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For the past few months, I have been able to be something that as a pastor I rarely get to experience. For four months I have been able to be a visitor at church. I have always been on staff and had a crucial role to fulfill on Sundays, but now that we are preparing to plant Greenville Community Church here in Greenville, SC, I have had the pleasure of being able to drop in and learn from other churches.

From our experience in this season of ministry, we have found that most churches are working hard to be ready to welcome guests. Not every church we have attended has had a great guest services team but each of the churches we have checked out has made it a priority. It’s encouraging to see churches strive to be ready for new faces to join them. I’m thrilled that churches are taking the guest experience seriously because it’s a critical element if a church hopes to reach and retain new people.

As visitors, we have learned some lessons that we will make a priority as we launch our new church. Here is what we have found has mattered the most as we have visited churches…

  1. Your website gives a critical 1st impression. > We have learned so much about churches we are planning to visit by simply checking out their websites, and we have even decided not to visit churches because of the website. The truth is, the design and content of your website provide an important view into your church before anyone shows up for your service.
  2. Your social media helps me see what you are about. > Social media for a church is also sharing a story and most churches are using it as a glorified announcement board. Before we visit, we have checked out the social media outlets to learn if it’s a priority to the church and what message they are sharing through the different platforms.
  3. Parking volunteers can help or hurt…choose wisely if you use them. > We have visited churches with and without parking lot teams. Here is my advice. If you are going to use a parking lot team make sure and put connectors out there. Don’t use a parking lot team if you are going to put grumpy or indifferent people in that area. We have seen this at several churches and it does not set the tone well. If you use a parking team then make it a priority.
  4. Signage really is a big deal. > If your signage is bad my experience will be bad because I am new. Clear, well designed, helpful signage is a must.
  5. Coffee is important. > Make sure it’s high quality, easily available, and served in a good cup. There is something welcoming and community-building wrapped around serving coffee so make sure it’s done well.
  6. Check-in volunteers for families can make or break a family’s first visit. > Helping kids get checked into their ministry area is already stressful and the people you staff in family guest services set the tone for your entire family ministry. Make sure those areas are staffed with your most helpful and caring leaders.
  7. Quality hosting and direction from the worship leader is very important. > Stage hosts and worship leaders who communicate well from stage help visitors understand the culture of the church. Hosts and worship leaders who communicate poorly (too long, random, insider talk, or “used care salesman-ish” tone) from stage make visitors want to run for the car.
  8. Whatever you print to give away make sure it’s excellent and helpful. > If you are going to have pieces you give out on Sundays please make sure they look good and have the correct information.
  9. Don’t force greeting time in the service. > If you use a “turn around and tell your neighbor hello” moment please explain why and set it up so it’s easier for introverts. Please do not feel that you have to do this every week. I’m an extrovert and it’s still odd at times. It helps when the time of greeting is led well and timed well, we don’t need 10 minutes to mingle.
  10. Work hard to make the sound and lighting engaging and not distracting. > The goal of sound and lighting is to help the experience not detract from it. Sound and lighting are important factors to visitors so put effort into making it great. This has nothing to do with the style of service. Make sure sound and lighting are great so you don’t distract the visitor from the message in whatever style of service you create.
  11. The quality of the communicator is critical. > It’s really the most important factor for visitors and it’s already been proven by research over the years. Preaching/teaching really does matter so make sure your communicators are empowered, trained, and equipped to make the message great.
  12. Be clear about how people can connect and get questions answered after service. > Every week, no matter what, engage visitors from the stage and let them know how they can take the next step. Where is the info center, guest center, connection table, or whatever you call it! Talk to visitors and let them know how to connect and ask questions.
  13. Choose pre and post service music carefully and have it ready to go. > The music you choose pre and post service is sending a message. Choose well and make sure the volume is right!
  14. Greeters and door hosts matter as much after as before service. > It’s easy to get confused in a new space so having people in place to help and connect after the service is a real bonus.
  15. You can’t fake authentic joy and community. > It’s been easy to see when people are serving out of obligation and when people really love their church as we have visited. This is a leadership culture issue and it’s easy to diagnose when visiting churches. You, as the leader, have to make the visitor experience everyone fights for.