I am a professional church shopper. That’s right, as part of my job coaching church leaders, I must analyze the fruit of their leadership. And toward that end, I conduct for every client at least three (and sometimes up to eight) secret church visits to analyze Sunday services.
During these visits I bring with me missional coaches in training. We enter the church at multiple entrances and pose as different types of visitors. Then together we write a report for the client on everything we experienced, from the parking lot, to the worship service until the time the visitors leave the church.
The early part of this experience is sometimes called “guest services” or “hospitality ministry.” And every church leader knows this is a critical area.
But here’s a shocker! Almost all church leaders think their church hospitality is much better than it actually is. In fact, I have found the greatest divergence between intention and reality is in the area of hospitality. Even churches that laud their hospitality are often hit-or-miss, if not slipshod, in the execution. I wish this were not the case. But more than any other recurring pattern that works against church health and growth, hospitality is usually the most disappointing for the visitors.
Therefore, I picked up with interest The Come Back Effect: How Hospitality Can Compel Your Church’s Guests to Return by Jason Young, director of guest experience at Northpoint Ministries (a megachurch in Atlanta, Georgia), and Jonathan Malm who coaches churches on guest services. Their book comes highly recommended, with an endorsement by Andy Stanley. And so, I looked forward to jumping into the topic.
The book is divided into 10 chapters. Each chapter deals with an important element of hospitality. I found the following chapters the most helpful.
Chapter 1 deals with the importance of showing love and acceptance to the guest, rather than just going through the motions of a program approach. The lesson here is to help people feel loved and accepted, rather than being pushed through an assimilation program. This was a good way to start the book, and very helpful.
Chapter 4 emphasized the importance of the guest services volunteers being “fully present” rather than distracted by the Sunday morning fellowship or services. This was helpful. Too often I’ve seen hospitality people overly enamored with their job or enthusiastically fellowshipping with other guest services people, so that they often ignore the visitor. This chapter discusses discipling the guest services volunteer in their spiritual, mental, physical and emotional maturity. The result is that they will serve more holistically and with maturity. This to me was the best chapter in the book.
The chapter on “Preparing for recovery” was a surprisingly helpful chapter. It reminds people that when executing programs things will go wrong. It encourages the guest services volunteer to prepare for mishaps. It reminds them of the importance of spiritual peace and overcoming problems, especially when the person wrestling with the problems may be the first person a seeker meets when they visit a church.
There were also a few chapters that had good potential, but for me missed the mark a bit.
Chapter 3 was titled, “Know the guest.” I thought this was going to be about knowing the needs of the guest. Instead it deals mainly with knowing the guests’ reactions and adjusting the program based on the reactions of the guests. Yet, research has shown that guests usually visit a church because of a spiritual/physical need or a question.
Dr. Flavil Yeakley, in his groundbreaking research at the University of Illinois, found that some of the major events that drive people to a church are: death in the family, marital/family problems or financial problems. Therefore, it may be more helpful to place the emphasis upon getting to know the needs of guests and being able to explain to them how Christ presents the answer. Thus, hospitality services should “know the guest” and their needs even more so than their reaction to a program.
The chapter “Think scene by scene” emphasizes that everything communicates. So this chapter focuses on perfecting the assimilation system through attention to detail. I’ve observed many churches try to perfect their assimilation process. However, without the budget of a megachurch, the small to large church often fails in perfecting its execution.
I had also hoped the chapter “Reach for significance” would deal with helping the guest discover their significant place in the body of Christ. Instead it dealt primarily with helping the guest services volunteer become significantly skilled at their duties.
Though a few chapters seemed overly focused on the volunteer instead of the guest, this book has many ideas that are relevant for any church that wishes to train its volunteers and help them connect with guests.
However, there is another book that might make a good companion to this one. It is written by the pastor of guest services at a sister church, The Summit Church. Danny Franks’ book is titled People are the Mission: How Churches Can Welcome Guests Without Compromising the Gospel (Zondervan 2018). In this book, Franks emphasizes that guest services must have an overarching foundation and mission to understand the needs of those they’re reaching out to.
Putting guests’ needs first has become important to me in my understanding of hospitality ministry. This is because when I coach church leaders, I interview hospitality team members and I also interview newcomers. As I mentioned above, I often find the greatest dichotomy in their responses. The hospitality team usually feels that they are executing the program with excellence and effectiveness. But focus groups of recent guests usually feel that there is a lack of sympathy and connectedness with the needs of the visitor. However together, the two books cited make a comprehensive roadmap for any sized congregation to improve its hospitality ministries by balancing its ministry to its volunteers and to its mission field.
