See What Visitors See
Gary L. McIntosh
You never have a second chance to make a first impression. –Anonymous
I was visiting a church in Indiana. As I walked into the church lobby, the person who was walking with me commented, “You’ll like our church. It’s a very friendly place.”
Once inside the building, we were immediately met by a man carrying an armful of papers. Introductions were made, he was polite, and we shook hands. However, it was what followed that surprised me.
On completing our handshake, the man turned to my friend and began to talk about some church business that, in truth, should not have been discussed in my presence.
As they talked, the man moved nervously, shifting from one foot to the other, gradually moving so that within a few minutes his back was to me.
I remember thinking, Hey! I’m the guest here. Quit ignoring me’ But I didn’t say anything.
Once he was finished discussing his bit of church business, he seemed to catch a glimpse of me in his peripheral vision. In an embarrassed and hasty attempt to make me feel welcome, he turned toward me and said, “It was nice to meet you. You’ll like our church. It’s a very friendly place.”
The Truth about Encounters
When a person talks to a member of your church or calls the church on the phone or receives a church brochure in the mail or drives into your parking lot, it is a moment of truth.
A moment of truth (MOT) is any occasion in which a person comes into contact with and forms an impression of your church.
Admittedly it is not easy to evaluate the success or quality of these moments of truth. There is little tangible evidence to evaluate, and this is the reason it is so difficult to assess the effectiveness of such encounters. Suffice it to say that the end result of a mo¬ment of truth in the life of a guest is a feeling— either positive or negative —about your church. And you want it to be positive.
Before we consider how to describe, analyze, and assess the quality of our guests’ experiences during those critical moments of truth, we need to understand the following.
Out of Mind, Out of Sight
Remember that people outside of your church do not go around thinking about you. Those of us who are church leaders tend to spend all day long, sometimes all night long too, with the weight of our church on our heart and mind. Hardly an hour goes by without some thought concerning our church. In many cases we extend our concern for our church to others, thinking unconsciously that others know about and think often about our church also.
Wake up! Such is not the case. People outside your church are bombarded with so much information in our society that most likely they never think of your church —not even once.
I was shocked into this reality while pastoring a church in Southern California a number of years ago. In an effort to greet people and introduce them to our church, we organized a neigh¬borhood canvass. Sixteen of our leaders went door-to-door talking to people and telling them about the ministry of our church. Following each two-hour time period, we would meet back at the church to discuss our experiences. During one such debrief¬ing, one of our elders reported that a neighbor lady had asked where our church was located, mentioning that she had never seen the building. He kindly pointed out our building, which could be seen just down her street. He later discovered that she had lived in her home for ten years. Our church had been on the same street for nearly twenty-three years. Here was a lady who lived only two blocks from our church and did not know we were there!
Now, obviously, during the ten years she had lived in her home, she had driven past our church. The issue was not whether she had seen us, for she clearly could not have missed us. The issue was that she never thought of us. We were never on her mind! It is the opposite of the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” For people in our information-saturated society it’s “Out of mind, out of sight.” Since she did not think of us, she never saw us, even when we were right down the block.
The Importance of Positive Contact
Remember that your church exists in such a person’s mind only when he or she makes some type of contact with you, either directly or indirectly.
The lady who lived just down the street from our church knew nothing about our ministries, our people, our child care, or our worship service. The visible picture of our building, landscaping, and sign were not developed in her mind. She did, however, come face-to-face with our church in that brief moment of truth when an elder talked with her in her yard. In that encounter she met our church and made some important evaluations about our leadership and ministry.
I am not aware of any studies that have been com¬pleted on the number of impressions made during moments of truth in relationship to a church. However, one secular report notes that, on average, people make eleven decisions about us in the first seven seconds of contact.’ There is no doubt that the lady living just down the street from our church was making quick evaluations about our church, impressions that would last for years in her mind. Do not underestimate these moments of truth.
