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How NOT to Welcome First Time Visitors

How do we most effectively help first time visitors take small incremental steps towards the goal of finding deep, meaningful connection?

The very first visitors to our moon captured a truth for us all: small steps lead to great good for the whole. Neil Armstrong said it succinctly: “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” To put the idea proverbially, there is great power in small, meaningful steps. Without a successful first step, you will see very little success in the second step.

So, let’s ask the million dollar question: how do we most effectively help first time visitors take small incremental steps towards the goal of finding deep, meaningful connection? Let’s review the crux of the problem. Then we can examine how not to do it. Finally, we will look at 6 things you can do to experience greater success in welcoming these dear guests.

The Crux of the Problem

When someone walks into your church for the first time, you know very little about them. Often, they know just a little more about you, assuming they’ve looked at your website and your key information was easy to find.
They’ve already taken the courageous and vulnerable step of joining you on a Sunday morning. But we know so little about them. Are they born again believers or no? Have they heard the gospel before? Are they coming curious, broken, or both? Has their church history been a kindness to them or a trial for them? Is this the first church they’ve tried or the eighth? And on and on the questions go.
Only one out of three of them will return. That means two thirds of them will not come back. Just half of second-time guests on average come back for another visit. That’s what we’re aiming for: the next visit. We’re not rushing toward membership; we’re looking to make it easy for them to come back.

So, how do we connect with and minister to each one as they walk through our doors? How do we do this effectively without scaring them away? Let’s look at how not to do it first.

How Not to Welcome First Time Visitors: Shock Them and Leave Them Alone

You know your context, so if the “shock-them-and-leave-them-alone” approach is working for you, then don’t change a thing. But that is a rare church indeed. What is this jolting approach?

1. Force Them to Publicly Identify Themselves

Imagine, if you will, being a first-time visitor who has not attended church since mom and dad made them go. He is now 29 and just found out his 5 year old is seriously sick. He has labored and labored and finally decided to try returning to God. He gets up the gumption, sweaty palms and all, and drives to your parking lot. After sitting there for 10 minutes watching scores of strangers enter your building, he gets out and takes the long walk to your front door. He’s just glad he’s made it.

Pastor: “If you’re here with us for the first time, please raise your hand. Church, let’s welcome these people.”

First-time Visitor: Do I raise my hand? I don’t want to raise my hand but the people around me know I’m new here. Will they judge me if I don’t raise my hand? I knew church people were judgmental. I feel more uncomfortable than ever. I should have taken a seat closer to the door. I want to get out of here, but…oh wait…this guy is walking up to me with a packet. He knows I’m new, but I didn’t raise my hand. I guess I’ll take that packet, but I’m never coming back here!

He fills out the card for fear of being judged and ducks out at the end of service.

2. Fail to Execute a Follow Up Plan

After putting him through all of that, just hope he comes back. The silence that flows from the absence of a follow up plan unintentionally communicates his predisposed suspicion: churches don’t care about people anyway.
Our failure to follow up may have lasting effects. Not only may he not come back to your church, but he may choose a book club instead or a support group. Anything but trying church again.
Unfortunately, “Shock Them and Leave Them Alone” is widely utilized. Except for the unique church, visitors returning for a second visit can be attributed more to the kindness of God than to how they’re welcomed by the church.

There’s a Better Way

Of course, we’ve painted a negative scenario above. It’s not always that dramatic or harmful. Perhaps the visitor loves the acknowledgement and sees the gesture as an expression of a friendly church. Perhaps the visitor would prefer not to raise his hand but it’s not the end of the world. Perhaps she just chooses to keep her hand down and is comfortable to risk being judged.
Regardless, the point is the same. This often practiced method of welcoming visitors falls short of acknowledging the varied and unknown condition of the visitors themselves. In fact, there’s no way for us to know the condition of the visitors, and that lack of information ought to inform our methods and our plans.
If the goal is to make it easy for them to come back for a second visit or a third visit, we need better methods and we need better plans.

