A colleague of mine once visited a mega-church in southern California while on vacation. The 6,000 seat auditorium was filled to capacity that Sunday morning. He was quite surprised when, during the ritual exchange of the secret Churchman’s handshake, an elderly lady made her way down the aisle from several rows back to greet him with a, “Hi, this is your first time here, isn’t it?”
He was flabbergasted! “Yes, it is. How did you know?”
“Because you’re sitting in my seat.”
According to my friend this is a true story.
Church visitors: opportunity and challenge
Church visitors present an opportunity and a challenge. Churches big and small have many opportunities throughout the year to welcome guests and start the assimilation process. Eventually, a significant percentage of church visitors should become fully engaged in the life of the congregation.
But church visitors also present a variety of challenges. The hospitality crew and folks in the congregation should connect with them multiple times before and after the service. The service itself should leave the guests feeling challenged by the Word and uplifted by the worship. The professional way in which information is conveyed, not overwhelming them but giving just enough to help them know the next step in your process is vital lest your guests be left wondering what to do next.
Some mega-churches fail church visitors
Let me state up front that this is not a rap on megachurches. I’ve seen plenty of medium-sized churches and small churches make an #epicfail with church guests! But the vast resources available to larger churches should put them in a class by themselves when it comes to treating church visitors and visitor assimilation.
Sadly, many of them fail.
Former mega-church pastor Geoff Surratt recounted his experience as an anonymous visitor at nine different mega-churches. Not surprisingly, he discovered that big churches are invariably far less welcoming than they imagine. In a bid to be helpful he offers several “tried and true” suggestions to address the problem. Among the suggestions are teaching on hospitality, auditorium “hosts” (my term, not his) and “gorilla greeters” (his term, not mine!) and the “make it easy to navigate” idea. All good ideas in and of themselves, but they will not solve the problem.
Because the typical mega-church embraces the idea of welcoming, connecting and enfolding in theory (an “aspirational” value) but it will not become reality until two mission critical components are calibrated properly: vision and metrics.
Church visitors victimized by church metrics
Mega-church staff and pastors are trapped in a dilemma created by the Church Growth movement – the assumption that bigger is better and that attendance inevitably produces spiritual maturity. This perspective on the disciple making process inevitably leads to metrics like attendance, income, visitor returns and so forth. In time the relentless demands of schedules, logistics, and buildings become the vision; keeping the machine running smoothly becomes the mission, and it happens with no one noticing. Inevitably, as the Surratts experienced, attending a mega-church is like going to Walmart the day after Thanksgiving – it is a madhouse!
I’ve seen this from the inside so I have an idea of more appropriate metrics that will move a mega-church in the direction of becoming genuinely engaging, warm and welcoming:
- How many first time visitors did the greeters meet at the door to the auditorium?
- To how many regular attendees did the official greeter introduce the new guests?
- How many first time visitors were greeted by a staff member (Other than children’s and youth pastors all of them should circulate in the auditorium before and after services)
- How many prayer requests did staff collect from visitors?
- What is the lag time between a first visit and contact by a non-paid member of the church? (forget the pastor’s welcome letter; it’s nothing more than useless chatter these days)
- Is a pastor or high ranking staff member actually available meet guests after every service?
- How often is the hospitality team coached on technique and process?
- How often does the church employ a “secret shopper” guest to give impartial evaluation of the hospitality?
- Does the church have a welcoming team at every entrance?
- How many times did a welcome team member escort a new guest from the entrance to the main welcome center?
- Is the congregation regularly instructed that members waiting for the service to begin should greet one a number of people and not chat with one person at length?
- How effective is the enfolding process in moving first time guests into regular fellowship in small groups, connecting them with staff members and insuring that their spiritual needs are met or at least prayed for? What is the percentage rate?
- Finally, what percentage of first-time guests eventually become regular attenders who are engaged in service through the church?
It’s all about the metrics. What gets measured gets done. A mega-church can become friendly, but it is a huge challenge. It won’t happen until they start making measurements.