Mon. Mar 8th, 2021

Impressed by First Impressions
By Thom S. Rainer

I love churches. For many years I have been a consultant to churches: newer churches, older churches, traditional churches, contemporary churches, growing churches and declining churches.

Do you know what almost all of these churches have in common? They think they are friendly churches. I can walk into a worship service at one of these churches and no one will speak to me. Maybe someone will give me a perfunctory hello and a handshake, but he or she will not engage me in any meaningful conversation. Their greetings are more obligatory than expressions of care and concern.

Just a year ago, I provided a consultation for a church with about 700 in attendance. The church is located in a southern state and has a reputation of being a pretty good church in its region. A slight but steady decline in the church’s attendance prompted a call to me. The leaders wondered, “What could be wrong with our church?”

The consultation included an observation of the morning worship service. I intentionally arrived about five minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. The most conspicuous parking lot was full, and there were no clear markers or signs for additional parking. I finally found a spot in a more distant lot. When I got out of the car, I noticed the parking lot had numerous cracks with grass growing in them. Two huge potholes were within ten feet of my parking space. And the striping in the lot was faded almost to the point of invisibility.

I made my way toward the sanctuary though no one was available to offer directions or greetings. Upon entering the foyer of the sanctuary, I was half-heartedly greeted by five men whose average age I estimated to be in the 70s. One of them pushed a church bulletin toward me without saying a word.

Upon entering the sanctuary, I immediately discovered that all of the back rows and middle rows were filled. The first available seating appeared to be on the fourth row from the front. I made my way uncomfortably toward the unoccupied seat, sensing that 1,400 eyes were watching my every move.

The church did have a greeting time for guests. The pastor informed us alien beings to remain seated while the rest of the real people stood and greeted us. To be fair, several people did at least acknowledge my presence. But the view 1 had while seated and others were standing was not the most scenic! When the time of greeting was over, the real people returned to be with their own kind while no one dared sit within six feet of me.

I finally took the time to observe the facility in which 1 worshiped. Circa 1974 would be my guess at the decor.

I have a tolerance for a wide range of music styles. I love many of the old hymns but enjoy most contemporary music as well. The music in this church, however, was too traditional to reach the younger families the demographics indicated. But the problem was not just that the music was too traditional; it was slow, dirge-like, bad-quality traditional music.

The sermon was pretty good, consisting of solid exposition of the text with a contemporary application. No complaints there.

At the end of the service I approached others to attempt conversation, but most of the individuals were already engaged in conversations with people they knew. Oh well, I thought, it’s’ time to leave. So I made the trek to the distant parking lot without a word spoken to me.

Upon returning to my hotel, I reviewed my notes from the interviews conducted the day before with some 15 church members. The most common remark given to me by those members? “We’re the friendliest church in town!”

The church I visited obviously needed work. The members seemed to have little awareness of visitors or guests in their midst. They did things the way they had always done them and wondered why they were not growing.

Some churches, on the other hand, have taken seeker friendliness to another extreme. Fearful that factual biblical teaching will offend the scripturally uninitiated, the message is compromised and the method becomes sovereign. Such churches have a consumer-driven mentality. A church that totally disregards the needs of the unchurched will reach few if any for the kingdom. But a church that makes most of its decisions based on the perceived needs of the same group is in danger of losing its biblical identity. I wish I knew the perfect balance.

For most of the generations born before 1950, church is a place where you serve, sacrifice and give. For most of the generations born after 1950, the question is not “What can I do to serve the church?” but “What has the church done for me lately?”

The struggle with consumerism for church leaders is the need to know where to draw the line. Certainly the friendliness of church members is a “consumer-friendly” factor that any church should encourage. And basic cleanliness of facilities should not be an issue of debate. Even physical facility improvements that provide comfort to members and guests are not inherently wrong. Not many churchgoers in the South are debating the value of air conditioning. But how far should such comforts go? How much of a
church’s budget should be spent on comfort and aesthetics when it could otherwise be used directly for missions and evangelism? What level of capital commitment should be expended on a state-of-the art preschool facility in order to attract young families?

Since we do live in a consumer-driven nation, no church is immune from the harsh realities of dealing with a culture that views congregations from a consumer mind-set. What adjustments do we make to accommodate this culture? Where indeed do we draw the line?

At times it seemed as though our research into the world of the unchurched raised more questions than provided answers. The unchurched were very clear that certain issues of friendliness, cleanliness and comfort did affect their decision making process in choosing a church. And from their perspective, some of these issues had eternal consequences. Join me in the next two articles as we learn more from the unchurched about the importance of first impressions.

