I once walked my church’s property with an owner of a landscaping business trying to get a bid on the cost of cutting the grass. I was busy, as usual, and just wanted the bottom line cost from him. I got much more. He pointed out how trees and bushes could look better and suggested adding fresh flowers by the front door and on and on it went. I was growing impatient when he mentioned something that I found profound. He talked about how important first impressions are. He said how people make instant conclusions about someplace just by their first impressions. His example was of moving to a new town and looking for a neighborhood to live in. As you drive around you almost instantly judge a neighborhood by the outdoor appearance of the houses and their yards. You can quickly conclude whether it is a neighborhood that is thriving or declining just by the first impression. It was an epiphany for me because it just made sense. People make quick and lasting judgments on places like neighborhoods, restaurants, and hotels, based on first impressions all the time. Why wouldn’t they do the same for churches? They do! I realized I had to take the first impressions of the visitors to my church much more seriously.
What are people’s first impressions of your church? When we actually take the mission of the church seriously, go out from the church, build relationships with unbelievers, and get up the nerve to invite them to our church, what will their first impressions be if they come? Based on those first impressions, do you think they would come back? I’m not just talking about the landscaping although that’s a part of it. I’m talking about the signage, the parking lot, the entry way cobwebs that never get cleaned off (a problem in Florida), the greeting they receive when entering – are they even acknowledged, the access to children’s ministry, are the bathrooms clean with plenty of toilet paper, and more! And those are all things to notice before even entering the worship service. Then there is the bulletin they receive, the explanation given to them about how our liturgy goes or are they even given an explanation, are they made to feel welcome regardless of their appearance or are they judged, and more. You could have the best music and sermon with beautifully done communion however, if their first impression is that your church isn’t thriving or they weren’t welcomed, it simply won’t matter. They won’t come back. We need to think through and care about our visitors’ first impressions.
While volunteering with the American Anglican Council at The Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2003 I mentioned to a group of clergy that I was going to be a new rector in two weeks from then. One of them turned to me and advised me that I should write down everything I see that needs to be changed in the first thirty days. He said that after thirty days you become part of the institution and you won’t notice those things anymore. He was so right. I took his advice and addressed issues from that two-page list for the first three years! For most of us who have been in our church for a while, we just don’t see what new people see anymore. We’re part of the institution. We’re focused on our friends or our ministry duties that day or whatever else. Our eyes pass over what visitors see. But visitors do see those things and make quick and lasting judgements based on those first impressions.
So how can we be better at making good first impressions on those who visit our church? How can we communicate a thriving living body of Christ that wants them there instead of a declining place that once was something and isn’t sure what to do when a visitor shows up?
Let me suggest a few ideas to get started:
- Realize that first impressions matter and commit to making improving them for visitors a priority.
- Try to view your church through a visitor’s eyes. Try pretending you are visiting your church for the first time and take in everything you see. As you drive up and park, as you walk toward the entrance, as you enter would you feel welcomed and know where to go, as you approach the children’s space, as you use the bathroom, as you participate in worship. Write down what you see that needs to be addressed.
- Make a plan to address them over time. Small things could be addressed quickly. Bigger things take time.
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” Colossians 4:5 (NIV)
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching at the American Anglican Council.
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