7 First Impression Lessons from a Church Shopper

Opening disclosure. This post is going to seem negative, and I am far from a negative person. The glass is always over half full for me. I actually intend it to be positive if it encourages churches. 

The transition 18 months ago to the Dallas area was difficult when it came to finding a church to call home. In fact, I ended up taking a short-term interim pastor position for a softer landing. I grew up in the church where my parents and grandparents attended. We were there until I surrendered to vocational ministry at 38 years of age. Then I spent 16 years serving as a pastor. 

I have never been a church “shopper” until we moved to Dallas. 

But Cheryl and I learned a lot. 

First Impressions or Guest Relations, whatever term you choose to use, was always high on my priority list as a pastor. We weren’t perfect, but we were extremely intentional in thinking through how we considered visitors from the moment they Googled “church” to how we followed up with them once they came. 

I think my motivation came from my years in the business world. When I was in retail management I knew that the way the store looked, the merchandise was presented, and our associates treated shoppers were all vitally important parts of motivating someone to buy an item. 

Our experience

After visiting lots of different churches, in Dallas and in other cities, I have come to realize how poorly many churches do in this critical area – at a time when church visitors are harder to come by than ever before. 

I would never call any names, but in the first three churches we visited not one person said hello to us. And in two of them we attended Bible study. (True story!) We even filled out information cards, and no one contacted us. Not even an email! 

And I wish I could say that type experience ended after those three churches. It didn’t.

We started asking around and went to some churches where people told us they were very friendly. They weren’t. We often left feeling no one even knew we were there. They may be very friendly if you already knew everyone’s inside stories and the names of their kids, but they weren’t to outsiders – at least not to us.

We saw churches that had greeters, but the greeters didn’t smile and they were usually busy catching up with people they already knew. 

Please understand two things.

First, these were all good churches. I have no doubt every church we visited is making disciples. I am just sharing our experience, because I think it matters if we want to help first-time visitors (some who may not even have a relationship with Christ) become growing disciples. 

Even more important for you to understand if you’ve made it this far reading – I’m FOR the local church. This is not meant to be complaining. I want the Church to succeed and even believe the Church is the hope of the world. I’ve spent my ministry years trying to help the Church flourish. Cheryl and I always said if we weren’t serving on a church staff we want to be the best church members possible. 

I should also point out that we did find friendly churches. We found churches doing a good job at welcoming visitors. I have to be honest though that we found more that simply weren’t. 

It might also be important to know we visited primarily larger churches (500+ in attendance). This was simply because the churches that Leadership Network primarily served at the time were larger churches.

The bottom line is that if we miss first impressions, we are going to have a very difficult time growing our churches. 

7 First Impression lessons I learned as a church shopper: 

Websites matter. I don’t think I’m unusual in the fact that I never visited a church where I had not first spent time on their website. First I went to their staff page, previewed some sermons, and also checked out their Facebook and/or Instagram page mostly looking for pictures. Pictures tell a lot!

The fact that there are churches with no website amazes me. Perhaps even more is when I see a church with lots of resources that has an outdated, hard to navigate website. 

Parking lots matter. Pulling into the parking lot starts the experience of a church visit. We were so confused many times, not knowing what door to enter or where to park relative to the auditorium. Some had parking lot volunteers, but they weren’t engaging. 

I should note that we almost never used visitor parking. Some of this is because we wanted to save them for others, but also, especially as an Introvert, I didn’t want to be identified until I was ready to be identified. I did want to know where I was going though. 

Signage matters. Maybe this is just me, but I’d rather try to find my way if I can before I ask. Granted, we visited mostly larger churches, but some of them were so difficult to navigate. Some churches had no signage at all and some had signage written in a language we didn’t speak. For example, a catchy name for a building is nice, but if I want to go to the auditorium a building called “The Alley” (I made that one up) isn’t going to help me.

Imagine a family with a child wanting to go the the student ministry. If it’s in a separate building or on the other side of the building from the auditorium, calling it “The Deck” (I made that one up too) probably isn’t going to help them get there on time. And what student (or adult) loves to walk in late their first Sunday. 

Trained volunteers matter. Signage can’t solve everything. When a visitor makes the effort to ask someone, the person they ask should be able to help. We once asked a person who was handing out bulletins where a Bible study class was. He told us he didn’t know. Period. He didn’t tell us who to ask or direct us to where we could get the information, but that he simply didn’t know. 

Also, I am not sure you can have too many volunteers in this area of guest relations (starting in the parking lot). We wanted someone close enough to ask questions, but not so close that I felt uncomfortable. 

First Impressions matter. Entering the doors of a church the first time is hard. It was for me, but also for my extroverted wife. A smiling face goes a long way. Please, let me say this in love. You may not be as friendly as you think you are. This is an area I talked to our church about from behind the pulpit (or table I used) many times. It takes intentional vision-casting to remind people to be friendly to people they don’t already know. The atmosphere matters. You see the church every Sunday. It is your “home”. Visitors are new. They notice what you won’t.

Follow up matters. Again, we were surprised by the number of churches that did very little follow up if any. One church that did impress us was likely not even part of their system, but it could be systematized. A Bible study leader (a very friendly one) followed up with us a couple of months after we had visited their class. He just checked in to see if we needed anything or had found a class. Awesome! We truly felt “noticed”. 

All hands on deck matters. The one thing made clear to both my wife and me is that having a church that’s really “visitor friendly” probably starts at the top and trickles all the way throughout the church. 

I told you in the beginning this was going to appear negative. I expect some to criticize my use of the term “church shopper” and that we entered with a consumer mentality rather than a disciple mentality. Really, we just wanted to find a church. But I want you to know I really do want to help. This is such a critical part of our churches. By the way, I believe it enough that Cheryl and I joined the greeting ministry at the church where we attend. 

Yesterday I announced that I am beginning my own consulting practice. I hope to be a resource to churches in this area of Impressions. For some churches that could be onsite consulting to evaluate everything such as signage and appearance to training volunteers. Other churches may benefit in time from some online offerings – even if it is more discussions here on my blog. 

This is something I have come to realize is very important. It’s personal to me now and I want to help. I might suggest you take a few minutes and process some of this with your church staff or volunteers.

If you are a church that wants me to come to you, maybe even help you prepare for guests on Easter, send me an email and let’s talk. (Ron.Edmondson@gmail.com) 

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Ron Edmondson

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  • Ron says:

    My experience mirrors yours Ron. When we moved here three years ago we visited several churches and were shocked at what we experienced. I guess I should say upfront that I don’t feel the need to apologize in advance for what some perceive as negative, so here goes!

    We attended one church three weeks in a row. The first two Sundays only the pastor spoke to us. The third Sunday the pastor and his worship leader said hello. We decided not to return for any more of this. On a side note, I emailed the pastor to tell him our experiences and never heard a word from him.

    We then visited another church after Christmas and were immediately put off by a comment from someone in the church. We had just made our way through the foyer which was filled with Christmas decorations. I made a casual observation to no one in particular that “someone sure must love to decorate”. Out of nowhere a lady set me straight by telling me that “our First Lady loves Christmas, thank you”. Wow! So we enter the sanctuary and the pastors wife introduces herself and proceeds to tell my daughter that she has a son her age and he is looking for a new girlfriend. I later emailed this pastor as well and again received no response.

    We finally settled in a church, and by ‘settled’ I mean we got tired of the search and simply quit looking. We are not at all satisfied with where we are but just aren’t ready to begin looking again, especially given what we’ve already experienced.

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