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Improving Your Welcome

By Charles Am

Three months ago my family and I moved to a new house and neighborhood. We have since visited a number of churches in search of a new place to worship. This experience has reminded me of how other newcomers must feel as they contemplate finding a church. New faces … new places … new spaces. The truth is, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

Here are a few simple — but significant ways — your church can increase the warmth of its welcome; and, as a result, increase the number of first-time visitors who return … and eventually stay.

For Starters

Don’t call them “visitors.” According to Webster’s, a visitor is “a person who resides temporarily: one who goes or comes to inspect: one who makes a short stay at a place for a particular purpose.” May I suggest you instead use the word “guest — a person welcomed into one’s house: a person to whom hospitality is extended; a person held in honor who is due special courtesies.”

While you are considering vocabulary, why not stop being a “greeter — one who meets or extends welcome in a specified manner; one who gives a formal salutation at a meeting,” and become a “host — one who receives or entertains socially; one who opens his or her home for a special event: one who takes particular care and concern that guests are well accommodated.” The new terms will affect the outlook of everyone in your church who is concerned with extending hospitality to those who truly are guests in God’s house.

First Impressions

Parking lot hosts. Deploy ateam of your members to greet and welcome folks the moment they step out of their cars. Or, if it’s raining, parking lot hosts should have umbrellas ready before guests step out of their cars. These hosts can greet everyone coming to church, but should pay particular attention to the guest parking area. (You do have a guest parking area, don’t you?) A warm welcome should be extended and an inquiry made as to special needs or questions guests may have. Parking lot hosts may accompany guests into the building and introduce them to the host at the welcome center. (You do have a welcome center, don’t you?)

Celebration balloons. It’s common to see strings of helium-filled balloons attracting your attention to RV sales and used car lots. Does your church have something to celebrate? Why not get folks into the mood with columns of colorful balloons reaching heavenward? How about a great arch of balloons leading into the building? “It is appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32). It’s celebration time!

Piped-out music. Install anumber of strategically placed outdoor speakers welcoming people to God’s house with Christian music. If your church has a recording of your own worship band or musical group, use it. Otherwise, there’s lots of great Christian music available.

Second impressions

Direction signs. You can’t have too many signs on the church property. If your campus has more than one building, the name of each should be clearly visible. Direction signs should he at every major intersection, in and outside the church. Identification signs should he on every inside door (including closets and storage). Children’s classrooms should he marked with age grade level. Adult classrooms should note the topic, age group, and time of meeting. Restrooms, nursery, chapel, fellowship hall, library, and worship center should all be identified with conforming and attractive signs.

Welcome center support hosts. Many churches have a person or two working inside a welcome center kiosk. That’s good. But move from a good welcome to a great welcome by also stationing hosts in frontof the kiosk where guests will be standing. Those answering questions inside the kiosk may call on welcome center support hosts to escort guests to a particular location in the church (i.e. nursery, classroom, sanctuary, etc.), or simply make a social hand off of the newcomer for a more casual conversation with a church member. Such hosts engage the guests in friendly conversation and may introduce them to others in the fellowship area.

Guest information packet. Every church needs an attractive packet prepared specifically for newcomers. The basic questions your guests are asking should be answered in this kit. They are: “What kind of ministries are going on in this church?” [The more the better.] “Is there a place for my kids?” [If not, nothing else matters.] “How can I learn more about this church?” [See “Church Tour” below.] One of the best ways to answer these questions is with a video brochure. This is a well-produced 8 to 10 minute introduction to the church with words from the pastor, staff, and some new members. A gift for guests is also a nice touch: coffee mugs, fresh baked bread, complimentary Bibles and CDs, donuts and cappuccino at the snack bar, even free $30 polo shirts with a Christian symbol on the front.

All are nice touches.

Class hosts. Every adult, youth, and children’s class should have at least one host. Their task is to look for newcomers, welcome them, introduce them to others, sit with them, and generally be sensitive to their comfort and needs. Hosts may be the same throughout the year or vary from week to week.