Taking a second look

“I am a thirty-two-year-old divorcee,” Gina said. “Divorcee” hung in the air with uncertainty. You could tell that Gina was intensely uncomfortable using the word. She was one of the unchurched we interviewed to understand what led her to join a church.
“I was on the top of the world just two years ago,” she said. “Mike and I finally had a child. The best days were ahead.”

We asked her how she found Lakeview Community Church. “The story is pretty simple,” Gina responded. “After Mike left me, I started looking for a church. I asked a lot of people where I could find a church that would take care of Elizabeth. I wasn’t about to put my two year-old in an unsafe, unsanitary and uncaring place. Lots of people told me to check out Lakeview.”

Gina made the eight-mile journey to Lakeview with trepidation. “Elizabeth is my whole world now. I wanted her to be raised in a religious setting, but I was scared to death.”

Her fears proved unfounded. “I was really impressed that they had designated parking for single moms. There were signs that pointed me right to the Wee Care wing at the church. And the moment I entered the building, people were greeting us and helping us,” she continued.

“You should see this place. It’s cleaner than Disneyland! And it’s every bit as attractive as Disneyland. Elizabeth was so excited she tried to run from me to get to one of the rooms with a bunch of toys. And I had thought she would scream when I left!” she said, laughing.

The safety of the preschool ministry really impressed Gina. They required her to complete a form asking questions about Elizabeth’s health, allergies and personal preferences. “Then they gave me a personal pager. I really couldn’t believe that I was in a church,” she exclaimed.

The adults in the worship service were very friendly. The music was contemporary and upbeat. The pastor preached a biblical and relevant message. And when Gina picked up Elizabeth, she found a happy and content two-year-old.

“I was hooked. For the first time since the divorce 1 began to see a glimmer of hope,” she told us.

Gina would soon become a follower of Christ. We asked her when she became a Christian and she remembered the specific moment she prayed to receive Christ in one of the worship services. “But there were so many other factors that moved me closer to accepting Christ. When I prayed to receive Christ, it was the culmination of many events,” she said.

“One of the first things I did after I joined the church was to volunteer to work one Sunday a month at Wee Care,” she continued. “You know, I now realize I was hell-bound until I came to Lakeview. And I never would have returned to Lakeview without the great ministry of Wee Care.” She paused for a moment and then spoke with urgency. “Do you think churches realize that good childcare may make an eternal difference in someone’s life? Do they really understand?”

Seeking to impress or to save?

I am amazed by how much the research of the unchurched has changed my perspective. Indeed, every time I have led a research team to investigate a facet of church life, my own paradigm shifts to some degree. This study was no exception. Two issues related to the topic at hand were particularly surprising.

The first issue was that the unchurched were more impacted by their second visit than their first visit. In a technical sense, then, the issue is second impressions rather than first impressions. But unchurched people like Gina may not have returned if the first visit had been negative.

Why did the formerly unchurched tell us that they really noticed the church on a second visit? They were overwhelmed on the first visit, and issues like cleanliness and even friendliness were not as noticeable because they were “on spiritual overload,” as one formerly unchurched Alabama man told us.

“God was dealing with me in so many ways,” he said. “I couldn’t even have told you if the church building was brick or wood that first time.”

The second issue that surprised me was the intensity with which the unchurched spoke of their first (or second) impressions of churches. One of our set questions was “What were your initial observations?” Ninety percent of the unchurched indicated that some factor about the people or the facilities impacted their decision to return for another visit. Most of those indicated that their decision to return was made within a few minutes after they arrived at the church.

Consumer mentality or first impression of eternity?

My bias does not want the issue of first impressions to be such a major factor in reaching the unchurched. I am concerned that the consumer mentality is already dominating some churches to the extent that many have moved from being consumer-friendly and seeker-friendly to becoming consumer-driven.

I confess that 1 certainly do not know where to draw the line. No one will find me arguing against comfortable seating and clean facilities. Bob Russell, the senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., is a stickler about first impressions. And lest you think that a story about one of the largest congregations in America does not relate to your church, he reminds us:

“When I first came to Southeast Christian Church in 1966, people were meeting in the basement of a small house. But the basement was spit and span, the bulletin was printed without typos or grammatical errors, the people were friendly and the worship was well planned and orderly.”

