Making a First Impression for the Second Time
As the pastor or leader of a congregation, our ministry is often motivated by the lens through which we view our context. Remember the first time you visited? You saw things with new and open eyes, not distracted by relationships and a sense of ownership, but also not informed by experience and history. On that day you stood in the shoes of a visitor and saw your church as that newcomer might. But time is a great teacher and as you became accustomed to your surroundings you started to fill in the blanks and gave substance to your context.
As time goes on, it is common to look at both our community and our congregation through a different lens. In the eyes of one who belongs, the assets become enhanced and the problems less significant. That junky vacant lot at the end of the block is simply Bob’s latest project. Those water stains on the ceiling are a reminder that we will have to fix that roof someday. The boxes in the corner of the church office are a sign that our filing system is a bit outdated and we need a place to put those old records. We learn to live with those imperfections as we serve Jesus in our own corner of the world. But we cannot forget that each little blemish says something to a visitor, particularly one looking for a new church home.
Every now and then it is helpful to take a look at our ministry setting through the eyes of a visitor, remembering what it is like to visit the community or the church for the very first time and to see what kind of first impression we are making. So put aside your sense of ownership, your feelings of pride, your unintentional defensiveness and go take a first-look at your ministry context once again.
Our first impression of a church or community is almost always from behind the wheel of a car. What do you see as you drive into the neighborhood? First impressions often say a lot about the economic status of the community, particularly in small towns or rural areas. You can usually tell if the area is in a state of decline or if there is an attitude of growth. Businesses and schools are both strong indicators of these attitudes. Either way, community pride, or lack of a sense of community, may be evident from the beginning. There is probably very little that we can do about homes that are not cared for or businesses that are closed. But there may be cosmetic things that a community or a congregation can do to enhance the look and feel of an area. If your congregation is looking for a relevant mission, this may be an interesting place to begin.
What would bring visitors to your door? Is the location of your church an asset or an obstacle? If you are located on Main Street or in the town square, high visibility may provide its own kind of advertising. But if you are off the beaten path, even by a block or two, check to see if there are signs showing the way to your building. Too often, we assume that those signs are in place and are helpful to a first timer. But the reality is that those signs that were placed in the ‘60s or ‘70s have frequently fallen into disrepair and are less visible that we assume. Make sure that visitors don’t have to guess where to find you.
When was the last time you took a walking tour of the neighborhood surrounding your church? It has become very easy for us to hop in the car whenever we need to go anywhere, even if it is just a block or two. But being in the car often isolates us from the world around us, even if it is the neighborhood in which we live. Walking can provide a different type of lens. Meaningful relationships develop when we get to know the people around us. Stroll through the business district and you are likely to engage in conversations that you never expected. Walk around the blocks surrounding the church and you will frequently encounter neighbors working in their yards, walking their dogs, or playing with their families. And if your rural neighborhood is like mine, those chance encounters may actually turn into opportunities for ministry.
Walking forces us to slow down and observe the world around us. What do you see in your neighborhood? It is likely that you will run into a member or two. And you will probably encounter someone that you know goes to another church in town. But you may also come across a different group of people – those who are not committed to a church family at all. And if that is true, then the question we need to ask is this – why not? Our church building is located right here, our activities revolve around this block, our people can be seen coming and going both on Sunday morning and at other times of the week. So why has our ministry not touched all the neighbors around us? What is it that we are doing, or not doing, that has neglected to include or reach out to the people who live within a few minutes of our building? Even in small communities there are those who are ambivalent about faith or who have not felt that the church was relevant in their lives. How can we show them that our church has something very special to offer and that they are welcome, even after all these years? That simple walk may change your mission.
Come On In
What do visitors see when they pull up to your building? Is there adequate parking? Are the entrances clearly marked? Does the condition of the building say something about the commitment found inside?
Most visitors don’t want going into a new church to be a lot of work. The front door should be obvious. The greeters should be friendly. The sanctuary should be easy to find. Accessible options should be available for those with special needs. The worship should be easy to follow. While all of these things sound obvious, the truth is that the absence of any of them may cause a first-time visitor to walk away and never come back.
We are used to our quirks and idiosyncrasies. We know where the bathrooms are hidden and where the bulletins are kept and when to stand up and sit down. But visitors don’t. Walk through your building as if you were encountering it for the very first time. Make note of any characteristics that would be unknown to a first-time visitor. Attend worship on a Sunday when you are not preaching and see for yourself how visitors are greeted, how much insider language is used in the service, and how you feel after spending an hour as regular person in the pew.
Most church visits today start long before the prelude. In fact, your online presence may be as important a factor in attracting new attendees as anything you will find in your building. Online searches are common and help a church shopper to weed through the options and make an informed decision. So logging on to your church website or Facebook page is just as critical as a personal tour and may be just as essential in making a first impression.
Most internet searches are short and to the point. If the searcher finds what they are looking for, they may look around for more information. If not, they will usually move on and look elsewhere. What does your web site say about your church? It needs to be easy to find, simple to navigate, and the content must be up to date. First time visitors want to know where you are located, what time you worship, and what they will encounter there. Photos, especially action shots, demonstrate the life found within a congregation and can be an essential tool in attracting visitors to your door.
Take a tour of your church web site. Don’t look at it as the pastor, but as a person who knows very little about this congregation. Is there a sense of life? Can you find essential information? Are families featured prominently? Does this look like a place where you would feel welcome? Visitors are seldom interested in denominational issues and have little patience for long treatises on the intricacies of your theological viewpoints. But they do want to get to know the pastors, get a feel for the style of worship, get some information about the educational programs of the church, and explore what the church believes in small, easy to read statements. Think of your web site as an appetizer that encourages the visitor to come and find out more.
Do you see vitality when you look at your church? Change your perspective every now and then and look through the eyes of a newcomer. You may be surprised by the possibilities you find.