches be prepared for first-time guests who aren’t familiar with church?
Lose the insider lingo. Church signs that have ministry names only church veterans could figure out communicate to unchurched guests that they are definitely not part of the in-crowd. In addition, anyone speaking from up-front in the auditorium–whether during the welcome, announcements, or the sermon–need to assume they are talking to people who aren’t familiar with their church, the service, or even the Bible.
Allow for anonymity. Most unchurched guests who visit your church have some degree of anxiety about attending church for the first time. The last thing they want is to be asked to stand up and introduce themselves in the middle of announcements. Some first-time guests will want to meet you, visit your information kiosk, or be introduced to a few people. Many, however, simply want to slip into the service and leave quickly after. By all means, be kind, be helpful, but respect their desire to be relatively unknown.
But don’t ignore your guests. The last thing you want for unchurched guests when they visit your church is to let them wander through your halls without so much as a “Hello” from anyone, let alone some help in finding their way. If you ignored a guest in your home during the first fifteen minutes they were there, they likely wouldn’t accept a return invitation. The same is true with unchurched guests at your church.
Let them know you know they’re there (and that you’re glad about it). Unchurched first-time guests will often feel out of place, even if you’ve done a great job greeting them and making it easy for them to find their way. During the service, make it clear that you expect guests every week and that they’re a welcome part of your church. This can be done not just during the welcome or announcements, but during the message as well.
Thank first-time guests for joining you. For an unchurched individual or family to visit your church may have been a big step that involved a bit of anxiety or required a lot of trust. Properly thank guests for joining you with some sort of gift and a follow-up note. This year, we will experiment with a gift table that offers guests a complementary copy of A Search for the Spiritual by James White (we don’t require guests to visit our information kiosk in order to get a book, we just let them take one. See “Allow for anonymity” above). In addition, guests who are kind enough to give us their contact information receive a thank you note from our pastor that includes a $5 gift card to a popular local bakery a few days after their visit.
What are other ways we can prepare our churches to be ready for unchurched guests?