What Visitors See First

Thom Rainer, a church consultant, describes what visitors to “church” see when they attend … there are issues here about buildings and what church means, but that sort of discussion aside, most churches are the sort where what visitors see matters. So here is Rainer’s list:

After two decades of church consultation, a clear pattern emerged. These were the areas that engendered more comments and concerns from first-time guests. These areas are listed in order of frequency of response, and they deal only with physical facilities. I will address non-facility issues in next Saturday’s blog.

  • The women’s restrooms. Almost 100 percent of the female guests we retained addressed this issue. They noticed first and foremost the cleanliness of the restrooms. Then theynoticed the convenience of getting to the restrooms. Finally, they noticed the capacity of the restrooms. Did they have to wait in line?
  • The preschool and nursery area. This area was a focus of near unanimity of young families. Is the area secure? Is it clean? How do I know someone else won’t pick up my child? Do the workers appear concerned and qualified?
  • Parking. Guests often commented on the difficulty or ease of finding a parking spot. Was there a covered drop off if the weather was bad? Were there guest parking spots? Were there reserved places for young mothers and expectant mothers? Were there sufficient handicapped parking places?
  • Signage and information. Last week my wife and I were in mall we had never visited. The first thing we did was go to a sign that had all the stores and their locations on it. Even small churches can be intimidating to first-time guests. Do you have adequate signage throughout the facilities? Is there an obvious information booth or table? Members know where to go; guests don’t.
  • Worship seating. First time guests desire to find a place to sit as quickly as possible. They feel awkward otherwise. Is your worship center more than 80 percent full? If so, the guests perceive it is completely full. Are your members trained to move to the middle of pews or seat rows so guests don’t have to climb over them? Are their ushers or greeters available to lead guests to seats?


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  • phil_style

    wow.. so, my summary of the response is: How comfortable is the building?

    From my cynical side:
    Sounds like the “visitors” are the already-churched, shopping around for a comfortable place to send their Sunday morning…

  • Even if so (and I share some of that cynicism, despite this push-back), do we really expect to get anywhere by suggesting to people that they should not be concerned with issues of comfort, especially if they aren’t attending a church regularly at the present time?

  • Pat Pope

    Locked doors during a time when the church is open for ministry. That was one of my pet peeves at the last church I was a part of. There was a point in time when the church was without a pastor and some things got neglected. On Wednesday nights, maybe most or all of your regular attenders know which door to use. But if there’s a visitor, they won’t know. Either unlock all the doors people would normally use or put up signage directing people. The same for if you change your worship venue from one room to another.

  • What about the Church Website?

    This is totally anecdotal but almost every visitor who comes to our meetings has been to the website before coming among us.

  • Diane Stout

    Another thing that often gets overlooked are misspelled words in bulletins or song lyrics projected on a screen (As well as songs that are wrongly worded). Maybe this is not a big deal to some, but to more anal people like myself, I think it makes a church look either lazy or like idiots to visitors.

  • I’m with Phil #1. This seems like a big list of comfortable accommodations for Sunday mornings. If visitors stay because of these issues then we may have don more harm than good. What we win them with is what we win them to.

  • Phil Miller

    My initial response to this list was that it was rather shallow, too. But then I saw that this list was actually just the top responses to questions specifically about the building.

    These areas are listed in order of frequency of response, and they deal only with physical facilities. I will address non-facility issues in next Saturday’s blog.

    So I don’t think you can call people shallow for giving these answers when they were specifically asked about the building. I also think the point is that some of things are things that can be addressed without much money and effort by congregations.

    One thing I’d say is that if you haven’t been to a church or to a particular type of church, it can be a bit bewildering trying to figure out things that people who normally attend just take for granted. This past weekend my wife and I visited an Episcopalian church, and it wasn’t even clear where the front door of the building is. The way the architecture was, there were several large doors around the building, and the ones that looked like the front door actually went into the side of the sanctuary. Little things like signs can go a long way.