Remember that the impression formed by such contact is generalized in an individual’s mind to your entire church. It is sobering to realize that when people outside your congregation develop an impression of your church, based on one moment of truth, their impression will extend to cover your entire church. I had such an experience three years ago.
I was board chairman of a local Christian high school that was looking to relocate to a nicer facility. One day while driving in the north end of town, I went past a church that was in the area of town where we hoped to relocate. The church building appeared large enough to accommodate our school, but what caught my eye in that moment of truth was the number of weeds in the parking lot. Weeds were growing to a height of about three feet, some maybe four feet, out of cracks in the blacktop. On further investigation I found all the gates in the fences locked. Although I could not see through the stained glass windows, the building appeared to be deserted.
Immediately I made my eleven decisions about that church, the most exciting of which was that the church must be closed and possibly for sale. When I arrived home, I began making phone calls, attempting to track down someone with informa¬tion about this church. It took several weeks but eventually a phone call to the church was answered. I introduced myself and explained that I had driven by the building and it looked so run down, I wondered if it was for sale. My bluntness must have shocked the person I was speaking with, for his response was a classic case of “the silence was deafening.” In no uncertain terms he corrected my impressions by informing me that the church was open and not for sale. He wondered how I could ever come to such an illogical conclusion.
My arrival at such an illogical conclusion was actually quite easy. I simply generalized to the entire church my impressions from a single moment of truth. The sad aspect of this encoun¬ter was not that the building was unavailable to my Christian school. More crucial was the probability that many people came to the same conclusions I had and drove right on by without visiting.
The End Result
Remember that the end result of any contact is a feeling—positive or negative—about your entire church. Think back to the opening story of this chapter. What do you think I felt about the church I visited in Indiana? As I recall, the worship service was excellent. The Sunday school class I attended kept my attention, and several nice people greeted me. The church buildings were new, clean, and invitingly up-to-date. Yet every time I think about that particular church, I remember that first moment of truth in the lobby. In this case my feeling is neither positive nor negative. Being an experienced church visitor, I am not going to write the church off as unfriendly. In fact I know the opposite to be true. On the other hand, I do not carry a strong positive feeling about the church, simply due to that one, brief moment of truth.
Consider the lady down the street from the church I pastored. What do you think she felt about our church after meeting one of our elders? It is difficult to know, but be sure of this. Whatever she felt in that single moment of truth became her impression of our entire church.
Moments of Truth
Close your eyes and envision a beautiful garden that you may have seen somewhere in your past experience. If you are like me, you do not picture a single flower or plant but an entire garden in full bloom. If an image is not forming clearly, simply picture a single rose. Then picture a dozen roses in a beautiful vase. Finally picture an entire garden of roses. Which picture makes the greatest impact? The single rose, the dozen roses, or the rose garden?
The correct answer is “It depends.” At times nothing outshines a display of a dozen roses. The bouquet of roses and baby’s breath in a beautiful vase is impressive. At other times the simple gift of a single rose will melt the heart of someone you love. Still, the cumulative effect of an entire rose garden is magnificent.
Such is the possibility of the moments of truth people outside our church may have. A single encounter may be engaging, but in most situations, it is the cumulative effect of several moments of truth that form the most powerful impact. My moment of truth driving by the church with weeds growing in the parking lot was like a single rose. That one impression shaped my view of the church significantly.
My experience with the church in Indianapolis was like a dozen roses displayed in a vase. I had numerous moments of truth, and they formed my picture of the church. Together they lessened the negative impact of the first encounter. At that church, of course, I did not develop a total perception, which could only have come by observing their entire gar¬den — moments of truth with a number of people in various situations.
Thinking of a church in terms of moments of truth creates a powerful tool to help us address and evaluate the quality of our friendliness. It enables us to redirect our thinking from programs to serving those Christ has called us to reach.
By defining the moments of truth that your guests are likely to experience, you can begin to build a church that is indeed friendly and inviting to people on the outside.
There are, of course, innumerable and varied moments of truth. However, guests entering every church encounter certain standard moments of truth. Read through each of the following and think what happens now and what should happen when a guest encounters each moment of truth at your church.