When I began to see the first impression issue as one of excellence more than pleasing an insatiable consumer appetite, my perspective changed. And when I hear stories like Gina’s, whose eternity was impacted by excellence in facilities and childcare, I am almost convinced of the importance of first (or second) impressions.

“Mediocrity breeds indifference, but quality attracts,” Russell also says. “Imagine how much easier evangelism would be if your church services were done with so much excellence that they inspired people to the extent that they couldn’t help but tell their friends about their experience.”

Pastor Russell is quick to state that the emphasis on excellence is a major part of the remarkable story of Southeast and the tens of thousands who have become Christians in his ministry there. “But why have our people been so bold in inviting their friends and so effective in getting them to come?” he asks rhetorically. “Because they are excited about what they’ve experience and are confident that every week the grounds, the nursery, the greeting, the singing and the preaching will be done with excellence.”

Okay, I am convinced! With testimonies such as the story of Southeast Christian and the dozens of stories told to us by the formerly unchurched, the evidence is overwhelming: excellence does matter. First impressions are important, because someone’s eternity may be in the balance.

What kind of first impressions?

What specific factors are important to the unchurched when they finally choose to visit a church? Statistical graphs and charts do not paint an entirely accurate picture of the importance of each of the first impression issues. For example, the preschool/nursery/children’s facility was deemed an important first impression in 36 percent of our interviews. At first glance the relative level of importance may be understated, since only about one-third of the respondents deemed preschool and children’s
facilities important. But when you consider that only about half of our respondents have young children, the responses of one out of three has a higher impact.

Still one issue of first impression stands clearly above others in importance. The unchurched told us that one of the key reasons for their returning to a particular church was the friendliness of the members.

Next week we will look at the five major issues related to the unchurched and their first impressions of the church.

What the unchurched see

Although there are many complex factors that affect the unchurched, the people we interviewed were very clear that certain issues of friendliness, cleanliness and comfort directly impacted their decision to attend and join a church. And from their perspective, some of these issues had eternal consequences. Listen to the five top impressions that had an impact on the unchurched.

First Impression #1: Friendliness

Leonard and Connie M. were truly frightened. When they first received word that job relocation to Orlando, Fla., was in the works, they had been very excited.

“Orlando meant sunshine, Disney World, beaches close by, and a fun time,” Connie said. But Orlando was a long way from their small hometown in Wisconsin where they had lived all their lives. That reality set in within a few days.

“From dairy farms to Disney World,” Leonard said. “Yeah, it seemed great at first. But when we got to Orlando we realized how big this place is. People are so busy too. It was just hard to make friends. We made the effort to introduce ourselves to our neighbors. They were friendly, but everybody was too busy to get involved with others.”

The couple had had virtually no church involvement in Wisconsin. They really did not consider visiting churches until Connie discovered a lump in her breast. Connie began to consider, perhaps for the first time, her own mortality. “That was a wake-up call,” Connie said. “For the first time we started thinking about a church.”

The first church they visited was a Southern Baptist church near their home. By the number of cars they saw at the church, Leonard and Connie could tell a lot was taking place there.

“The people were incredibly friendly,” Connie told us. “I felt love all around me the first time we walked in. The people seemed to really care.” Connie cannot remember how someone found out about her surgery. She does remember, however, that three women from the church showed up the day of her surgery.

“We’ve heard about churches where the people are cold and unfriendly. I’m sure glad that wasn’t the case at our church,” Connie said. “Not only am 1 okay physically now, but both Leonard and I met Christ at the church. It’s amazing what a smile and a kind word did.”

In our 353 interviews with the unchurched, 88 percent of the respondents told us that the friendliness of the people was a major attraction to the particular church they joined. Yet friendliness is an intangible issue. Listen to some of the insights we gleaned from the formerly unchurched:

“Most church members believe they are friendly when in reality they are friendly only to others whom they already know,”

“`Manufactured friendliness’ is obvious. You could tell that they were trying to be friendly, like someone told them that they needed to be friendly. It was almost as bad as being unfriendly.”

Friendliness of members to non-Christians tends to be correlated to a church’s evangelistic effectiveness. Members seem to be enthusiastic about new Christians, which engenders friendliness toward others who are not Christians. Friendly churches are also likely to have friendly pastors. The pastor’s modeling of friendliness is critical. A relationship is also apparent between the friendliness of a church and the members’ willingness to accept change.

