If you work at a church, I assume you arrive well before any attendees.
I served as a lead pastor for nearly 13 years. Our first service began at 9:00 a.m., and I was typically on campus by 7:30 a.m. Sometimes earlier.
There were advantages of arriving so early. I never struggled to find a parking space (which was always the furthest from the front door). It was easy to walk through the hallways. And I never felt rushed.
But my 7:30 a.m. arrival kept me from experiencing what everyone who attended our church felt every week.
A Typical Church Arrival Experience
Let’s try to put ourselves in the Sunday shoes of a regular person (i.e., we are not normal). A family gets up on Sunday morning after one, or potentially five, snoozes. If you have little ones, you’ve been up for a while already, dealing with breakfast and all the other wonderful things that come with preschoolers.
If you have teenagers, they will sleep until noon if allowed.
Your job this morning is getting everyone up, cleaned, fed, and out the door in time to arrive at church to check in kids and teens and find a seat.
The only guarantee is family fighting and traffic on your commute to church. Somebody isn’t matching. Somebody else spilled chocolate milk on their shirt and your car seats. And you’re probably running late.
You reached the church, found a parking space, and rushed into the building. You’re late. As always. And frustrated. As always.
And this is how most church people experience church.
What an Unchurched Guest Expects
If they are anything like most of my unchurched friends, they expect to spontaneously combust upon entering the premises. Or if they don’t explode, they assume the church will catch on fire.
Bottom Line: Unchruched guests are rarely comfortable or confident entering a church.
They’ve most likely dealt with all the typical family stuff, but they have an additional weight to carry.
If you could catch an unchurched guest upone entering your church, they would tell you that they are walking in with two questions:
- Will I like these people and this place?
- Will these people like me?
Before a sermon is preached or music is played, guests have decided what they think about you, your church, and these people.
Creating a Guest Experience Worth Experiencing: 12 Critical Moments
The moment a car pulls onto your church campus, the experience begins. And it doesn’t end until they are back home.
The Parking Lot
Your parking lot isn’t for cars alone. Your parking lot is your first opportunity to set (or reset) the tone of every guest. No matter how large your church is, I believe you should have parking volunteers at each entrance to your parking lot and throughout your lot.
- The goal of a parking volunteer is to:
- Smile and create a welcoming environment for everyone driving into your campus.
- Ensure first-time guests and families with small children are directed to the best spaces.
- Point everyone else to open parking spaces.
The energy and enthusiasm of your parking team are critical to set the right tone for every guest.
Plus It: If you want to create something exceptional, give wagons to the volunteers working in the family parking section and offer the little ones wagon rides into the church.
I wrote an entire post just about the parking lot. You can read it here.
The Space Between Parking and the Front Door
Once a car is parked, the job of the parking team isn’t over.
As people exit their cars and walk toward your church, the energy and enthusiasm of the parking volunteers are still on display. These volunteers should verbally welcome guests. Say hello to friends. And be prepared to answer basic questions.
It’s this last part that most churches miss. Part of your parking lot volunteer training, weekly volunteer email, and preservice huddle should focus on arming these volunteers with answers to commonly asked questions.
The Front Door
Many churches put people at the front door, but not the right people.
At the risk of sounding racist, agist, or any other ‘ist, it’s important for guests to see themselves in the early moments of your church experience. Diversity matters throughout your volunteer ranks. To attract a diverse crowd, you must create a diverse first impression.
So, and this is where it may feel weird, strategically place the right people at the front door (and throughout the building). We aren’t looking for warm bodies – we’re looking for the right people to be in the right places.
And like our parking volunteers, ensure your front door support is armed with answers to the most common questions.
NOTE: What to do about handshakes. I’d suggest you train volunteers to create a “contactless door experience.” If someone reaches out a hand to you, then you can shake. If not, then we keep our hands to ourselves.
The First-Time Guest and Information Kiosk
Every church needs a clearly identifiable place for first-time guests to make themselves known and ask questions. Put a kiosk or sign near all your building entrances and staff this position with some of your best volunteers.
Now, here’s a secret: The goal of these volunteers is not to answer some questions but to provide a personal escort throughout the preservice experience. If a family has children, the first-time guest volunteer should walk them to the appropriate ministry area, help the kids get checked in, and then escort the parents to the auditorium. If no kids are present, the volunteer can give a quick, personal tour of the church that ends at the auditorium.
We’re trying to answer an essential first-time guest question: Do these people like me?
Level Up: Create some literature or use a QR code so all new guests can learn more about your entire church while they wait for the service to begin or after they get back home.
The Hallways and Ministry Spaces
A healthy volunteer presence throughout the building is vital for new guests. First, it provides ample opportunities to ask simple questions, like “Where is the nearest bathroom.” But a robust volunteer presence communicates more than we might realize.
For instance, a wealth of volunteers communicates:
- This church is worth people’s time to engage and participate.
- The expectation at this church is participation.
- People like me must love this church.
These volunteers aren’t “extra.” They are sending a message.
