A year ago, we found ourselves living in a new city and in need of a new church home.

We’re weren’t looking for the perfect church, because no such place exists. But we were looking for a place we could plug in, where our kids could connect with others, and where we would all grow in our faith.

In four weekends, we visited four different churches. Here are five things I learned and want to share with you.

#1 – A friendly pastor leads a friendly church. 

We met the pastor of a couple of the churches we visited and both of them were very friendly. One in particular went out of his way to welcome us, as did the rest of the staff. (This was a 1,500 or 2,000 person church, too.) They were, by far, the friendliest church I’ve ever attended. Not weird friendly, but relational. Even an introvert like me was impressed.

Greeters, ushers, and staff can all create a welcoming environment. As a guest, you can just tell if people want you there. But a pastor who is aloof or hidden can counteract the efforts of dozens of friendly people. Hiding out in the green room or intentionally being unaccessible isn’t attractive to new people.

A lot of churches are friendly, but there is a huge difference between being friendly to each other and being welcoming to guests.  Some churches are friendly and open once you’re a member or once you’re in leadership.  Smaller churches that have a family feel can be really intimidating to people who are not a part of the family.  You want to create a welcoming culture, where brand new people know they can belong, even if they don’t believe the same things as you.  If you want to dive deeper into this, here’s an article about why people might not be visiting your church for the first time.

#2 – One misstep can really harm the experience.  

In one experience, the service times on the website differed from the registration card for kids check in. Since there was nobody staffing the checkin area, we thought the website was wrong.  Turns out, the flyer was wrong, so we got checked in and into the service thirty minutes late.

During another visit, the pastor said something during the message that really insulted one political party. That really bothered me and for better or worse, it harmed my impression of that church.  My own political views aside, I didn’t want to be a part of a place where it was okay to alienate a group of people for their political beliefs.

I know this isn’t fair.  I know people can have bad days and say things they don’t mean or be misunderstood.  Heck, I’ve been guilty of this a lot. But I realized during my time as a guest just how important it is.

#3 – Kids check in is the most stressful part of the morning for parents.  

We have one middle schooler and two elementary kids.  They all do really well in new environments so we don’t worry about that. But the check in time is stressful because our kids ask so many questions.

It’s tough on my wife, who typically fills out forms and watches someone enter that same information into a computer.  It’s like standing in a check out line at Wal-Mart with toddlers reaching for candy. You’re trying to keep them quiet and look like a Christian.

These are huge opportunities for churches to make incredible impressions. You can really connect with parents here.  Out of the four churches we visited, I’d say only one of them got this area right.

If you’re looking for a place to improve ministry, this would be a great place to start.  Make it easier for parents to check in their kids and drop them off in their classrooms.

#4 – Offer ONE (or maybe, maybe, maybe two) next steps.

I found myself craving an environment or an announcement for what to do next if we wanted to get connected. I can’t process seven or eight next steps or fathom a myriad of opportunities to growth. As a first time guest, I’d like to know what YOU think I should do next.

I’m probably not going to join a small group that week or sign up to serve.  Maybe a short gathering to meet a staff member or even a video to watch online.  Whether it’s a class or a meeting or a website, I’d encourage you to get really clear about what you want guests to do, and talk about that every single week. This is a huge part of closing the back door.

You don’t need to give people ten opportunities to connect, just get really clear about one.  Connecting people is a huge part of leading a growing church.

#5 – Visiting a church for the first time is a strange experience.  

I won’t use the word traumatic because that’s too dramatic. But it’s weird and a little scary. And I’m a life-long church person, so if I feel a little strange, just imagine how unchurched people feel.

I highly recommend pastors visit other churches and try to play the role of a first-time guest. If you’re used to doing that, pick a different denomination or even a different religion altogether.  Those questions…those feelings of “am I supposed to be here” are very real.

Why I’m Writing This

I don’t write this to be critical.  There is NO perfect church, and it’s not the ultimate job of the church to cater to the whims and preferences of people.

But most of the churches I know and work with want to reach new people.  They want to grow in size and in health.  So getting guest friendly is a really important opportunity.

If you’ve been a part of your church for a while, chances are you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be new. Because you’re in the organization, you might not be the best to evaluate what it’s like to an outsider. That’s why we recommend you ask for feedback from guests, pull together people to evaluate, and even hire a secret shopper.

Our Breaking 200 course has a module on evaluation and improvement, and it comes with some amazing forms to make this possible.  Or you can reach out to us to schedule a secret shopper experience.

Take a Next Step

Here at Church Fuel, we are for you and your church.

We want to see your churches grow and we hope you can do that through our membership program, Church Fuel One.

Church Fuel One offers insanely practical content, access to other pastors and staff, and one-on-one coaching for you and your church.

Interested? Learn more here.