You get 10 minutes to make a first impression; here are the big things I look for when I visit a church.
Let me preface what I’m about to write by saying that basic and foundational things like prayer, discipleship and evangelism (having an externally-focused church as I’ve stated before) are all a given. Each church should take the Great Commission seriously and have an emphasis on the “go” and on the “make disciples.” I start everything with prayer and so please know that what I’m about to discuss is with the above-stated things as must-haves and what I consider foundational to a healthy church.
With that being said, let me share with you the “big four” that I look for when I visit a church, secret shop a church or consult with a church. As the Scripture encourages us—we should compel them to come in.
The big four that I look for when I do a secret shopper are first impressions, children’s, security and worship.
As many studies have shown us, people make up their mind whether or not they will return long before the worship service and especially the sermon. Most visitors will know in the first 10 minutes if they will return to your church.
Let’s start with what I consider to be the most crucial of all ministries at a church. Whether you call it first impressions, hospitality or guest relations, it matters and is paramount to breaking down walls and making guests feel welcome at your church.
“You’ve got 10 minutes. Somewhere between the parking lot and the children’s center, the 10 minutes pass. They should know they matter to us before they hear how much they matter to God.” —Mark Waltz, Granger
Something I tell all the churches I work with is: You must be strategic and intentional about breaking down any barriers of intimidation. You must be strategic and intentional about creating warm, welcoming environments.
Now, I could spend an entire series on just first impressions. This is everything from your online presence (social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as your website). For example, when I do a secret shopper visit, I create 10–15 pages in my report on just online presence before I ever leave to attend their physical campus.
Once one comes to your physical campus the real fun begins. First impressions then include the parking lot, greeters, ushers and people who greet you at your church’s welcome or information booth. First impressions also include things like the smell (your church may stink), signage (your church may be intimidating and confusing for new people) and how your facility is kept up and maintained. All these things play subtle parts in a guest’s first impression of your church.
Maybe I’m biased because I have three kids, but I believe in having a strong and attractive children’s ministry. A lot of churches target parents in their mid-20s to mid-40s, and the best way to compel them is to offer a children’s ministry so dynamic that kids drag their parents to church.
I dive deeper into the big three that I look for in every children’s ministry in my book, but for now, let me suggest that you make children’s ministry a priority. I’ve seen churches that spent millions on their worship center and have dumpy children’s facilities. I’d never return with my family to churches like that. Show me and your community that kids are important and that you care about partnering with parents to be a help in their spiritual growth. We all know the statistics on the likelihood of people accepting Christ after age 18. Student ministries (children’s through youth) are vital to fulfilling the Great Commission.
This is probably the most overlooked part of most churches I visit. Most church leaders have never sat down and intentionally and strategically thought through how and why they do security. I wish this weren’t important and that you didn’t have to have some kind of security presence, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. If there had only been one church shooting, that would be enough. I’m sad to say that several churches have experienced the tragedy of shootings—not to mention molestation and kidnapping.
Bottom-line: If I’m worried about my kids’ safety, I’m not going to enjoy the worship service, and I will miss what God wants to do in my heart through the experience of corporate worship.
Security includes everything from people’s cars in the parking lot, to the safety of infants in the nursery, to children’s facilities, check-in and check-out procedures, mentally ill people acting out in the middle of a service, and protecting the senior pastor. Every great church with a well-known senior pastor that I’ve worked with had a bodyguard standing next to the pastor for his protection. This is not for show or something for rock stars. This is something real and needed to protect that man of God from people that mean to do him harm. When you stand for truth and speak against sin you become a target for many that live in darkness. If you haven’t done so already, think through every aspect of security in your organization. I just returned from a church in California that had security people covering every single entrance and exit to their children’s ministry. It was a beautiful thing to see and made me feel safe as a parent.
I know there’s a lot of discussion and debate about whether a church should be attractional or missional. I’ve talked extensively about it all over the country. I’m a both/and person and like for a church to seek to be both, but when it comes to the corporate worship service—I look for an attractional model. Again, compel them to come in. Blow your people and your community away with excellence and an environment that allows the Holy Spirit of God to move.
I’ve never gotten over Sally Morgenthaler’s book Worship Evangelism. I think lost people can be moved by witnessing genuine and authentic worship happening. I also know God moves through the preaching of his Word. Please know I’m not talking to just large churches. I work with several small churches. They do things with excellence and for a small church, blow me away.
Regardless of what size church you have, you should think through worship flow, song selection, authenticity, communication/preaching and every aspect of what you want people to experience each week when you gather. Are sound, video and lights important? I think so, but you don’t have to have the best of the best to see God move. One of the most special and memorable services we did at Bent Tree when I was there had a stripped down music set with no technology.
Whether you’re in a school, movie theater, gym or worship center—you can seek to create an environment where people encounter the Living God.
Please know these are not biblical laws or scriptural requirements. These are just four keys that I look for when I visit a church, and I’ve found over the years that the churches that do these four things well will see God bless their church in amazing ways. Think through each as a team, and prayerfully consider how you can do each to the best of your ability.
This article which originally appeared on GregAtkinson.com was excerpted from Church Leadership Essentials by Greg Atkinson. Courtesy of Rainer Publishing © 2014. All rights reserved.