This is the time of year when attendance in many churches is down, due to vacations. But as the vacation season comes to an end, (for us in Baltimore County, that would be this week and next) and especially as the school year gets started, you can be sure of one thing: more guests and first time visitors. They are church shoppers and this is their shopping season (along with the New Year). Sure they’re consumers, but they can be transitioned into regular contributors. Here are three simple steps you can take in terms of their guest experience.
- It must be welcoming.
This is trickier than it sounds. Everybody likes to feel welcomed, but unchurched people coming back to church for the first time do NOT want to be singled out. If your church is big, that’s not necessarily a problem, if you have a small church, it definitely is: visitors stand out. Large or small, don’t, under any circumstances ask guests to stand up, identify themselves, wear a name tag, sit in a special seat, fill out a form. In fact, don’t ask them to do anything.
Greeters should treat everyone with equal graciousness. When a visitor identifies themselves as visiting, then, and only then, should an invitation be extended for information on what’s going on and available services and programs. A brief tour might even be in order. Same in the parking lot: by all means have designated parking for guests, but don’t expect them to make use of it on a first time visit. Its more about creating an environment that communicates warmth and welcome and, at the same time, allows guests to remain anonymous as long as they like.
The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. Many churches try too hard and scare off guests after their first experience.
- It must be about the weekend.
The best way to get visitors to come back next weekend is to make sure they had a great experience last weekend. And that comes down to the music and message (which is what we call the homily). And if they have kids, and their kids have a great experience that can be an even bigger motivator for a return visit. Oftentimes, in fact, it is the children who lobby for a return visit.
- It must be easy and accessible.
Do you make visitors jump through hoops to become connected? When someone wants to get involved or sign up for a small group, do they have to make a special trip to the parish office Monday morning? In our parish office we have very little foot traffic during the week because we make it easy for visitors and parishioners alike to do everything they need before or after weekend Masses. We have a Guest Services Kiosk for guest and visitors and a “Next Steps” Kiosk for parishioners. Getting involved, going deeper, or just learning more is entirely easy and accessible. Long before they ever take their next steps to becoming parishioners, they learn that those steps are easy and accessible.