One Goal to Rule Them All

The overarching goal is to have each visitor become a regular attender, then a member of your church. That goal is not specific enough to be helpful. That goal is necessary but not enough to put into action. We need an actionable goal. We need a goal that is so clear that we’ll know when we reach it.
Let us propose the one actionable goal every church should aim at.
Help each visitor definitively answer the question, “What’s my next step?” after each touch point or interaction. (Read our article on a Journey Map to see the following steps laid out for you.)
As you consider the main touch points you have with guests, simply ask yourself this question: what do I want them to do next? Then, with care and clarity, develop ways to get that information to them. We’ve provided you with six steps to act as a guide for you to use as you seek to welcome your guests more effectively.

Six Steps to Welcoming Church Visitors

The following steps are not intended to be a buffet of ideas but rather a panoramic view of the challenge in front of us. Each should find expression in what you do in your church.
Step #1: “Feeling” Welcome
After a guest has crossed the threshold of your church, help them feel welcome by leveraging a gospel-centered service and a gospel-loving congregation.
A gospel-centered service – Preaching the gospel is a must, of course. But the gospel is not reserved for the sermon alone. It also informs the songs we select, the passion on the faces of the worship team members, how the Scripture is read, and the exuberance of the congregation as they sing. When the gospel informs each element of the service and each party present for the service, the witness of the church, the worship, and the preaching will have its glorious effect on the heart and mind of your visitors. It just will.
A gospel-loving congregation – When your people are infused with gospel hope, they will have the heart of Christ toward any new faces they see. The outgoing ones will naturally look to reach out to these people and make connections. But we can’t rely just on the personality of a select few. We must train our congregation to do more than notice new faces. It is everyone’s job to greet the new faces. This can be done in the 15 minutes prior to and/or the 15 minutes immediately after the service. An invitation to lunch, a question about the person, or even a kind and friendly “hello” can make all the difference in helping people feel welcome. Teach this to your people and call them to it.
Step #2: Variety and Clarity
Remember, people come to your church with lots of different personalities, backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and church experiences. Wherever possible, don’t give them just one way to move toward the church. Provide a variety of ways for them to move toward you and make each way as clear as possible.
Give information and inspire action – Strategically place “New Here” information kiosks at each entrance to the auditorium. This kiosk can be equipped with physical welcome packets as well as a secured iPad that allows them to input their information and receive the entire Welcome Packet digitally. Remember…variety! What information should be included in this Welcome Packet?
  • A brief welcome note from the Senior Pastor
  • A connection roadmap with two clear next actions: fill out a welcome card and visit the guest reception after the service.
  • Something that incentivises them to submit their information such as a gift card to a local coffee shop.
A pulpit welcome – During the service, give a brief welcome from the pulpit. This most easily occurs during an announcement time slot if you already do those. Just don’t have them raise their hands. (See above.) During the announcement, present a slide with a simple URL leading to a digital welcome packet (digitized version of physical packet). Something like: yourchurch.org/new.
Step #3: Collect Guests’ Contact Information
While there are many things you may want to know about a first-time guest, your opening is limited at this time. Don’t overstep. Keep it simple. The most important information for you to attain at this point in your very young relationship with the visitor is their name, email, phone number, and how they heard about you. The purpose of the personal info is obvious; you need it to follow up with them. The purpose of the last piece helps you track the most effective outreaches you do. Increasingly, you’ll find the answer to the last piece is Google.
How do we get this information? – We recommend three ways of getting this information. We find at least one of these three ways to be most effective.
  • Physical welcome card (located in welcome packet)
  • Digital welcome card (offered at the kiosk and the welcome slide during the announcement)
  • Guest reception (held weekly following the service)
Tell them what you’ll do with this information – It’s helpful to let the visitor know what they can expect will be done with the information. People are increasingly reluctant to provide personal information because it is so often abused. They’re right to be wary, but you can put them at ease. Let them know right in the packet or in the guest reception that you simply want a way to follow up with them and enable communication. Once again, providing clarity around what one can expect, as well as being explicitly clear what value that person will gain in handing over their information could help in getting more guests’ contact information.
Step #4: Make Next Step Clear Prior to Leaving on Sunday
We’ve hammered the importance of clarity for next steps. We’re going to do it again. When this visitor leaves your building, what they are expected or invited to do next must be crystal clear. Is there a scheduled meet and greet with church leadership? (See next step for an idea.) Is there an upcoming event they could attend to get another exposure to the church? Do you have a Bridge or Alpha Course you could invite them to?
If they don’t know exactly what to do next, they’ll likely not do it. And that’s the problem. If we’re not clear on what we want them to do, then they won’t be. Do the hard work to achieve clarity on what you want them to do and then make it easy for them to do.
Step #5: Monthly Introductory Lunch
If you don’t already do one, consider launching a monthly introductory lunch right after the service. You would invite any visitors that have never attended one, catching those who have chosen to start attending in the last month or so. This could be led by one or more of the pastors. You could have a personable Deacon carry this responsibility or someone from your outreach team. However, if a non-pastor is leading the event, you should consider one of the pastors at least dropping by for 10-15 minutes to meet those in attendance and share his gratitude and personal welcome.
At the end of this event, they will have met some key leaders in the church as well as others who are in the same boat they’re in. Then, to conclude the event, provide a clear next step for them. This next step serves as something more personal and specific for them than a generic invite to a reception. You could consider things such as attending a specific small group based on location and stage of life, joining a college ministry meeting, having coffee with a pastor or other church leader, or signing up for the next Bridge or Alpha Course. The steps are as varied as the people attending this lunch.
Step #6: Stay Connected between Sundays
With their contact information in hand, stay connected with them in keeping with what is appropriate. Make it brief. Personalize your approach based upon the quality of your interaction with them. Include specifics when you have them. It will demonstrate that you listened to their story when they told it. Consider the following:

