Preachers like me love pulpits (or standing round tables, if you fancy yourself über hip), and for centuries they’ve been the centerpiece of today’s worship experience. Preachers will spend hours pouring over commentaries, digging into the Greek, consulting the best online resources and ‘borrowing’ the best ideas from other preachers on their subject of choice. We will walk confidently into the pulpit, convinced that this week’s gem of truth will single-handedly win over sinners and skeptics alike.
Well, I’ve got some uncomfortable news for you. As important as the pulpit obviously is, when it comes to attracting and retaining guests and newcomers, the parking lot trumps the pulpit every time. And I’m not talking about available parking spots (although that’s always helpful). Here’s what I mean by ‘parking lot’: the first impressions that guests and newcomers experience the moment they drive onto your campus. Do you have greeters in the parking lot? Any semblance of a host team? What’s the first impression a guest experiences when they drive onto your campus?
Do they have to find their own way in? Is there good signage? When it’s raining, do you have greeters ready with umbrellas to help guests in? Is there anyone driving around a golf cart assisting those who have trouble walking the length of the parking lot? What kind of first impression are you making?
Church consultant Bob Williamson recently wrote “the successful pastors I polled all told me that their success begins in the parking lot with their friendly–friendly greeters, and intensifies from there. In fact their entire program consists upon making people feel welcome regardless of ANY burden that they might bear.”
So why is the parking lot more important than the pulpit? Because by the time most guests and newcomers begin listening to your sermon, they’ve already decided whether or not they want to come back. Think about it: by the time you deliver your meticulously prepared and ornately delivered sermon, they’ve already been on your campus for close to an hour (if not more). In that time, they’ve parked their car. Did they see helpful signage? Were there greeters there to welcome them the moment they exited the car? Did they know which doors to walk through? Did they know where to drop off their kids? Were there greeters holding the doors open and helping them get to where they needed to go? How was the check-in experience for their kids? Were there coffee stations where the parents could grab a quick pick-me-up before walking to the sanctuary? Do they know where the sanctuary was? Were there greeters in the sanctuary to welcome them? Did anyone help them find a seat? Did anyone come and talk with them before the service started? Was the music done at an excellent level, or was it Sister Martha’s turn to sing the special, come hell or high-water? Were the lights and sound enhance or distract from the worship experience? Were the sound guys sleeping on the job? Who did the welcome? Was he/she actually welcoming? Was the welcome targeted towards actual guests or just the regular folks?
I just listed seventeen impressions your guest will receive before you get up to preach. Seventeen opportunities to either welcome a guest or inadvertently drive them away. Pastors need to spend as much time (if not more) making sure their church has systems and people in place to make over-the-top first impressions on the guests that God brings you. To use a baseball analogy. if each Sunday is an inning, an opportunity to ‘score a run’ and turn a guest into a regular attender, think of your sermon as the seventeenth batter up to the plate, and you’ve only got three outs. Too many preachers have lost the guests before they even get a chance to deliver their meticulously prepared sermon.
That’s why the parking lot is more important than the pulpit.