The Power of First Impressions

We had just moved across the country with our two small children. We didn’t know anyone in the area besides my new ministry colleagues at Arrow Leadership. We longed for community and eagerly wanted to get connected to a local church.

Here’s what happened on the first Sunday morning in our new city:

Church #1 – As we approached the front doors, we felt a mix of excitement and growing anxiety. The greeter was pleasant and went searching for an answer to our question about the nursery. Unfortunately, she didn’t come back. So, after standing in the lobby for several minutes, we made our way into the sanctuary. The welcome there was cool but we did learn that care for little kids was ‘self-serve’ during the service.

Ten minutes into the service our two little kids were squirming and crying.  Five minutes later it was just the four of us – alone – in the self-serve nursery. In our quest for community, we decided to try the church just up the road.

Church #2 – We unbuckled the kids from their car seats (again) and made our way with growing anxiety to the front door.  There we discovered the sign – the service would be outdoors with no children’s ministry. We didn’t want to risk chasing the kids around the service, so we got them back into their car seats (again) and drove on.

Church #3 – My wife popped inside to preview the setting. She was back within seconds. This older congregation was very welcoming but didn’t have any children’s ministry. They said, “If we had known you were coming, we would have asked for someone’s niece or nephew to look after your kids.” Our hearts sank. We kept driving…

Church #4 – We were desperate by this point and were thrilled to check our kids into the children’s ministry.  We joined the service already in progress.  There we listened to the student intern’s first sermon – which sadly, was painful for him and everyone else.

Four churches…one Sunday morning.  Our ride home was very quiet. I was deeply troubled. It wasn’t just that we were still alone and unconnected in a new city. It wasn’t the crying need for children’s ministry or personal conviction about our relatively consumer-driven approach to finding a church. Here’s what was bothering me:

1. I Had Forgotten About The Front Door

I had forgotten what it was like to work up the courage to walk through the front doors of a new church. I had arrived through the ‘backdoor’ as a pastor for a number of years and the hopes, fears and experience of a new visitor were off my radar. I was wondering how many visitors may have had poor first experiences at my former church…

2. I Grieved the Consequences of Poor First Impressions

I imagined what we would do if we were an ‘unchurched’ family who had worked up the boldness to walk through the doors of a local church – and then had the experience we did. The answer was simple – we’d never ever go again. Instead, we’d say ‘we tried’ and then go to the recreation center or the mall or the park or just stay home.

I recognize that our brief encounters with these four churches were not a realistic measure of their health or effectiveness. I’m also thankful that after several lonely months of perseverance we were directed to a warm and caring church community (with a great children’s ministry).

However, the reminder about first impressions lingers. Our ‘front door’ for people – website, phone system, greeters, stationery, signage, lobby, etc. – matters.  With a new ministry season on the horizon, it’s important for ministry leaders to be intentional in thinking through people’s first experiences with your church (or organization).  Here are a few exercises and questions to help create a positive first experience for visitors:

  1. Try to imagine afresh what it’s like to be a first-time visitor to a church (or seeking to reconnect to a church). Ask someone who doesn’t go to church or has recently returned to share their hopes, fears, expectations, etc. Make a list of descriptors.
  2. Think through what kind of experience you want a visitor would have at your church. Make a list of 5-10 descriptive words.
  3. Where are the gaps between your desired first-time experience and reality?
  4. Who has the experience of first-timers on their radar?
  5. Who is championing this vision across the church or organization?

Do you know a pastor or church leader who is ramping up for fall ministry launch?  Please use the share button to send this article to them.