First Impressions Matter to Church Guests

October 13, 2010

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Sheila Fiorella*

The people who come through the doors of our church have expectations. They're making decisions as consumers at first. Whether they return rests on their entire experience with our community. Those people leave asking the same questions they ask of businesses throughout the week: "Was this worth my time? Do the people care about me? Am I valued here?"
How will our guests answer these questions? How do you answer those questions? We're up against a competitor that is fierce, and I'm not talking about Satan or other churches. The other churches in town are on our team. They're leading and loving for the same reason we are.
Our competition, the rival that will keep people away from our church, is any business, service, or experience our guests have encountered recently. That includes restaurants, malls, golf courses and amusement parks. First Bank (not First Church), United Parcel (not United Methodist) and Grace Medical (not Grace Community) set the bar for service.
According to Mark Waltz, author of "First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in Your Church," that competition doesn't happen only on Sunday mornings. (The ideas I share here are from his book.) The competition for our guests began when they were wowed in another environment. One or more of our guests shipped a package to the other side of the country last week, assured it would arrive by noon the next day. Some guests picked up laundry at a local dry cleaner, pleased their shirts were treated with medium starch and ready the next day as promised. Guests were greeted by name at their local coffee shop and rewarded with free drinks because they're regular customers.
Our guests have great expectations formed from experiences of excellence and reliable care. Although too much of their world is merely adequate, they know excellence, and they return to places where they experience it. Let's not forget the intense competition that comes from warm, cozy beds, especially if you're not a morning person. After all, competition in the mind of the consumer is about the value of the experience. Will our guests' experience in our church be worth getting out of bed?
When people matter, guests are wowed
Competition for experiences that affirm the customer's value is so intense in today's culture that consumers often base the quality of any business - or church - on the first few seconds of their experience. The people of our congregations should be able to communicate to potential guests why they should be at our church on Sunday morning. (At left, Cash Thompson greets guests arriving to worship at New Day United Methodist Church in Mansfield, Texas. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of New Day United Methodist Church.)
A saying goes: "You only have one chance to make a first impression," and that is certainly true. Sometimes we expect great things, and the reality falls short. But consider lasting impressions. Some of the impressions you've had of a business, or church, for that matter, didn't come within the first few minutes of your experience; they happened later. But they stayed with you.
Try this quick word-association exercise. Look at the following list and think about or jot down your first thought about each place: McDonald's, your bank, your church, Starbucks.
Now evaluate your responses. Which reflect your feelings from your first encounter? Which describe your thoughts either now or at the end of your experience with that place? What does this tell you about the impressions we keep? These impressions help us decide to return or to go someplace else. Organizations that understand the lasting nature of first impressions understand people matter. When people matter, guests are wowed. And when guests are wowed, they know they matter. An appropriate approach to consumerism is not to see consumers, but people who matter to God.
The motivation to make a "Wow!" impression is not to better everyone else in town. It's not about stroking our egos, pleased with how excellent we are. "Wow!" impressions matter because people matter. What they think matters. What they believe matters. What they want matters. What they need matters.
Meeting people where they are
First impressions in church are about creating the atmosphere expressed in Jesus' invitation. The Bible tells us he said, "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)
I want to encourage you. Try these next faith steps. Here's an action plan:
  • The next time you dine out, talk with your dinner guests about your shared experience. What disappointed you? Did the staff members do the best they could with what they had? What would have created a "Wow!" experience for you? Or was it a "Wow" experience? What made it so?
  • At the end of your day or week, list your consumer experiences or any other encounters you've had. When did you feel valued? What did someone do or say that caught you by surprise in a positive way? When were you wowed? How could an aspect of this "Wow!" experience be duplicated in your church?
  • Did you have the opportunity to show someone you value him or her this week? What did you do? What could you have done better?
People matter to God; therefore, they matter to us. If we can faithfully follow Jesus' example, the guests at our church will experience forgiveness, acceptance and love. They will know they are valued. Our guests will observe authentic, real relationships and want to be part of them. It all begins with us meeting people not where we want them to be, but right where they are. Great expectations. We all have them. I sometimes wonder if what we expect from others is as much as what we expect from ourselves.
*Fiorella is the founding pastor of New Day United Methodist Church in Mansfield, Texas. Commentary adapted from the New Day website, Sept. 30, 2010.