MOT 1: Receiving an Invitation to Church
Not many people visit a church today without receiving some form of invitation. It may come through a personal contact with a friend at work or a neighbor, or it may be a direct-mail piece sent to the home. The common saying “You do not have a second chance to make a first impression” should be taken seriously. First impressions make a greater impact than any other single moment of truth, although the total perception created by several moments of truth may overpower the initial impression.
MOT 2: Driving by the Church Building
For some people this second moment of truth will be their first impression. If your church is located in a high-traffic area, you can be certain that many people are driving by each day. When they drive up to the facility, an additional moment of truth is added to other previous encounters. Among other aspects, they will notice if the landscaping around the church is well kept, if the parking lot is nicely paved and clear of debris, if the exterior walls and windows of the building are attractive, and if there are parking spaces clearly marked for guests.
MOT 3: Walking to the Front Door
For most guests, getting out of their car and walking up to the church building is a major moment of truth. Some start to feel tense as they imagine what they will find inside the church building. Will there be warm and friendly people? Are they entering the building by the proper door? Will they need to ask a lot of embarrassing questions? Are they dressed appropriately?
Some researchers call this newcomer anxiety or “new-turf nerves.” Surveys reveal that 75 percent of people say they are more anxious the first time they enter a new place, such as a business, church, or office, than at most other times in their life.’ This newcomer anxiety creates a heightened sensitivity in new people that causes every experience to make a greater impact on them than the same experiences would make on old-timers in the church.
MOT 4: Entering the Front Door
Newcomer anxiety causes new guests to form the bulk of their impressions about a church within thirty seconds of walk¬ing in the front door. All the impressions are subconscious, but they are being made quickly nonetheless. Contributing to their subconscious thoughts are such things as sounds, smells, signs, pictures, bulletin boards, colors, lighting, and the gen¬eral decor.
MOT 5: Meeting People
Initial contacts with people play a major role in guests’ thoughts about a church. Are church members outgoing and approachable? Do they express an attitude of acceptance? Is there an honest friendliness without being mushy or overbear¬ing? Are friendly people available to answer questions and give assistance? Much of the impact made on guests comes through the body language of people they meet. Simple actions, such as smiling or frowning, leave lasting images on a guest.
MOT 6: Experiencing Ministries and Services
The ministries or amenities explored will obviously vary from guest to guest. Those with small children want to find a child-care area that is clean, bright, open, and safe. Those needing to use the restrooms hope to find them clean and free of unpleasant odors. Those attending a class expect comfortable and nicely decorated classrooms staffed with gracious people.
MOT 7: Entering the Sanctuary
Guests entering the worship area wish to find smiling ushers who have a servant attitude. They expect to be welcomed gra¬ciously and treated with respect and to find room to sit without being crowded.
MOT 8: Participating in the Worship Service
The atmosphere of the worship service should be vibrant and happy. Usually guests won’t know our church’s tradition or prac¬tice in worship. Thus they hope to find an order of worship that is easy to understand and follow. They hope to hear songs that are familiar or easy to learn, or they may simply want to be left alone to listen to the music without being forced to participate. Most of all, guests hope to feel at ease and comfortable, and they pray that the worship service will not go too long.
MOT 9: Leaving the Worship Service
Guests trust that on leaving the worship area they will find a friendly atmosphere where they are greeted but not besieged.
Most guests are open to invitations to a refreshment table, where they will meet and talk with people from the church. But they want to feel that they have a choice in staying or leaving. No arm twisting please.
MOT 10: Being Contacted during the Week
In our day of cocooning and the necessity of both spouses in many families having to work, it is safe to predict that most guests do not want an unannounced visit to their home. Yet usu¬ally they are willing to talk by phone and share their personal feelings about their visit to your church. A gracious invitation to return is more than welcome, as well as a personal letter from the pastor.
MOT 11: Ongoing Contacts in the Future
Guests expect to end up on your mailing list to receive ap¬propriate information in the months ahead. Most will appreciate receiving a church newsletter, informational brochures describ¬ing ministries they might find interesting, and occasional personal invitations to special events.
