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Months ago I had a conversation with a pastor over lunch. I had recently visited his church and, I must say, I liked it a lot. His church had an amazing band and had a lot of young people serving in prominent positions in the church. It was growing and had a lot of positive momentum. By outward appearances, everything was working... and it was working well.
When he told me how many visitors they'd had recently I asked him how he was doing quality control with their visitor experience. He replied, "That takes care of itself. People vote with their feet and and with their finances. As long as people keep coming I know it's working." I was honestly shocked to hear this, although I didn't let him know that I was.
Last weekend Robin and I visited a large church in another city led by a pastor we respect a lot. We were directed by the parking lot crew to park near one of the church entrances. It was a large building so we didn't know where to go. We walked in 20 minutes before the last of the multiple services was to start. No one was there to greet us. We wandered aimlessly, confused by the signage. Although it indicated multiple auditoriums nowhere did it say which one hosted the adult service. We wandered the length of the building - past the youth room and an auditorium apparently used for the new members class - looking for the main auditorium. In the 4 - 5 minutes it took us to find the main room we passed by several volunteers. We received three smiles (I counted) as volunteers stood at their posts, but NOT ONE PERSON said hello, welcomed us or offered to help us find our way around.
When we got to the main auditorium there was a young lady that smiled at us as we entered, but she never offered a handshake or a hello. She simply opened the door and smiled. We went in and found a seat near the front. A couple of ushers came by and said hi to a couple near us. They left before the service started, not even acknowledging us as they walked by.
The service was good, and everyone on stage did a great job. When it was over they dismissed everyone. We walked to our car, which we discovered was near the back entrance. Again we walked past numerous volunteers, but this time we didn't even get a smile. We got in our car and left. I was sad. This church had a LOT to offer, but they had FAILED at connecting with visitors.
Most pastors have been in church so long that they forget what it's like to be a church visitor. In a church service it's easy to tell if the band or the preacher is any good. It's pretty obvious when the seats are dirty or there are water stains on the ceiling. But unfortunately we can't always tell what outsiders really think about their visit to your church. When it comes to something as important as visitor experience, we need to find a way to truly get a feel for what a visitor - especially an unchurched visitor - experiences.
Of course you should always ask visitors for feedback, both positive and negative. But we don't always get a straight answer because many people simply tell the staff what they want to hear. That's why we recommend things such as inviting a "mystery guest" - an outsider that no one knows - to come and give honest feedback. Robin and I have done this as a service to a few churches. When we were in Freiburg, Germany I sometimes invited unchurched people from the community to visit. I told them I would take them out to dinner afterward in exchange for honest feedback, which had the double effect of getting an unchurched person to visit and getting honest feedback from a true visitor.
Another idea is to take your leaders to the parking lot and walk them through what a visitor sees from the parking lot to the main auditorium, including the Kids Church, nursery rooms and bathrooms. You may need to help them get started - "there's grass growing in the the parking lot cracks," "no clear signage to the Kids Church rooms," etc. Have them rate everything. You should also have a staff member experience this during a church service.
Whatever you do, NEVER take something as important as your visitor experience - or any of your core values, for that matter - for granted. We can never take the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality with what God has entrusted to us. We have to constantly evaluate and improve our ability to serve the precious people God sends us. Many visitors will only give us ONE CHANCE... we can't afford to squander it. Maybe churches should create a Ministry of Quality Control.
What do you do in your church to evaluate your visitor experience? Please join the conversation by posting a comment below. Everyone benefits when you give your thoughts.
As I said, Robin and I have already done this for a few churches. If you'd like us to visit your church and give honest feedback, we'd love to help. You can contact us here.