Seven things churches can do to make or break the experience of First Time Guests

My Aunt Sarah knows how to throw a great party. Christmas, Halloween, and Mardi Gras.  These are just a few of the parties that she’s hosted over the years. 

When you walk through her front door for one of her festivities, you feel right at home. She and her husband Brett, who is a Big Green Egg master (more on the BGE in a future post), demonstrate hospitality and generosity on an unprecedented level. From the food, to the drinks, to the decorations, to the activities…everything is designed to make every guest feel welcome. Needless to say, we always have a blast at Aunt Sarah’s parties!

Early this year, we received an invitation from Sarah to join her for a birthday celebration in honor of her five year old. When we arrived, Sarah surprised all of us with a special birthday party that honored every member of our extended family who had a birthday from January to March.

Why to March, you ask? Because last year, my Aunt Sarah had a party to honor several of us who have January birthdays and Mamaw (my dear grandmother), who was born in March, asked where her cake was! This year, Sarah wanted to be certain to include Mamaw in the celebration, and she wasn’t about to “leave out” anyone who had a birthday between January and March!

In total, the party featured ELEVEN CAKES! All baked according to each birthday girl or boy’s favorite flavor (except for two specially-ordered ice cream cakes for the youngest birthday boys and one fabulous cheese cake that her oldest son requested). All of the cakes were displayed on cake stands. And thanks to my sister-in-law, Brandi, all the cakes had personalized name cards below them. 

After an amazing BBQ dinner, each honoree took turns sitting at the head of the table while we lit the candles, sang Happy Birthday, and cheered wildly…. ELEVEN TIMES!  Jennifer managed to snap a few pictures:

Now that’s what I call “Radical Hospitality!” This is something that we (at the church) talk about on a regular basis. And my Aunt Sarah has this down pat.

United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase has this to say about “Radical Hospitality” in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations:

“Radical means ‘drastically different from the ordinary practice, outside the normal,’ and so it provokes practices that exceed expectations, that go the second mile, that take welcoming the stranger to the max. It means people offering the absolute utmost of themselves, their creativity, their abilities, and their energy to offer the gracious invitation and reception of Christ to others.”

Isn’t that a great definition of what it means to show hospitality to the stranger?  But what does that look like within the church?

Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where first impressions are the most powerful impressions and often the most lasting ones at that. We see this in virtually every aspect of our culture, and the church is no exception. As a result, I spend a great deal of time encouraging and challenging our staff and lay members who serve in our welcoming ministries to regularly put on their “first-time guest glasses” and think like a person who is visiting our church for the first time. 

What do we see when we adopt this point of view?

When we put ourselves in the position of a first-time guest, we become more aware of the things that help people feel welcomed, and conversely, those things that make people feel out of place. Think about the first time you visited a place that was unfamiliar. Whether it was a new job, a new school, a new store, or a new church, it’s likely that you didn’t know exactly where you were going. 

Was it easy to find a place to park? 

Was the layout of the building intuitive, and were there volunteers available to assist you? 

Was it easy to find a restroom or water fountain? 

For first time guests at a local church, it’s these little things that can make a first time visit stressful. Add to this, the possibility of a single parent (with multiple children in tow) wondering where the nursery or children’s Sunday School classrooms are located. If not managed well, these things can become a recipe for disaster. This is why local churches must always keep their “first time guest glasses” on and continually find ways to improve the experience of their first-time guests.

But how can individual church members help their churches in this endeavor? I’m asked this quite often by members of my own congregation, my colleagues, and friends who attend other local churches. So I’ve put together a list of practical things congregations can do to ensure that their churches are characterized by “Radical Hospitality.”

Now I must warn you that the items on this list are embarrassingly simple and may seem obvious to the point of being insulting. But you would be surprised at how many growing churches and successful businesses still miss the mark when it comes to practicing “Radical Hospitality.”