In Olympic events, such as ice-skating and gymnastics, which are judged by people watching the performance, an interesting factor comes into play. Many aspects of the performance count in the final score, but the most crucial factors are the begin¬ning and the end. If an Olympic athlete begins well and ends well, then all’s well. The implication is that the first and last impressions are the most important on the final score.
This applies to moments of truth as well. The most important moments of truth for a guest are their first and last ones. Be as¬sured that guests have already made many judgments about your church before your pastor even begins to preach. Impressions formed by the first moment of truth are carried along and color to some degree all succeeding encounters. Since the last mo¬ment of truth remains freshest in the mind, it supersedes those that fall in between the first and last. The total perception comes into play, but be certain that the first and last moments of truth are extremely powerful.
Questions Guests Ask
When newcomers encounter each of these moments of truth, they ask questions that differ from those of long-term members. The following are four questions guests ask when visiting a church.
Is There Room for Me?
A few weeks ago I was consulting with a church in northern California. During the worship service, I quietly slipped out and walked through the parking lot. While observing the parking situ¬ation, two people entered the lot and drove around looking for a parking space. When they could not find a space in which to park, they left. Guests notice if the parking lot is full, or if there is enough seating in the auditorium. If guests do not perceive that there is enough room for them, they leave or do not return for a second visit.
Is There Room for Me Personally?
When guests attend your church, the first thing they do is look around to see if there is anyone else there like them. Newcomers want to know if there are others who may have a similar back-ground, age, or life stage. They hope to find groups of people who have the same interests, and they particularly look for specialty groups that will meet their needs.
Is There Room for Me Relationally?
Guests want more than a friendly church. What they really want are friends. After attending your church for a few weeks, newcomers will notice if members are making room for them in the various classes and/or small groups or if classes are closed off to them.
Is It Worth It?
The demand on people’s time in our society is heavy. Once people begin attending a church, they will ask if it is worth their time to attend. Involvement in worship, ministries, classes, and/or groups will be judged on the basis of how each meets their specific needs.
Is there room for your guests physically, emotionally, and personally at your church? Will they find it worth the time to attend and participate in your church? An awareness tour is one way to find out.
Church leaders are so familiar with their church that they take for granted how others see and respond to each moment of truth. Taking an awareness tour through the eleven moments of truth given above is a way to see your church through guests’ eyes.
To honestly appreciate the new person’s experience, you need to set aside your “insider” understanding about your church and think like an “outsider.”
1. Start by making a list of the moments of truth discussed in this chapter. Type the headings, leaving two to three inches of space beneath each one. Make a copy for each board member.
2. At your next board meeting, ask each member to leave everything in the boardroom except a pen or pencil and walk with you about a block away from your church.
3. Explain that you want them to pretend they have never been to your church before. Tell them to look at your church through “guest eyes” and jot down what guests see as they encounter each moment of truth listed on the paper you hand out to them.
4. Actually walk through the moments of truth, stopping briefly at each area to allow your leaders to look around and jot down what guests see. At each point they should imagine how the people there would respond to the guest.
5. Complete your tour, return to the boardroom, and discuss the experience, going through the moments of truth from beginning to end. Ask, What do guests see, experience, and feel from these moments of truth in our church? What should they experience? What can our church begin to do to make these moments of truth positive experiences for our guests?
Questions to Ask and Answer
If you were a guest visiting your church . . .
1. Would you be impressed with the facility and landscaping?
2. Would you be able to find the restrooms without asking?
3. Would you feel comfortable leaving your child in the nursery?
4. Would you understand what takes place during the wor¬ship service?
5. Would you feel embarrassed or pressured during your visit?
6. Would you be greeted and accepted as you are?
7. Would you come back next week?
The above article, “See What Visitors See” was written by Gary L. McIntosh. The article was excerpted from chapter 3 in McIntosh’s book, Beyond the First Visit.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”