In the Service

Worship center hosts. Don’t stop being a good host at the Welcome Center. If your sanctuary/worship center is a bustle of activity before the service begins, why not ask some of your members to host a predetermined area of seats? When newcomers sit down, a good worship center host will briefly stop and welcome them to the church. If there will be any special activities in the service that might need explanation, it’s a good chance for a heads up. In some liturgical churches the host might offer to sit with the newcomer if they would like coaching through unfamiliar parts.

Pastor’s welcome. During the service I like to hear someone from the platform tell me they are glad I’m here. Not personally, of course. No one likes to be singled out in public. But when the pastor spends valuable time in the service telling me that I’m valued by the church, it makes a big difference. And it’s more than just, “If you’re visiting today, welcome.” It means explaining a little about the church, what a wonderful place it is, how great the people are, and why the benefit of getting involved is worth the price of my anticipated anxiety.

A time of greeting. Many churches include a moment during the service to shake hands and greet those around them. This is either a good idea or a bad idea — depending on what happens after the service. It’s good if folks continue their initial conversation with the guest. It’s bad if they pretend nothing ever happened and beat a hasty path to the exit. If your people are naturally congenial with newcomers, then a greeting time in the service is great. If not, try the following idea.

After the Service

After-service hosts. Our research reveals three insights about church visitors:

  1. Friendliness of the people is the most important thing newcomers are looking for in their visit.
  2. Friendliness is assessed on the simple basis of how man people talk to them.
  3. The most important time for such friendly talk is immediately followingthe service.

After-service hosts are responsible for making a beeline to newcomers after the service to welcome them, walk with them to the coffee table, introduce them to others, and invite them back. A variation of this strategy in one church we visited, was when the pastor reminded the congregation of their “3 minute rule” — no one could talk to anyone they knew during the first 3 minutes following the service. It worked for us. We met a wonderful person who had been attending for the past year. Our conversation lasted over 15 minutes. And we’ll look for her friendly face when we return.

Church tour. Newcomers are hesitant to wander around a new church uninvited, even though they’d like to. Why not offer a short tour of the facilities after each service? Such a tour is a low-commitment, limited-time, high-information event for anyone interested in learning more about your church. The tour leader guides the group through various halls and rooms, explaining what activities take place there throughout the week. It’s natural for guests to ask questions about various ministries or upcoming events. And it’s a much easier next step for newcomers who are interested in learning more, but not ready to sign up for a membership class.

Follow-up contact. It’s standard procedure for pastors to send a “thank you for visiting letter.” We received nice ones from every church we attended. But following our second visit to several of those churches, we received nothing. In the typical (nongrowing) church, 9 percent of all first time visitors join the following year. But among second-timevisitors (those who visit twice within a 6-week period), 17 percent join. And third-timeguests unite at a rate of 36 percent in the ensuing year. The pattern is similar, but improved, for growing churches: 21 percent of first-timers; 38 percent of second-timers, and 57 percent of third-timers return and join the church they visited. The insight is clear: the more often they visit, the more likely they stay. Thus, a unique follow-up strategy for second time guests is like planting seeds in good soil. Following up third-timers is like bringing in a ripe harvest.

Conclusion

Your church probably can’t implement all of these ideas. Nor should you try. But circulate this list among your leaders and new members and see if they resonate to any of them. Get a group together and brainstorm how some of the ideas might work in your church. Set a target date to have the plan in place. Then begin.

After you’ve successfully implemented one idea, find another and consider how it might work. While more than just an outside music speaker or an inside classroom host is needed to see newcomers become active members, such new ideas will raise the awareness level of your members to the importance of welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable in your church home. The newcomers who enter your front doors are the ones Christ wants you to welcome in the same way he would do so. himself. After all, we are the temporary caretakers of His house until He comes to take us to His eternal home. And then we’ll findout what a real first-time welcome is like.

Charles Arn is president of Church Growth, Inc, Monrovia, California. He is featured in the new “How to Assimilate Newcomers Into Your Church,” a 6-hour seminar on audiocassette. A free brochure is available by calling 800-844-9286.

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