1. Parking: Parking closest to the building should be reserved for first time guests, people with medical conditions, the elderly, single parents, and families with very young children. Church members can demonstrate Radical Hospitality each week by parking as far away from the church as possible. If your church has a remote parking lot, use it! Even if there are spaces available to park at the main campus.

2. Signage: First time guests should never have to wonder where the main entrance to the church is located or where they need to go once they are inside. Signs should be strategically placed both outside of the building and throughout the interior pointing people to the worship space, children’s check-in, restrooms, stairwells, elevators, and the fellowship space. If a church building is really large and includes numerous stairwells, “You Are Here” maps are also very helpful to orient guests when they arrive at each entrance of the building.

3. Greeters: Related to Signage, churches should recruit large numbers of easily identifiable people to be available in the parking lot and throughout the building to welcome guests to the church, help them identify where they need to go, and accompany them to their destination if necessary. It is critical that these volunteers are friendly and familiar with all Sunday morning programming so that they can answer questions “on the fly” about worship services, Sunday school, the nursery, children’s programming, etc.

4. Facilities: Whether new or old, church facilities should be clean, bright, clutter-free, and attractive. They should also smell good. This is especially true for the children’s area, including both Sunday school classrooms and the nursery. While I know first-hand that many churches are often restricted by tight budgets, it is amazing what a weekend of de-cluttering, cleaning, and a little fresh paint can do for a building!

5. Restrooms: Related to facilities, it is important that churches place emphasis on the quality and condition of their restrooms. At the church Jennifer and I served for the last eleven years, we had the privilege of participating in a campus relocation which included the construction of an entirely new church building. From the time we began meeting with the architects, I harped on the importance of the restrooms. And people made fun of me for it! But I dug my heels in, knowing from the advice of my mentors, that they were important. Specifically, they needed to include large numbers of stalls, changing tables for babies, lots of counter-top space, high quality disposable towels, and lots of nice-smelling soap! Our staff went the extra mile and stocked the bathrooms with special “energy” and “stress relief” soaps from Bath & Body Works ®. I can’t tell you how many people commented on the quality of the restrooms once we moved into the new building. (BTW, we also added some extra money to our janitorial supply budget so that we could afford ultra-soft toilet paper!)

6. Refreshments: If you really want to make a good first impression, offer free refreshments like coffee, tea, water, fresh fruit and/or donuts. If this isn’t currently in your church budget, develop a plan to build it in. Free refreshments demonstrate “Radical Hospitality” by way of “Extravagant Generosity” (another term I learned from Bishop Robert Schnase). The church we now serve has really stepped up its game in this area and the response has been overwhelmingly positive!


7. Sanctuary Seating: First time guests are very often late to worship. “Why,” you ask? Because getting to a new church, finding a parking space, navigating a maze of unfamiliar hallways, and checking children into the nursery can take a long time! As a result, first time guests regularly find themselves walking into a worship service after it has already started. You can make them feel so much more welcome and comfortable by taking a seat closer to the front and center of the worship space so that the seats in the back and along the outside aisles are available for people who are running a few minutes late. Imagine how embarrassing it would be for you to have to walk all the way down to the front of the church in order to find a place to sit…while the service was in progress. Now imagine having to do that as a first time guest!

Make no mistake, just as we are called to “go out” and spread the love of Jesus Christ in our communities and throughout the world, so too can we demonstrate the love of Christ to those who “come in” to our presence through Radical Hospitality. 

What can you do to help make your church be one that is characterized by Radical Hospitality?

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Hebrews 13:2

7 thoughts on “Seven things churches can do to make or break the experience of First Time Guests

  1. Those are many of the reasons we felt so at home at AUMC when we first visited and ultimately led to us joining the church. Thanks for fighting for #5, it is a great facility 🙂

  2. This is fantastic! I hope others take these tips and incorporate them into their churches. As a family with quadruplet toddlers, we are anxious about our first venture with them to a new church. We would feel much more at ease if these things were taken into account. On the topic of hospitality in general- LOVE Sarah’s birthday bash idea. Our family should try that. And for course we could all be a bit kinder and friendlier in our day to day lives.

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