If you want to overachieve, get your children’s and student ministry guest services volunteers in sync with your adult guest service volunteers. While it’s not safe to allow any and every volunteer to enter a family ministry space (remember those background checks), your hallway guest services team can hand off families to other ministry environments and pick them back up after dropping off kids.
Or sanctuary or whatever you call it.
Like the parking lot, your auditorium should be littered with volunteers. And like the parking lot, they should help point people to open seats. This is especially important for any late arrivers. Finding a seat when walking into a somewhat dark room (if you dim the lights) can be challenging. Walking into a bright room late can be embarrassing. Your auditorium volunteers can help navigate either situation.
FYI: The same physical contact rules apply here.
Want to level it up? Create a plan for late arrivals to limit the distraction for the congregation during worship. It stinks to be in the midst of a song and have people poking you on the arm, asking if they can slide by. Try bringing people into the auditorium from the outside aisle rather than down the middle aisle once the music has begun.
Once the service begins, the job isn’t done.
As I mentioned before, an unfortunately large percentage of people will (and always will) arrive late. For some, it’s in their DNA. But many guests simply don’t know when they should leave their house to ensure a timely arrival.
For late arrivers, frustration can be heightened. Your volunteer teams can limit their frustration by reserving seats in the auditorium to ensure a quick and easy place is found for them.
Additionally, volunteers must remain at the auditorium doors throughout the service to open and close the doors to ensure the environment remains free of unnecessary hallway distractions.
The Service Dismissal
At the end of the service, we reengineer our volunteer experience in reverse. Guest services volunteers should be positioned at the auditorium doors to direct people or answer any questions that arose during the service, hallway volunteers should be in place to support attendees, and first-time guest volunteers should be looking for anyone they met preservice to ensure they know where to go to pick up a child or exit the building.
Again, this is all about personalization and connection. People don’t need church for content any longer. Content is a commodity. The church is a place of connection and community. An excellent church service may attract someone, but attractions aren’t sticky. Connection and community sticks, and your guest service volunteers are the initial connection points.
Back to The Hallways and Ministry Spaces
I’m always surprised when parents can’t remember where they left their child.
Or they are looking for a few more kid-free minutes.
Either way, hallway volunteers are essential for pointing people in the right direction after the service ends.
But the role is bigger than that. Research shows that people can’t remember an entire experience, but we can remember select moments. The final moments of an experience are one such memorable moment. This is critical to understand. No matter how great your church service is, if the church exit is frustrating, that’s what will be remembered.
Smiling faces and helpful hands set the best memories for exiting guests.
Returning to the Parking Lot
Your parking team should all be in place five to ten minutes before the service ends to prepare for the exit. Like getting into church, using wagons to give rides to children and doing what you can to make the exiting experience joyful matters.
And plan to rescue someone! Inevitably, a car will have a flat tire, a battery will need a jump, or a key will be locked inside a vehicle. Your parking team should be the heroes of these moments. Be prepared to help rescue the day.
The Parking Lot Exit
If your church is relatively small, the exit may be timely.
For a larger church, the exit can feel painfully slow.
Parking traffic time is terrible time. Every minute feels like ten minutes. So, an eight-minute exit can feel like half a day.
You can do nothing about the sense of time, but you can place parking volunteers throughout the lot to help expedite the process.
Additionally, hire a police officer to stop traffic on the road, allowing cars to exit as quickly as possible.
The Drive Home
Here’s a potentially new thought.
On the drive home, you have a captive audience. Most parents ask their kids, “Well, what did you do at church today?” And receive the exact same answer week after week, “I dunno.”
What if we created a discussion starter for parents (and adults) to aid in the conversation? Using a card or QR code, give parents a two to three-sentence overview of the lessons in your family ministry spaces and a few questions they can ask on the drive home. Your parents will love this idea!
And you can do the same for adults, too. At the end of the message or service, give the adults a couple of conversation starters connected to the sermon content.
Now, if you want to go big or go home, here’s an idea I’ve always wanted to do: Create a live or prerecorded podcast that is available to everyone as they drive home. On this podcast, talk about the day, invite guests to discuss family ministry, promote upcoming student ministry events, and have your pastor answer common questions based on the message.
Make this fun and exciting. And name it something like “Leaving Church.”
Some Final Tips
Just a few things that can make a difference:
- Put everyone in matching shirts so guest services volunteers are easily identifiable.
- If you teach sermons by series, use your guest service volunteers as part of the experience. For example, I taught a series called “Scared To Death.” We had our Guest Services volunteers dress like they were on a camping trip. We put tents near the front doors and played outdoor noises in the auditorium rather than our typical preservice music.
- Train these volunteers well and frequently. Please don’t assume they will intuitively know what to do or how to answer questions. Most of these volunteers aren’t new to church or your church and may have forgotten what it was like to be nervous to attend church.
- Celebrate them well, too. Find ways to thank them and recognize their contributions to every story of life change.
If this feels overwhelming, take a deep breath. You don’t have to do this all at once. Start where you are and incrementally improve the guest experience as you can.
And here’s another post you might enjoy: The Health Check-Up Your Church Needs: A Practical Guide