First Impression #2: Nice facilities and adequate space

I expressed initial reticence in reporting that the unchurched said that first impressions were important. I simply resisted the idea that a clean facility could make an eternal difference. But after listening to 353 unchurched persons, and after six years of researching over 2,000 effective evangelistic churches across America, I am the convinced skeptic.

Even with my former reluctance to acknowledge the importance of clean and neat facilities, I confess that I saw that importance in a church where I served as pastor. Every six months I would hire a woman from outside the church to do a thorough examination of our grounds and buildings. (My apologies to men, I tried using men on a few occasions, but all of them were blind to obvious dirtiness and poor facilities.)

We gave the woman a notebook with a page for every room, hallway, foyer, and area of grounds. She would go from area to area taking notes and then report to our staff and key lay leader what she saw. It is amazing how she saw dirtiness, cracked windows, dead bushes, and a plethora of other items that we passed by every day. We were happy to give her a stipend for her few hours of work.

Almost half of the unchurched mentioned something about the grounds or facilities when we inquired about their first impressions of the church. And though some of them may have returned even with negative impressions, it is obvious that these issues were vitally important to many.

First Impression #3: The Nursery/Preschool/Children’s Issue The issue that generated the most intense comments was the cleanliness, neatness and safety of nursery, preschool and children’s areas. Of the 161 formerly unchurched who told us that the condition of the facilities was clearly noticed by them, 63 percent volunteered their observations about children’s facilities.

Again, our questions were open-ended. No responses were prompted by our research team. The fact that almost one-third of the formerly unchurched volunteered their opinions is significant. While parents with young children were among the most vociferous about quality care for children at church, they were not alone. We heard similar comments from parents with older children, adult children, and no children. It seems that many unchurched people measure the quality of a church by the quality of
childcare.

The unchurched told us repeatedly how difficult it was for them to visit a church. And those who had young children were especially sensitive to their kids’ needs. Though I knew prior to this study the importance of adequate childcare in churches, I did not realize how deeply emotional this issue was for the unchurched. After hearing the responses of the unchurched, I am no longer surprised that nearly one-third of the respondents commented without prompting about childcare. They raised the following issues:

– Safety is the number one concern.
– Easy accessibility to their children is their second concern.
– The third most frequently expressed concern was the ability to be notified if needed.
– The apparent concern and attitude of adult workers were mentioned next.
– —-? Cleanliness was also mentioned frequently.

Also cited by several of the formerly unchurched was how up-to-date the children’s area was. Old furniture, broken toys, worn carpet, and 1980s’ baby beds are a sure sign of neglect.

First Impression Issue #4: Organization or Chaos

Charlie R. of central Louisiana told us there were two nondenominational churches in the mid-size Louisiana city. Azalea Community Church was his first visit; the Church of Greensprings was his second.

“Azalea was a mad house,” Charlie said. “The service started late, the music was messed up, the person running the sound system was incompetent, and most of the people participating in the leadership of the worship service seemed clueless,” he said.

“I visited the Church of Greensprings the next week. What a difference!” Charlie said. “You could tell that everything had been given careful attention. They had both wonderful organization and the opportunity for spontaneity. Yeah, everything was planned, but they were so sincere. You didn’t get the impression that they were just performing.”

Charlie started attending the Church at Greensprings and eventually accepted Christ. And he was one of several formerly unchurched who told us that one of his first impressions was the organization of the church, particularly the organization and flow of the worship service.

More than 100 of the formerly unchurched noticed the attention churches gave to having a well-planned worship service. These former seekers told us that such attention to detail was an indication that the church was serious about its mission.

“I have been in the corporate world for over 20 years,” Charlie said. “I can tell in any company or church if the organization has a sense of purpose. One of the big factors for a church is its worship services, where the most people gather at any one time. If that isn’t planned well, you can be sure that the church members do most everything else poorly”

First Impression #5: Greeters and welcome centers

Sam Walton knew his customers’ needs and desires. He built Wal-Mart to become one of the world’s largest retailers by always seeking to be sensitive to the needs of the consumer. The friendly greeters at the Wal-Mart entrance are but one small part of the legacy of customer orientation he left the company.

Churches do not have to compromise any biblical values to be sensitive to the needs of the unchurched. Greeter ministries in particular can be implemented with relative ease. In nearly one-third of our interviews, the unchurched shared with us positive first impressions of when the church had a good greeter ministry and a welcome center.

One-third of the unchurched told us that they were impressed with a church’s greeter ministry or welcome center. A helpful hand, a friendly smile, and good directions can make an eternal difference.

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