  • Deets

    I agree with Steve. I also agree with the “cynical side.” What visitors see, and therefore comment on, are the things we make visible. These things are all superficial. Why aren’t the heart issues and people more in the forefront? Could it be they are invisible to visitors?

  • Jeff

    I disagree with #1. That’s such a short-sighted remark. We’re asking people to come and experience something they either never have or haven’t in years. Try going to a night club or a book club or putting your kid in daycare for the first time. How many of the little details are you going to notice? LOTS.

  • JohnM

    Phil Miller (#6) has a point – “this list was actually just the top responses to questions specifically about the building”.

    On the other hand, if the concerns/preferences expressed represent THE basis for deciding whether or not to come back – my response would be “Feel free to look elsewhere, we don’t sell the product you’re looking for”.

    Do these surveys ever ask people why they would want to go to any kind church in the first place? I’d like to see the answer to that one.

  • Rick

    In regards to the comfort level, and who these people are, the article says:

    “One of our first steps in the consultation was to send one or more first-time guests to the church. Those individuals would then report back to us on their experiences. Many times those we enlisted were unchurched non-Christians…After two decades of church consultation, a clear pattern emerged.”

  • Phil Miller

    There are a few things I can think of related to the church building that I would consider dealbreakers. If the bathrooms weren’t clean, that would probably signal to me that this church doesn’t really care about the people in the congregation or people who are visiting. I don’t have kids, so I can’t really relate completely, but I can understand parents having concerns about nurseries. Certainly you’d want some baseline of sanitation in such spaces.

    It’s not even that facilities have to be new. Even older facilities with limited budgets can be well-kept.

  • If we thought of this as helping us to practice hospitality, perhaps some of the cynicism may evaporate.

    Hey, we could even think of it as ‘loving our neighbour’ by making them feel welcome.
    Even better!

  • One of the things about those different items listed is that they reflect attention to detail. Churches with poor landscaping, dirty bathrooms, inattentive staff, and church members more concerned about “their” seat than the stranger in their midst tend to not pay attention to the more important details of providing spiritual space for worship to take place.

  • Drawing upon my double digit years as a janitor in numerous settings, I can say that the dirtiest room in any building at any given time is the women’s bathroom. This does not show a lack of concern for people, not does it show a problem with the room itself, but rather with its occupants. I will discontinue the sharing of my thoughts at this point.

  • JohnM

    It’s true enough I have my own preferences, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that is what they are. A dirty bathroom is NOT my preference, but then I set the bar lower than some people 🙂 and there are other things that matter much more to me.

    Using this observation – “Last week my wife and I were in mall we had never visited.” – as an object lesson for churches speaks volumes.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Let me echo the pushback regarding the characterization of this list as being “shallow” or about “comfort”. Much of communication is non-verbal and all kinds of things are communicated to people who visit a church. What needs to be communicated to all people in as many ways as possible is that “you are loved and valued”.

    Also, I fail to see concern about children’s security as being about comfort.

  • AHH

    I agree with Steve @13 that it makes sense to see this through the lens of “hospitality”.

    And yes from one who is also anal to Diane @5 on the impression of sloppiness when song lyrics don’t match what is being sung, etc. My “favorite” is when somebody decides to use a picture as background for projected lyrics, not reallizing that the pretty clouds in the picture make it hard or impossible to read the outlined white lyrics. Or when announcements are projected before the service that might have looked OK on somebody’s computer screen, but are totally illegible (usually due to fonts too small) from the pews.
    We don’t need to be slick and professional, but sometimes we are half-assed and that can be unhospitable to visitors.

  • DRT

    A small contribution to this. I own a signs and graphics company and have learned a great deal about telling people what is up with signs. Here are my gut level reaction to churches on this subject.

    – You can get tasteful signs that fit in to the idea of the church in almost any setting. The general idea is that you need “wayfinding” signs.

    – I have attended churches where I could not figure out where I should go in. It may seem obvious to many of the attenders, but it is a sure turn off for someone new. They feel that they are on the out group immediately.

    – Signs allow people to be self sufficient. Not everyone who attends a church is dying to talk to someone, many want to be anonomous and would appreciate knowing where to go without asking.

