When I think back to some of the factors that have helped Saddleback grow through the years, one of the most important has also been one of the most overlooked.
If you want people to show up, you must be nice to people.
Sounds simple, right? It really shouldn't surprise anyone. But even though most churches say they're friendly, some of them really just mean their members are friendly to people they already know. They're friendly to people who look like them and act like them.
And that doesn't guarantee they're friendly to guests.
You must be intentional in your friendliness. You don't overcome unfriendliness by accident. You need to build friendliness into your worship service.
That's why, early on at Saddleback, I instituted the three-minute rule. Guests are usually among the first to leave at the end of a worship service. Longtime members stay the longest. I'd tell my longtime members to find someone who looks like a guest (they are usually easy to spot) and talk with the person right after the service. I'd encourage them to spend some time getting to know these guests and making them feel welcome. They had plenty of time after that to talk with their friends, who'd likely be sticking around anyway.
A guest's first 12 minutes dramatically influence whether he or she will come back or not. You won't get a second chance to make a first impression.
The No. 1 emotion non-Christians experience when they visit a church is fear. They're worried about everything. What will people think? What are they going to do? Will I have to sign something, sing something, sacrifice something or say something? They don't know what will happen, and they're scared to death.
Your first goal is to help them relax. You can't communicate the Good News to them if they're scared and have barriers up. That's why you must start by putting them at ease.
Here are a few ideas to help you do that in the first 12 minutes they're on your campus.
1. Reserve the best parking spots for guests.
When people enter the Saddleback property, we have a sign that asks first-time guests to turn on their headlights to get reserved parking closest to the worship center. If you use reserved parking for guests, you can have friendly greeters welcome guests with a smile and provide important directions as they get out of their cars.
2. Station greeters outside of your building.
People hate to be singled out publicly, but they love to be greeted personally. Because greeters are the first people that guests interact with on your campus, they're among your most important volunteer positions. Make sure you're enlisting people who project personal warmth and readily smile so they make a great first impression.
Don't give your greeters name badges, though. Name badges make people think the greeters are just representatives of the church. Guests will believe they're just paid to be nice.
Also, be sure to select greeters who fit the target demographics you're trying to reach. You want guests to see people with whom they can easily identify.
3. Set up information tables outside of your sanctuary.
You can give these volunteers name badges because you want guests to know where to go with their questions. Try to anticipate these questions as much as you can, and make sure your volunteers can answer the most typical ones. You might also provide some basic printed information about your church at this table.
4. Place directional signs everywhere.
Show people where to find the main entrances to your building, the nursery and particularly the bathrooms. Don't make people guess where the important places on your campus are.
5. Have taped music playing when people enter your buildings.
You'll find music playing in the background in almost all public buildings. Why? People are used to hearing music while out in public. If they walk into your building and it's quiet, it frightens them. They wonder what's going on inside.
Turn the volume on the music up a bit, too. If you play it too softly, people will talk quietly. Guests feel more comfortable when the music is a bit louder as they walk into your building. It'll allow them to relax.
6. Allow guests to remain anonymous in the service.
Don't make them stand up. Your guests don't want the attention!
7. Call them guests, not visitors.
Visitors means they aren't here to stay. Guests are people you'll go out of your way to help feel comfortable.
8. If you use a registration card, make sure everyone gets one.
Don't single out guests by only giving cards to them. Welcome cards are a vital part of our church communications at Saddleback. We use them to register attendance, record spiritual decisions, gather prayer requests, take surveys, sign up for events and programs, recruit leadership, evaluate services and so on. It's a vital link that helps us keep a finger on the pulse of our church.
9. Be at ease yourself.
Like it or not, how the pastor and worship leader interact with each other sets the tone for the whole service—for good or bad.
10. Begin each service by having people greet one another.
At Saddleback, we'll say something like, "Turn around and shake hands with people." Sometimes I'll even tell them to hug someone. Five times in the New Testament we're told to greet one another and share affection, so it's not something to take lightly. For some people, that time in the worship service is the only physical affection they'll receive all week.
11. Offer a refreshment table for each service.
Your guests will hang around after the service if you offer them a cup of coffee and a doughnut. It'll give your members just enough time to meet the guests and begin a conversation. Eating tends to relax people.
Really, it's all about being a good host. A friendly church that consistently shows guests they care about them will grow.
Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church. His book, The Purpose Driven Church, was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th century. He is also founder of pastors.com, a global internet community for pastors.
This article originally appeared at pastors.com.
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