What is the first-time guest experience really like at your church?
When my team at The Unstuck Group helps a church assess ministry health, one key step we take is to attend and review the church’s weekend experience through the lens of an outsider.
That’s because once you see what an outsider sees, you can’t unsee it.
Serving in 100+ churches each year, we’ve started to notice some patterns.
What are the most common offenses? Here are the Top 10—the biggest issues with the weekend that we see the most often.
Keep in mind, these are only issues for churches that actually want to reach new people…
One last thing before I get to the list: Many of these issues show up in the “secret shopper” reports for large churches just as often as in small churches.
1. The Guest Services Area Is Staffed With People Who Don’t Engage With Newcomers.
The church feels like a private club. Guest service team members are more engaged with one another than with newcomers.
Guest services are the “first” in “first impressions.” If this team is off, my visit is off within minutes.
2. The Church Didn’t Welcome Me and Help Me Know What to Expect.
There’s a general lack of guiding visitors through the worship experience and explaining what to do in the different elements of the services, like singing, offering, etc.
Specifically welcoming new people is frequently missed. Someone yells “welcome” and then all of a sudden people start standing up, and then they sing. The only place I sing is in my car or in my shower. Guide me a little more. Invite me to sing, but give me permission to just take it in.
3. People on Stage Don’t Reflect the Church’s Target “Customer.”
The people on the platform should non-verbally communicate this is a safe place, a normal place, to the people you are trying to reach…just by being who they are.
Many times the platform presence doesn’t reflect that. A lot of churches miss the “75 percent rule”—having 75 percent of people on the platform in the same age range (or below) as the people you are trying to reach. (Credit to Lee Kricher in For a New Generation for defining it well).
4. The service order feels like an assembly of separate parts, rather than a cohesive experience.
Stop…start…stop…start… Nothing makes me check my watch more than a herky-jerky service. We sing two songs, there’s a video announcement, there are live announcements, we have a song for offering, message, another song, communion, closing announcement, benediction…
An unchurched person will be thinking, “Get me out. Land the plane.”
5. The Message Is Too Long.
Especially if there were already a lot of other service elements (see the last point), I’m not gassed up for a 45-50 minute message. Tighten it up, add a story, make it applicable and send me on my way.
6. Lack of Application or Next Steps in the Message.
I’ve given you an hour—give me something specific to take away that applies to my real life today.
7. Lack of Security in the Children’s Area.
If I can walk off the street into your kid’s area, that’s a problem.
My team often finds unlocked, dark rooms in the same hallway as kids programming, along with unattended external exits.
This is an issue we see far, far too often.
8. The Bulletins/Programs Are Too Crowded.
It looks like the Cheesecake Factory menu. What on earth am I supposed to choose to pay attention to?
This is a key first impression piece for a new person. It should welcome them, tell them what to expect and provide key info on kids ministry.
Unfortunately, many churches view it as the way to keep all the insiders informed.
9. Too Many Specific, Insider-Focused Announcements Instead of a Few Church-Wide Announcements.
I would add that many churches waste announcement time telling me about all the logistics of what their people could be doing instead of leveraging that time to communicate the “why” behind the activity.
They use the time to say, “Small groups will start next week, at 7 p.m., in room 202, which is up the steps and down the hall.”
What would be more meaningful? Share a personal story about your small group and then challenge people who aren’t connected to get in one.
And really, just stop announcing so many things altogether. Point people to your website.
10. The Feel of the Church—the Interior Design—Feels Like Nothing Else I Experience Outside the Church.
It’s brown. There are bulletin boards, plastic flowers in the restrooms, churchy banners that mean nothing to an outsider, and sometimes worn out carpet, furniture and funky smells.
The church members and staff have been nose-blind to it all for years, but a new person who steps through your front door will instantly notice all of it.
Your first thought reading that list might be that having an outsider attend your service and point all of these things out would be discouraging.
Oddly enough, the opposite tends to be true. This experience is one of our clients’ favorite phases of the whole planning process.
Why? Because as I said at the beginning, once you SEE what an outsider SEES, you can’t UNSEE it.
If you want to reach new people, start trying to see yourself the way they see you.
And, start looking at them the way Jesus looks at them: with a willingness to leave the 99 for the one.
If you’d like some more insight on this topic, I dug a little deeper in a recent episode of The Unstuck Church Podcast (5 Ways to Impress Your Church’s First-Time Guests | Episode 45).
In that episode, I give some suggestions for how to prioritize tackling these issues, where to start and why.
You can listen (and subscribe) here: The Unstuck Church Podcast
Final thought: This matters. Let’s not make it difficult for those who are taking a step toward God. Let’s do everything we can to meet them where they are.
This article originally appeared here.