    – Make the parking friendly if your layout is confusing or you have multiple buildings. Have a clearly marked signs that says “Enter Here for Worship” or similar. Let people know.

    – If people are interested in where the restrooms are, then give them a graphic as soon as they walk it. Show where to enter the worship service, where to drop the kids off, and where to go to the restroom.

    – Welcome your visitors with a sign. The signs do become part of the background for those who attend regularly so you need to realize that your target audience is the people who do not attend regularly.

    – Tell the people where to get a program or whatever you call it so that they know where to get additional information about the detailed nuances of your service. Do you pass the plate? Or do you have giving boxes? Do you expect payment for this service? etc.

    – Use a constant theme in keeping with the church’s brand. It is amazing how many people want to be creative on each sign. Spend the time to do it right and stick to the brand.

    – Banners, yes, church banners are a constant fascination to me and my buddies in the sign industry. From ill conceived wording and shoddy installation. My recommendation is consult with your sign company to come up with a good size for your location and your distance to traffic. Consider if you are going to use 2 sided or single sided. In many cases two single sided may be better in the end, but cost a bit more. Also, once you decide on the standard size of the banners you will use, then sink some posts and do this right! No one wants to see a banner flopping. And don’t put the posts the actual size of the banner, space them further appart then use elastic holders to hold the banner taut between the posts.

    – Put signs to the church office too

    – Don’t expect the sign company to donate the stuff. There may have been a time over a decade ago when sign companies made good money, but that is generally not the case now. Signs are expensive primarily because of the infrastructure investment that you have to make before making the sign. I invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in my company so if you want a banner that does not have expensive material, it will still cost a fair amount if for us to make it.

    – Internet signs. You can go to the internet and get good banners and signs if you know what you are doing, but I (obviously) would not recommend it. My company has hardwood floors in the lobby, and if you are dissatisfied with your sign we will redo it for you and make it right. No internet company will do that. Likewise we will give good advice and partner with you so if you have a sudden need to fix the sign for your Christmas show, we will step up to the plate.

    – Put a small sign on the way out that say thanks and blesses your people.

    – Put frosting on windows in the restroom and ask the sign company to cut a small cross or similar in the top.

    OK, I could go on forever about this but I should stop now….

  • DRT

    For those who are curious, here is my company http://signsnowrichmond.com

  • JohnM

    What needs to be communicated all people is “you need to be reconciled to God”. The ones who accept that will stay, the ones who don’t just as well go for all the good sticking around would do them.

  • Phil Miller

    What needs to be communicated all people is “you need to be reconciled to God”. The ones who accept that will stay, the ones who don’t just as well go for all the good sticking around would do them.

    Don’t you think that most people who are going to a church by themselves, i.e., not invited by someone in the church, would be Christians already? I have never understood this line of thinking. It just reeks of spiritual pride and arrogance.

    “Well, obviously our church is far too holy for them, or otherwise they would still be here…”. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!

  • JohnM

    No I don’t assume everyone who chooses to go to church is a Christian. Some are, some are not. But that really is beside the point because I don’t think being reconciled to God is a one time event and then you’re all good to go. Do you think that? And even if I were only talking about initial justification I would still be talking about the greatest need people have.

    It doesn’t suprise me when non-believers are offended at the idea of needing to be reconciled to God. It amazes me when professing Christians are.

  • Phil #7
    Thanks for pointing that out. Somehow I missed it. Maybe I need to read a little slower next time. 🙂

  • Phil Miller

    I’m not offended by that message, per se. I’m offended by the underlying assumption that seems to be saying that the way people are treated when they walk doesn’t matter.

  • Tom

    #15 Jeff – I also have more than 12 years of working in janitorial work at different places and could not agree more with your comments. I have often wondered “what goes on in here?” In almost every setting the ladies room is the worst.

  • #26 Tom
    I believe this is the consensus of all janitors. There’s really no denying it. The Holy Spirit may be powerful, but the ability to keep a women’s bathroom clean is even beyond Him.