Church Growth

6 Things First-Time Guests Notice But Pastors Overlook

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The term “curse of knowledge” was coined in a 1989 Journal of Political Economy article by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. It’s is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand. Simply put, the curse of knowledge is what causes you to forget what it’s like to not know what you know.

Once you know 2+2 = 4 you can never not know. The same is true for teachers who have mastered a subject but are unable to understand the struggle of a new student. Or a long-time employee who knows how to complete her job without a manual but struggles to explain the procedure to a new employee.

In a 1990 experiment by a Stanford University, a group of subjects were asked to “hum” well-known songs, while another group tried to name the melodies. When the “hummers” were asked to predict how many of the songs would be recognized by listeners, they would always overestimate. The “hummers” were so familiar with what they were humming that they assumed listeners would easily recognize the tune, but they rarely did.

That’s the problem with the curse of knowledge, familiarity causes you to assume something is obvious while other people are oblivious. Specifically, in terms of leadership, the COK lulls you to sleep, and what was once new or effective or obvious, blends into the background of your responsibilities.

For a church leader, it is a dangerous problem, since we are trying to reach new people with the message of the Gospel. We’ve walked through the doors of our church 300 times, but they haven’t. We’ve sung the worship songs 50 times, but they haven’t. We’ve pulled into the parking lot 1000 times… you get the point. The guests who visit your church don’t know what you know, so you shouldn’t assume their experience is the same as your experience.

How can you protect yourself against the curse of knowledge? It’s not easy. It requires intentionality and enough humility to admit that your way may no longer be the most effective way, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With the help of the Holy Spirit and the feedback of fresh eyes, you can work towards being sure that guests have a great experience, even if they don’t know everything you know.

Let me give you 6 things first-time guests notice that pastors often overlook:

1. The Parking Lot

In most cases, the pastor or pastoral staff arrive at the church very early, much earlier than the regular attendees and guests. That means you’ve probably never experienced what it feels like to park 3 minutes before service starts, or what the environment feels like when you step out of your car.

When it comes to your parking lot, don’t just think about parking space, think about the kind of first impression you want to make. The parking lot is the first experience a guest has with your church. Is there anyone to meet them? Is there any music playing to create a mood? Does it look organized or clean? If they had to decide whether or not they will like the church based on the parking lot, what do you think they would say?

A couple who are now leaders in my church told me about the first Sunday they visited. They sat in their car for 15 minutes deciding if they wanted to come in the building or not. They were people-watching to see if this was the “kind” of church they thought they might like.

After hearing their story, our church decided to make the parking lot a priority. We have plenty of places to park cars, but we wanted to make sure when someone pulled in we sent the message, “We’re glad you’re here, and you’re going to be glad you’re here.”

  • We placed 2-3 parking lot volunteers outside. We call them pastors of the pavement. (We made them wear the bright orange vests, even though they didn’t want to because it looks professional)
  • We installed a speaker loud enough to be heard throughout the entire parking lot and play upbeat, fun music throughout the entire day.
  • We started parking cars on the front grass (when the weather is good) even though we have room in the back because it looks like more people are there (most people want to be a part of the crowd)

It doesn’t take a lot of money; it just requires a lot of intentionality, but a great parking lot experience can be the first step in opening someone’s heart to the message.

Bonus tip: First-time guests often arrive earlier than regular attendees (they don’t know everyone shows up late ????) so be sure to have parking lot volunteers in place as early as possible. There’s nothing worse than showing up to church 20 minutes early and feeling like you’re all alone.

2. Property Cleanliness/Upkeep

Similar to the parking lot experience, the outer appearance of your church sends a strong message to first-time guests. Whether it’s fare or not, if your property looks like no one cares about it, the assumption by a guest is that no one will care about them. It probably wouldn’t take a lot of money to make significant improvements, a fresh coat of paint or new plant can go a long way.

