Be Our Guest
Every time I walk into a new church building, my brain goes into overdrive. I take in everything—communication, where things are, how the building is laid out, what type of coffee they are serving—you get the idea. When I go to a new church with my kids, I'm looking specifically for two things: the location of kids' classrooms and bathrooms. How will a first-time guest find those things? There might be some signs, but it's more likely that people will help someone new find their way. If a church is intentional about this, it won't just be random church members, but a guest services team. Your guest services team is the first line of engagement when someone walks into the church building.
More than greeters
Just about everyone has gone into a Walmart. Typically, there is a smiling individual right as you walk in the entrance. They are there to say hello, maybe shake your hand (pre-COVID-19), and give kids a smiley sticker. Guest services in a lot of churches feel like this—their version of customer service includes a few "seasoned saints" at the door to greet you, shake your hand, and hand you a bulletin. While the smile is warm, and sometimes the information is useful, it usually feels like a service line. Smile, shake, go, repeat. We can do better.
Make it an experience
When I think of guest experience, I think about a church I visited in the Atlanta area with my family. When we went, we were flagged over to a parking spot. That day it was raining, so the guest service team had people with umbrellas meet us at our car and walk us to the building. As we approached the door, there was a line of greeters, on either side of the sidewalk, shaking hands, cheering us, and building excitement. When we reached the end of the line, the last person said they were here to show us around. They helped us get signed up for the kids' service, showed us to the coffee, then handed us off the sanctuary greeter, who gave us a bulletin, ushered us to a seat, and introduced us to a couple sitting near us. This kept happening for the next several weeks until we got comfortable. Once we were comfortable with the church and regular attenders, we were the couple that was introduced to new people. This method of guest services won my wife and me over very quickly.
This experience as a family to a new church was amazing, and I've been to several churches where some variant of this took place. You have a whole experience with a guide and a team of people to help someone new get plugged in. It's something you won't forget. To some degree, this is scalable, too. Most churches could get three people at the door to improve their guest's experience. Your guest services, welcome team, or whatever you choose to call it is a great way to integrate new people to start volunteering.
Coming and going
While many people think about the entrance and first impression, it is just as important to think about when people leave. As people leave, you can add a lot of simple extra touches, like an additional point of contact. In many small churches, the pastor does this, but this is another opportunity to have your guest service team step up. You can have people prepared for various weather conditions. Imagine a first-time guest sitting in church seeing the rain come down, or the snow falling outside, but when they get to the door, the guest services team is ready with umbrellas to escort the guest to their car or has cleared the snow from their vehicle during the service.
Get their information
Part of the welcome team and guest service duty is getting important contact information. If the guest has kids, it's often easy to capture this information at check-in. For guests without small children, it can be a little trickier. There is the standard gift exchange—where a guest provides their essential contact information for a gift. If you choose this route, think it through and don't be tacky. My favorite example is giving a "family movie night" (complete with a Redbox code, a popcorn container, and popcorn). A church I worked with explicitly engaged a hunter culture that gave out custom duck calls.
A great way to use technology in your services is to make a digital connect card—something people can do right from their phone. A digital "card" will go quicker for the guest as their phone can auto-fill in a couple of clicks. Most often, churches rely on guests filling out a physical connection card in their seats.
Regardless of how you choose to collect a new person's contact information, the key is: don't force it. Personal information needs to be willingly given and might take some time for a new person to feel comfortable enough to give away their contact.
Just as important as providing the opportunity to collect information is what you do with that information once received. Have people follow up, and have a follow-up and assimilation plan in place. Having a follow-up plan continues the lasting impression.
A fatal flaw in guest services is that the experience is not consistent from week to week. Proper training and scheduling will help create a standard for your guest services team. What happens after that first trip? What about when that first-time guest becomes a second-time guest? It might take a few visits to get new people to feel welcomed. And the chances are that first-time guests may try another church in town, too. Or they might have plans next Sunday. So they might be inconsistent and take a while to return. Be patient, and be excellent.
Treat the role pastorally
I started by saying you need to treat guest services as more than a Walmart greeter, and here's the real switch. Train your guest services team to be pastoral. More specifically, like shepherds. Teach them how to talk past superficial greetings. Train your team to be comforters and the listening ear, and most importantly, teach them to pray. Everything else is workable for any business. But we are a church, so there needs to be more. Giving pastoral training will elevate your team of volunteers more than anything else. It gets you to peoples' hearts.