Six things every visitor to your church wants to know
Visiting a church for the first time can be a strange experience. Most people will feel anywhere between “a little bit awkward” to “downright terrified”. It can be easy to bombard visitors with all kinds of information about your vision, ministries, mid-week groups and events, but here are six easily-forgotten things that first-time visitors actually want to know.
1. Where to park
More often than not, the closest, most convenient or most visible carpark spaces fill up the fastest. If a visitor turns up to your church and there isn’t a clearly marked, easily accessible car space available to them, they won’t feel welcome and might not even get out of the car. There are a couple of ways churches can alleviate this problem: You could encourage and develop a culture in your church of leaving the “prime spots” for visitors (this culture won’t appear overnight — you’ll need to commit to a lot of communication from the front, via email and relationally to make this happen!) You could appoint carpark attendants to direct traffic to the nearest available spots, and not leaving it to the drivers to figure out where to park their car in an unfamiliar place. You could upload a parking map to your website outlining parking spots that aren’t immediately visible but still offer good access to your building. Try to put yourself in the position of a visitor who already feels nervous about coming to a new church, and think about what would help to relieve some of the pressure your might be feeling if you can’t see a convenient place to park.
2. Where to find the toilets
Never underestimate the importance of signage. Of course YOU know where to find the toilets, creche, baby facilities, exits, kids’ programs and information point — you’re here every week! But for the visitor stepping into a building for the very first time, who might not know a single person, a simple arrow will make a world of difference. If your church is like mine and doesn’t have its own building, make sure you laminate a few A3 signs pointing out all the facilities a newcomer might need.
3. Where to sit
Or more specifically, where not to sit. I’ve been in the slightly awkward position of visiting a church while pushing my son in his pram. We sat in an aisle seat, not realising that the church’s fire policy only allowed prams in a particular area on the other side of the auditorium. Fortunately, the ushers were lovely and very politely offered to move the pram for us and showed us an alternative place we could sit, but all could have been avoided if there was clearly marked “pram seating” to begin with. I’ve also seen a situation where a man in a wheelchair arrived right at the start of the service, and all aisle seats were taken (by people who weren’t in wheelchairs or pushing prams!) Make sure your outer-most seats are labelled as “pram and wheelchair seating only”.
4. Where to send their kids
This is especially important if children begin in the service with their parents and are later dismissed. In the flurry of activity as children run out of church to attend their programs, a visitor can easily feel uncomfortable or concerned, not knowing where they’re about to send their children. At our church, each Sunday the service leader will not only dismiss the children, but he will first speak to a slide displaying where each age-group must go, and explain how to access each room. Yes, it’s monotonous for the person who attends each week, but for the visitor who has never seen our building before, it’s imperative. It’s also a good idea to appoint and announce an easily visible “go-to” person that parents can speak to if they still have questions about where their children are meant to go. One of the few things more scary than visiting a church for the first time is sending your children to be taught in a new place by a complete stranger for the first time! Let’s make it as easy as possible for parents to trust us with their children!
5. Where to go for help
Does your church have a table or booth visitors can go to after the service? Or dedicated volunteers ready to greet newcomers? If so, great! This is such a huge part of making newcomers feel welcome and integrating them into the life of your church. But it’s not much use if the visitor can’t find where to go! Make sure your desk/table/booth is clearly labelled, and that your volunteers can be easily distinguished as “there to help”, through shirts, lanyards or name tags.
6. Where to put rubbish
This isn’t so much for newcomers, but for everyone. It’s great to share in tea, coffee and snacks after church, but if there’s nowhere to put rubbish/empty cups/spoons/etc, your coffee stations are going to get very messy, very quickly. Your hospitality team no doubt put in huge amounts of effort making your tea stations look beautiful, but five minutes of everyone dumping old sugar sachets, dirty spoons and empty cups all over the place will make your tea and coffee stations very unappealing to the visitor. Make sure you have lots of bins, all very easily accessible, to keep your tea stations looking beautiful all the way to pack-up time!
After we have been coming to church for a few months/years/decades, it can be easy to forget what it’s like turning up for the first time. Think about your church through the lens of a visitor, and try to identify blind-spots that you’ve become accustomed to, but could play a huge role in making your visitors feel welcome.