I wrote more about how the appearance of your property has the potential to reach the thousands of cars which drive by every day in this post but it’s worth considering the following questions when it comes to the appearance of your property:

  • Are their weeds that need to pulled?
  • Is the grass cut each week? (preferably on a day close to Sunday)
  • Is the parking lot well-lit at night (this solution is more expensive but has the potential for you to stand out in the evening)
  • Would a colorful banner help convey the personality of the church?
  • Does the outside of the building need to be pressure washed or painted?
  • Does any trash need to be picked up?
  • Could fresh flowers give the property a new look?

Because we see the church property almost every day, we become familiar with things that are out of place or unclean, but you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Bonus Tip: Set a recurring date on the church calendar each year to have a church clean-up day around the start of springtime. I’m willing to bet one good Saturday would make a big difference.

3. Building Signage

Have you ever been to a new restaurant and not been able to find the bathroom? Or has a store recently changed the aisles and now you can’t find things in their usual place? It’s really frustrating, isn’t it? That’s how first time guests feel when they can’t find their way around the building.

I know it seems obvious to you, but that’s because you know every nook and cranny of your property and have keys to all the classrooms. How would someone who has never stepped foot in your building know where to check-in their children, or find the restroom?

I stubbornly fought the need for signage for years. Our church is an older A-frame building with a Sunday School square, so I just assumed everyone knew where they were going, I mean there’s only left turns! I was wrong. If someone feels lost, they are apprehensive. They don’t want to have to ask where to go, and neither do you.

At a minimum, you should have visible, clear signage that directs people to the bathroom, kid’s classrooms, and the sanctuary. If you don’t know how to create a sign or have the ability to do so, call your local print shop, and they will be able to help you easily.

At our church, we decided to take this a step further a few months ago to help people find our “next steps” class. The class is towards the back of the building, and for years, from the stage, we would say, “just exit the sanctuary and take a left, you will see the room on the right.” It seemed easy enough to me, but I’ve been at my church for 15 years. Now we have a volunteer stand the lobby following each service with a sign that says, “Follow me to Launch” and they walk with each participant to the classroom (it also allows them a chance to get their name and “hand them off” to the class leader with a personal introduction.)

Bonus Tip: The best signs in your church are your volunteers. We stress to our team, “Don’t point. Walk with.” In the event someone still needs directional help, it’s an excellent opportunity for a volunteer to strike up a conversation and connect while they walk with someone to their destination.

4. Kid’s Safety

There are many ways to get guests to return to your church for a second visit, but let me give you one way to be confident they won’t: A parent believes their child was not cared for.

Nothing is more important to a parent who visits your church than the way their child is treated, and if that parent believes in any way their child is not safe, it doesn’t matter how great your sermon, facility, or worship is, they’re not coming back. The opposite is also true, though. If a child tells their parent about a great experience, it doesn’t matter how good the sermon, facility, or worship, they will be back.

The quality of the children’s ministry can be a challenge when resources and volunteers are limited, but the good news is it doesn’t take state of the art technology to convince a parent their child is cared for. A first-time guest parent wants to know 3 things when they visit: It is safe? Is it fun? Is it clean? And all three of those things can be accomplished at any size on any budget.

Here are a few ideas to help you provide a safer and cleaner children’s ministry:

  • Require kid’s check-in and check-out
  • Ask the parent for any vital information (allergies, medication, etc.) when the child is dropped off the first time
  • Position a cop or volunteer security guard at the main entrance to the children’s area
  • Have the children’s leader or pastor follow up with the parent during the week just to encourage the parent.
  • Have volunteers come in during the week and wipe down the toys with Clorox wipes
  • Walk with the first time family to introduce them to their child’s teacher

These are just a few examples that put a first-time guest at ease. For better or worse, most pastor’s kids are very comfortable in the church, and most pastors are comfortable with their kids having a lot of freedom in the church. That makes it challenging to see your children’s ministry from a guests point of view. The whole time they are sitting in your service, they are thinking about their child. Are they ok? Are they having fun? Do I need to go check on them?

