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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- In the context of serious theological discussions, it may seem trivial to write about first impressions of guests when they visit your church. But if we could understand that a returning guest has more opportunities to hear the Gospel and experience Christian love and fellowship, we might take the issue a bit more seriously.
Prior to assuming the presidency of LifeWay Christian Resources, I led a church consulting company. One of our first steps in the consultation was to send one or more first-time guests to the church. Those individuals would then report back to us on their experiences. Many times those we enlisted were unchurched non-Christians.
As I write this, I am working at home because a handyman is working on several small items around my house. I love his approach. When he first enters our home, he asks for permission to take a quick tour. Within minutes, he commented on several items that might need his attention, items that weren't on the list I gave him. I appreciated his thoroughness, and it was good for his business as well.
The handyman did something very basic and very simple. He looked at my house through outside eyes. I am in my house every day, so I don't notice those things that may not be just right. The same is true for church members and church leaders. They see their church on an ongoing basis, so they don't have the benefit of outside eyes.
WHAT THEY SEE
After two decades of church consultation, a clear pattern emerged. These were the areas that engendered more comments and concerns from first-time guests. These areas are listed in order of frequency of response, and they deal only with physical facilities.
-- The women's restrooms. Almost 100 percent of the female guests we retained addressed this issue. They noticed first and foremost the cleanliness of the restrooms. Then they noticed the convenience of getting to the restrooms. Finally, they noticed the capacity of the restrooms. Did they have to wait in line?
-- The preschool and nursery area. This area was a focus of near unanimity of young families. Is the area secure? Is it clean? How do I know someone else won't pick up my child? Do the workers appear concerned and qualified?
-- Parking. Guests often commented on the difficulty or ease of finding a parking spot. Was there a covered drop off if the weather was bad? Were there guest parking spots? Were there reserved places for young mothers and expectant mothers? Were there sufficient handicapped parking places?
-- Signage and information. Recently my wife and I were in a mall we had never visited. The first thing we did was go to a sign that had all the stores and their locations on it. Even small churches can be intimidating to first-time guests. Do you have adequate signage throughout the facilities? Is there an obvious information booth or table? Members know where to go; guests don't.
-- Worship seating. First-time guests desire to find a place to sit as quickly as possible. They feel awkward otherwise. Is your worship center more than 80 percent full? If so, the guests perceive it is completely full. Are your members trained to move to the middle of pews or seat rows so guests don't have to climb over them? Are their ushers or greeters available to lead guests to seats?
IT IS IMPORTANT
When a guest has a good experience, he or she is more likely to return. When they return they are more likely to hear about and experience the love of Christ.
When I was a pastor of a church with 70 in worship attendance, we decided to do something about our deplorable restrooms. We had a workday and almost half the church showed up. People donated materials, labor and even toilets. At the end of the day, we had some of the nicest and cleanest restrooms in town.
I don't know how closely it's related, but our attendance bumped up to 90 immediately and never went back in my tenure. Maybe it was the church working together. Maybe it was the community observing the unity of the church. Or maybe we just had clean restrooms.
It is that important.
Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. This column first appeared on his website, www.ThomRainer.com
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