Automated email – It is wise to develop an automated email campaign as a follow up from the church for every first-time visitor. (Get Tips here) While this is not necessarily personal, it ensures that some follow up will happen, which is very important after a touch point with a visitor. Consider sending it on a Thursday or Friday and include a direct invitation to attend this coming Sunday.

Personal text after the service – This kind of follow up is very meaningful and can be done by the pastor(s) or whichever of your congregation members happened to be the touch point. Keep in mind that doing so will give them the number of the sending phone, so be wise in how you do this.
Invite to a personal meal – Connect them to a member of your church to have them over for a meal, or meet somewhere neutral for a meal. So much connection can be accomplished over food. We’re designed to connect and celebrate over a meal. You could even develop a meal team whose members are not only personable but are able to keep the big picture (Journey Map) in mind.
The follow up should be specific enough to let them know you care and you listened. Yet, it should not be so heavy and personal that you freak them out and scare them away. Don’t get weird; get purposeful. Remember, you’re not talking about membership; you’re aiming for a next visit.

Conclusion

Remember, the goal in all of this is to help each visitor definitively answer the question, “What’s my next step?” after each touch point or interaction. You pray for the visitors we’ve been talking about. You work hard to make your church a welcoming place. No one needs to convince you to do that. But we need to look at our methods and our plans (or lack thereof) and be purposeful.
We need to assess if what we’re doing will ever get us to the goal we’ve set. And we need to make changes where we find our method or plans wanting.
We can’t convince every visitor to stay. That is between them and the Lord. However, we can do the humble, open-minded, hard work of ensuring we are not the reason they don’t return. When we do this, we will see more and more people coming back for a second, third, fourth, fifth visit. We’ll see more and more people responding to the gospel of Christ and being added to the church. And we’ll get the glorious opportunity of equipping those saints to welcome the next visitor into our midst with love, kindness, and effectiveness.

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