If you’re past the age of having small children, or you’re unsure about how to make your children’s ministry safe, clean, and fun, ask a few moms to help you create a strategy. It’s too important not to fix.

Bonus Tip: Almost all check-in software will tell you when a child in the database has a birthday. We have trained our volunteers to celebrate birthdays when the computers notify them upon check-in, and they get a postcard in the mail the week of their birthday. It doesn’t take as much work as you might think.

5. Insider Language

Of all the things we do at church to isolate guests, none is probably more prevalent than insider language. It’s hard to catch because it comes so natural to us. We assume everyone knows what we mean, but they don’t.

I’m not just talking about “Christenese” phrases or worship metaphors, even though the point could be made, I’m talking more about insider language that assumes everyone knows everything in the church. See if any of these phrases sound familiar:

  • “Just stop by the office before you leave”
  • “The meeting will be at the Wilson’s house Wednesday night, let them know if you can make it.”
  • “Pick up the papers off the table in the foyer”

Insider language unintentionally sends the message, if you don’t know what we’re talking about it, you can’t participate. No pastor wants to convey that message, but often time we fail to plan our announcements and “filler” talk, and we revert to what’s comfortable and familiar… to us. (raise your hand if you even prayed a bunch of extra times in service because you didn’t know how to transition ????‍♂️)

Here are a few suggestions to help you guard against using insider language:

  • Make sure every place has a name and a sign, that way everyone who touches a microphone knows what to call it (is it a foyer or a lobby? A sanctuary or an auditorium? etc.)
  • Write out announcements ahead of time. It can feel unnecessary, but when preachers start winging it we get long winded and less clear.
  • Introduce yourself every week as the pastor
  • Use an “official” sign up/registration method for all your events and activities. It may feel like overkill, but it makes it accessible to everyone

Bonus Tip: Nothing will help you identify insider language like personally inviting an unchurched friend to church with you. If it’s been a while since someone came to a church based on your invitation, begin praying for God to open your heart and some doors to connect with people who need Jesus.

6. Friendliness (clicks)

If I asked you whether or not your church was friendly, I’m almost certain you would say, “yes!” If nothing else, you’re friendly, and you try to connect with new people, so that counts for something, right?

The curse knowledge probably affects the area of relationships more than any other because when you are connected, you assume, it’s easy for everyone to connect, but it’s not. When a first-time guest walks through the doors of your church, they notice everyone who doesn’t talk to them, AND they notice who everyone is talking to.

This Sunday, minutes before the service begins, go into the sound booth or somewhere where you can see the whole sanctuary and look at where pockets of people form. I think you’ll find a few people gathered together enjoying conversation, but with their backs turned to the rest of the congregation. You’ll probably also find guests sitting by themselves not talking to anyone. No one does it on purpose, but over time, natural groups form and people end up ignoring those they don’t know.

Unfortunately, the church doesn’t have a reputation of being the friendliest place to visit, but the good news is that means the bar of expectation is set low, and any effort to be kind and welcoming goes a long way. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Schedule “talkers” whose job is to walk around the sanctuary before service and talk to anyone who looks new. Often we schedule volunteers to greet outside of the sanctuary so once a guest gets to their seat no one talks to them for the rest of service
  • Add 3 “touches” of contact from the parking lot to the pew. I know some people say too much greeting is annoying, but err on the side of too much hospitality and kindness.
  • Send a personal handwritten postcard to every guest who feels out a connect card.

Bonus Tip: Give guests something to signify they are a guest. Everyone else doesn’t have to know, but the key staff and volunteers will know so they can identify who the guests are. Our church gives the gift for a first-time gift in a blue bag, so anytime we see someone carrying a blue bag, we know it’s their first time.

It can be intimidating and exhausting to try and think of all the ways to create an exceptional guest experience, but it’s essential to try to see things from their perspective, and over time that gets harder and harder to do.

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Jason Isaacs
Jason Isaacs

By Jason Isaacs