What’s surprising to me about the factors Greg outlines is that they’re actually simple hospitality, people and facility-related things.
Conclusion? Often the barrier to Christ isn’t spiritual—it’s us.
1. HAVE A BAD ONLINE PRESENCE
… When was the last time you thought about your website from the perspective of a first time guest? Same for your social media accounts or pages.
Most people will check out a church online long before they check out a church in real life. It doesn’t matter whether you live-stream your services or not, a simple website with basic information for a first-time guest is helpful. (Here’s an example from our site at Connexus Church.)
2. MAKE PARKING FRUSTRATING
,,, Want a clear, short expression of a great guest services vision? Check out Gwinnett Church’s Guest Services video. The team at Gwinnett Church even takes pre-schoolers into the building on wagon rides. 4 year olds love it. 🙂 I’ll bet parents do too.
3. UNDER-GREET GUESTS
Many churches say they’re friendly. But what they mean is they’re friendly to each other.
… First-time guests need an appropriate welcome, clear directions to what’s next and the sense that there are people there who knew they were coming and are able to help them.
4. OVER-GREET GUESTS
… One rule that’s helped us at our church is simply this: greet people the way they want to be greeted.
Recruit emotionally intelligent guest services people who can sense if someone is an introvert and merely wants a ‘welcome’ or if a guest is an extrovert looking for a warm embrace and a conversation.
5. MAKE KIDS CHECK-IN COMPLICATED
… Two quick hacks can help this. Spend a bit of money on good technology. Get some updated tablets or computers that actually work (kids ministry usually suffer from hand-me-down syndrome) and give them meaningful wifi bandwidth so they run quickly.
Then, overstaff your check-in area. Have check-in people meet parents while they’re waiting in line and take their information so when they get to the front of the line they just need to get tags for their kids and go.
6. KEEP YOUR FACILITY TIRED AND DIRTY
The problem with your church is the same problem you have with your house: you become blind to the imperfections and problems.
7. CONFUSE THEM
… You may have clever theming for your kids environments or student environments, but make sure your signage is still clear for first-time guests. So while we call our pre-school Waumba Land, the sign in the main foyer says “Ages birth – five.” It’s just simpler that way.
Similarly, with the main auditorium or sanctuary, restrooms and other areas guests need to access. Just be clear.
by Rich Taylor, former head of Disney Entertainment speaking to the Great Commission Research Network, Oct. 18, 2018 (commentary in italics by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D.)
Disney has 5-rules of hospitality.
Anticipate – Look ahead to anticipate what will your guests need.
Walk the venue beforehand.
What will be the guests’ needs: childcare, restrooms, open seating?
Arrival – What they experience on arrival.
What is the experience in the first five minutes?
Great Experience – the Disney Experience.
What is the cumulative experience of the guest.
What will they feel after the first 15 minutes?
What will they focus upon?
What will they remember?
Don’t over-rely on technology. Be prepared for technology to fail and to have a Plan B.
Don’t rely on the latest technology, because the latests technology still has the bugs being worked out. Adopt proven technology. This would mean we should be “advanced incumbents” rather than “early adopters.” See this chart for a comparison.
Selection: Use people that are “naturally friendly” in Taylor’s terminology, which we might define as those with the “gift of hospitality.”
Training is another key. Give them regular training at regular times for which they can plan.
Departure – This is your last opportunity to make a guest feel great. When I went to theatre the other night, everyone welcomed us and said goodbye. It was well done. But the valets were disinterested and unconcerned. What did I remember from the evening? The valets!
Have a departing gift, acknowledgment,
Have a banner that says “Thank you for visiting – we hope you encountered God.” of something like that that can be seen as they leave.
Savor – If it has been a good experience they will savor the visit and the most important thing for Disney is that they will come back.
Visit growing churches to see what they are doing that is working. You can’t do everything but you may be able to replicate something they are doing.
Follow up with them, right after they leave. Send visitors an email that arrives on their way home.
If they are a repeat visitor, ask them what you did well (and they will tell you what they enjoyed).
Have anonymous “ideas cards” that guests can fill out.
Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: I have conducted mystery visitor, Sunday worship analysis at hundreds if not thousands of churches. This article by Aaron Wilson is based upon the research of the FaithPerceptions.com group, and an interview with their founder Melanie Smollen. Read the article to find great summation of what I found.
Basically I see there are repeatedly four “missteps” (Wilson class them “blind spots”) in churches, regardless of size, culture or polity. Here is a summation of each with my personal analysis followed by a link to Aaron’s excellent summation.
Usually a church leader will have an anecdotal experience about some guest that has been reached. And, I’m sure these are valid experiences. But they are just that, anecdotal and usually outliers. Therefore I agree with analysis number one.
Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: Dr. Mark Collins is a missional coach candidate and a leader in Canada who oversees church renewal and consulting for his denomination. As a “missional coach” candidate, he and other leaders follow me each year at their own expense to learn my consulting practices.
Commentary by Professor B: Several times I’ve keynoted the “Creativity Conference” in Orlando, FL alongside Disney executives. I learned how Disney gets all of their employees involved in making visitors feel at home. Our conference explained how these ideas from Disney can revolutionize a guest ministry. Here is it helpful article summarizing actions that your congregants may be able to undertake to better engage the visitors the Holy Spirit is drawing to your faith community.
“11 insider facts about working at Walt Disney World only cast members know”
by Áine Cain, Business Insider Magazine, 3/18/18
… Business Insider spoke with former Disney College Cast program attendee and “Devin Earns Her Ears: My Secret Walt Disney World Cast Member Diary” author Devin Melendy, Susan Veness, author of “The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World” series, and Mike Fox, author of “The Hidden Secrets & Stories of Walt Disney World” and founder of the site Disney-Secrets.com.
Here’s what they had to say about the secrets of working at Walt Disney World:
You learn quickly that it’s all about the guests
The guest experience is everything at Disney. That’s drilled into you from day one. Melendy said that, even though her job consisted of working in retail in Frontierland, she was encouraged not to stand behind the register whenever possible.
Instead, cast members are directed to spread some magic by passing out stickers, fast passes, birthday pins, and free bags and shirts…
Name tags are an absolute must — even if you’re using an alias
Melendy said it’s considered “bad show” for a cast members to not wear a name tag. But if you lose your tag, no worries. There’s a whole stockpile of gender neutral names like Chris, Sam, and Pat to choose from.
“I lost my first name tag, so I was Chris from New York for two weeks while I waited for my new one,” she said…
If the guests can see you, you’re technically ‘onstage’
And all cast members, from the person dressed as Mickey Mouse to the person working the register at one of the park’s gift shops, must stay “in character” onstage.
“That would mean that your costume is correct, your name tag is on, and your pin lanyard is on — we would trade pins with guests,” she said. “They very much stressed that this is an experience. It’s not your experience, it’s the guest’s experience. You have to provide the best show that you can. It’s stepping into a role.”
Fox said that, for cast members, talking about your personal life and arguing is not an option. Anything that will “break the spell” of the Disney experience, so to speak, is out…
Read more at … http://www.businessinsider.com/walt-disney-world-cast-member-secrets-2018-2#if-you-get-a-gig-at-disney-world-youll-start-noticing-things-that-others-dont-11
by Stacey Leasca, Travel & Leisure Magazine, 1/8/18.
According to a former cast member, if a guest approaches a cast member inside the park with a question they are not allowed to answer with “I don’t know” even when they don’t actually know the answer. Instead, cast members must go to any and all lengths to find the answer, including calling other cast members around the park. This way, guests never have to wander around looking for something.
Choosing a New Church or House of Worship, by Pew Research, 8/26/16.
About half of U.S. adults have looked for a new religious congregation at some point in their lives, most commonly because they have moved. And when they search for a new house of worship, a new Pew Research Center study shows, Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders.
Fully 83% of Americans who have looked for a new place of worship say the quality of preaching played an important role in their choice of congregation. Nearly as many say it was important to feel welcomed by clergy and lay leaders, and about three-quarters say the style of worship services influenced their decision about which congregation to join. Location also factored prominently in many people’s choice of congregation, with seven-in-ten saying it was an important factor. Smaller numbers cite the quality of children’s programs, having friends or family in the congregation or the availability of volunteering opportunities as key to their decision.
