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What's the Big Secret?

Here is a paradox: Churches have information that will improve the guest experience and sometimes keep it to themselves.

I have found it true in my First Impressions Ministry church visits: the very information that could make my first-time church visit better in a variety of ways is simply not made accessible to me. And, not because the church doesn’t have the information but because they don’t tell me.

What’s the Big Secret?

I have come to characterize the absurdity like this: they know what they know but I don’t know what they know. Here are some examples as I might address them to the church:

- You know where the restrooms are, but I don’t.

- You know which door I should enter to get into the building, but I don’t.

- You know what all those abbreviations (something like WPACF) you use mean, but I don’t.

- You know where the worship space is at your church, but I don’t.

- You know what time to arrive, but I don’t.

- You know who those people are on the stage, but I don’t.

- You know what acceptable attire is at your church, but I don’t.

- You know what to do with the guest registration card, but I don’t.

- You know if there is guest parking (and where it is), but I don’t.

- You know what you will do with guest information you are requesting, but I don’t.

- You know about how long the worship time will last, but I don’t.

- You know who will be taking care of my children, but I don’t.

- You know if I am even invited (welcome) to your church, but I don’t.

- You know what next steps will be appropriate for me to consider after a first-time visit, but I don’t.

Leaving a guest to guess his way through this first-time-visit-maze keeps the guest unnecessarily off-balance. Too much of such guess-work will tip the scale for the guest toward the unwanted guest conclusion: “this church doesn’t seem to be paying attention; not sure I am welcome here; too hard to connect; I won’t be back.”

Most unfortunate about scenarios such as these is that the information the guest would like to know is readily and plainly available to the church. You (churches) know what you know. Think about it: regular attenders know where the restrooms are. Just like they know what people wear and just like they know where the sanctuary is. But just because you know, does NOT mean the guest knows.

So, again, what is the Big Secret? Is the church intending to keep the guest from knowing where the restrooms are? I have no reason to think so! They just haven’t stopped to think that guests don't instinctively know what regular church attenders have learned by experience.

In most cases, it is not really necessary to create an answer to the questions guests are asking; it is possible the answer is already available. What the church needs to do is SIMPLY share the answer. COMMUNICATE! INFORM! For example: Do you want guests to enter the building at a location most suited to a warm reception and best prepared for guest services? Then tell the guest which door is your Main Entrance. Remember: they won’t know what you know unless you tell them. It may be obvious to church members; it is not obvious to guests. COMMUNICATE! INFORM!

Here are some practical tips toward helping guests know what you know.

  1. IMPROVE YOUR GUEST SENSITIVITIES: It is easy to forget what it is like to be a guest when you are in the same church week after week. One thing forgotten is the guest's search for answers to questions like, “what will I do with my children?”. My suggestion is to rediscover the guests’ plight. Immerse yourself with the guest perspective. Do a walk-through as a guest (from parking lot to pew and all points between). Better yet, visit another church and get the sudden jolt of “not knowing” what you would like (need) to know.

  2. PROVIDE A ONE STOP SHOP FOR ANSWERS ON YOUR WEB SITE: In 8 seconds or less, a potential guest on your church website should be linked to a page specifically for him. It should contain answers in advance of his visit to your church to the questions he is asking; it should be a one-stop-shop offering simple answers for questions like directions, parking, which door, childcare, service times and length, and normal attire. It could also include information about worship styles, church vision and mission, and programming. Information easily accessed online is your friend and turns virtual guests into actual guests.

  3. MAKE SIGNAGE WORK FOR YOU: what I am finding is that church signage is too often small and misplaced. Diminutive signs are a result of thinking, for example, that finding Guest Parking is not that BIG a deal. After all, the church's decision-makers regarding signs know right where Guest Parking is. Right? But, as mentioned, guests don't know just because the decision-makers do. Here’s a tip: make your signs plainly visible, clearly readable, and appropriately messaged for the guest.

  4. COMMUNICATE ON SUNDAY MORNING WITH PINPOINT PRECISION AND DISCIPLINED FREQUENCY: I am finding that guest messaging from the platform is sometimes sloppy and haphazard. It is almost like the presenter has said the same guest-greeting-thing on Sunday morning so many times that it is not taken as seriously as it should be. Sometimes even skipped. Bad move! While the announcement may be nothing new for the speaker and congregation (“We know guests are welcome”), the 45-second welcome and guest registration information is all important for the first-time guest (they don’t know they are welcome). So, make it warm, thoughtful, and clear. Sunday morning guest messaging can’t be glossed over or carelessly presented without a downturn in guest satisfaction and retention.

  5. GET GREETERS IN THE GAME: A well-trained greeter will observe guests making their entrances into the church for the first time and pick up on the body language of the guest that says, “I am new,” “Which way do I go?” “I am a stranger in this crowd.” Picking up on the body language presents the opportunity to offer assistance to the incoming guests. If “where do I take my children?” is the question, the greeter can share the known answer, “I will be glad to escort you right there.”

The key? Determine not to withhold answers. No secrets!

Giving your guests answers to their questions shows that the church is paying attention and is eager for the guest to have a positive experience. Help your guests know what you know and more of them will be inclined to make a return visit.

Your insights are always welcome! Your input may be just the thing a church leader could use to improve their effectiveness in welcoming and retaining first time guests. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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