A Visitor’s Experience: The First 5 Minutes

A Visitor’s Experience: The First 5 Minutes
Judith Watkins

We watched his tail lights pull out of the driveway. It was a crowded Sunday just before Christmas, but as the car left our church’s lot we sorrowfully realized he wasn’t just turning around, he was leaving because he couldn’t find a place to park. It was too late to direct him to the overflow lot. And it was too late to motion him into a makeshift spot or tell him about the great musical he would have heard this morning. It had been only one or two minutes – but we had lost our chance to touch this man’s life… all because of a crowded parking lot.

For most of us it’s been a long time since we put ourselves in the place of a visitor. After a church becomes so familiar it’s hard to even remember how intimidating it can be to walk onto the campus of a new church. “Am I early?” “Am I late?” “Will my children be comfortable and safe?” “Will I know what to do in the service?” “Will there be people here like me?”

While it is difficult to quantify, outreach experts believe that visitors may determine whether they will return to a church based on the experience they have in the first five minutes. This is before they hear the wonderful praise band, see the multi-media, or experience your moving sermon. Does anything stand in the way of guests having a positive experience at your church? Evaluate the first five minutes of your visitor experience.

1. Direction Dilemma? Approach your church from all possible directions. Are your signs clear and inviting? Is it easy to know where to park? Or, even better, is there special parking for guests? Once you’ve parked, is it easy to spot the worship center and the children’s classes?

2. Kid Confusion? It cannot be stressed enough that a clean, safe, positive children’s experience can be the key to a family’s future involvement in your church. Because children’s programs vary from church to church, it’s important to communicate to a visitor where their children should go and when. Do the kids stay for the service, or go right to Sunday School? If they stay for the service, do they stay the entire time? What about babies—can they come to the service? It’s essential to have clear direction on your policies regarding children. Some other questions to consider: How clearly are your instructions and classrooms identified? How are the children welcomed?

3. Great Greeters! Evaluate your greeter team. Do they represent different age groups & ethnicities? Are they positioned at every possible approach? Are they very knowledgeable about the various classes and resources of the church? Are they really focused on visitors, or are they just talking to their own friends as they arrive?

4. Visual Advantage. As much as we would like to believe differently, there is no denying that our first impression of a church is often based on a visual assessment. Are there signs? If so, are they attractive and professional, or homemade and shabby? Are they purely informational or do they add to the visual identity of the church? Is the lobby cluttered with old literature and miscellaneous junk, or is it attractive and inviting?

5. Information Station. Finally, what will someone’s impression be of your bulletin, brochures and information area? Often visitors arrive early and have lots of time to collect and evaluate your church’s brochures and other informational material. Are these materials attractive and well written? Is the information designed to help visitors connect with ministries and future involvement? Are the contacts clear and current? Will guests know what to expect in the service? Quality printed materials will be retained and referenced by guests when they consider returning to your church. Make sure your printed materials are a help and not a hindrance to future ministry and return visits. Idea: Ask a friend from another church or, better yet, a non-Christian neighbor to give you an honest evaluation of your church’s visitor experience.

Article excerpted from the Winter 2001 issue of Outreach Magazine.