Perhaps as a result of the value they place on good sermons, church leadership and the style of worship services, many people – even in this age of technology – find there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when seeking information about a new religious home. Fully 85% of those who have looked for a new house of worship say they attended worship services at a church they were considering, and seven-in-ten say they spoke with members of the congregation or to friends or colleagues about their decision. Looking for information online may be growing more common, especially among young people and those who have looked for a congregation recently. But online information still appears to be far less important to potential congregants than experiencing the atmosphere of the congregation firsthand.
The single most common reason people give for having looked for a new congregation is that they moved: Roughly one-third of adults say they have searched for a new place of worship because they relocated. By comparison, fewer people say they sought a new congregation because of a disagreement with clergy or other members at their previous house of worship (11%) or because they got married or divorced (11%). About one-in-five adults (19%) volunteered that they have looked for a new congregation for some other reason, including other problems with a previous church, changes in their own beliefs or for social or practical reasons.
These are some of the key findings from the fourth in a series of reports based on Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Study. The study and this report were made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support for the project from Lilly Endowment Inc. The first report on the 2014 Landscape Study, based on a telephone survey of more than 35,000 adults, examined the changing religious composition of the U.S. public and documented the fluidity of religion in the U.S., where roughly one-third of adults now have a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised. The second report described the religious beliefs, practices and experiences of Americans, as well the social and political views of different religious groups. A third report drew on both the national telephone survey and a supplemental survey of participants in Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel to describe how Americans live out their religion in their everyday lives.
In a recent post I discussed how the word “assimilation” can mean something positive to older generations but also something negative to younger generations. This, it is often confusing when churches use it to denote their newcomer ministries.
To younger generation assimilation carries a negative connotation of giving up your personal cultural tastes and preferences. But to older generations it is a term which connotes positive characteristics of “blending in” with a dominant culture.
Subsequently, because assimilation can be misconstrued by people of different ages it is best not to use to describe our newcomer ministry.
In hopes of discovering an alternative term, I asked my students for suggestions. Here are two interesting postings from students about the term assimilation.
Student A: “Being 26 years old, I am kind of between generations. Plus I do youth ministry, so a lot of times I still get to feel like I’m a kid. When I hear assimilation, I feel that same uneasiness. From a church standpoint, when I think of assimilated drones, I think of legalism. I think of those in the church who have become cronies of the “rules and regulations” of the church, but have completely lost touch with the relationships. Much like the Pharisees, and much like the Borg, they all work with one mindset, and it just happens to be incorrect. I hate Star Trek, but I remember the episode where they tried to turn Patrick Steward into a Borg, and his struggle to escape. Having grown up in this culture, I am totally cool with being connected and in relationship, but pleeeaaasssee dont’ assimilate me!”
And then Student B said (Church name is a pseudonym) :
“Thank you, thank you! I have been saying the same thing since the mid-90s. In fact, I first heard the term ‘assimilation’ in this context while I was helping plant a church … while I was in my undergraduate program. The executive pastor, Chuck, spent a great deal of time developing a program for assimilation, and it always had an ominous sound to me because of my fondness for Star Trek.
In fact, I took a downloaded portrait of a borg, cropped Chuck’s face onto the borg’s body (complete with facial hardware!) and put the following caption underneath it: ‘We are Greenhill Church. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.’ Of course, I never showed that to anyone except another intern…’ 🙂 ”
Now, what comes to mind when you hear the term assimilation? And have you ever thought about how it is perceived by others? Now that you know about these dual and opposite meanings, what will you do?
I believe it is critically and spiritually important to connect newcomers with our congregations. When discussing this topic with students the word “assimilation” sometimes comes up. This is, in fact, a word I have used for years to refer to the process of helping newcomers fit into our life of a fellowship and to embark upon their discipleship journey.
However a recent student noted that to young people today “assimilation” has a negative connotation. Here is her quote: “I’m a Star Trek fan and all I can think of when I hear that is the Borg insisting that every other life form they meet be forcefully altered into another drone for their collective, not even able to think on their own anymore but forced to do whatever the Borg wanted.”
That is almost exactly what a interviewee in a Phoenix focus group of young Gen-Xers said to me. Thus, I have been utilizing the word “connection” or “connecting.” It has a techie feel to it, and may be the Millennial generation equivalent of the Boomer “networking.”
The student who was the Star Trek fan even attached a picture of the Borg with her posting (I guess to scare Boomers). I downloaded the picture and tried to post it, but it assimilated, I mean connected, to my PC … but my Macintosh is doing fine :-)>