Start in the parking lot. Many churches already have a team outside directing traffic and serving as de facto crossing guards for families and slow movers that need to make it safely from their vehicles to the front door. These folks should be incredibly friendly, wave at everyone who pulls in, smiling, and happy to be there. They can be the first thing that new family who struggled to get their kids out of bed and dressed on time sees as they pull in to your parking lot. That husband and wife who have been silent the entire ride because one felt the other was taking too long to get ready? They can be forced to smile back at your parking guys and loosen up a little. This team is so underrated. Start greeting in the parking lot.
Give something to your guests. It doesn’t have to be expensive. A simple breakdown of your core ministries, a guest contact card, and a free drink coupon at your coffee bar are simple, affordable ideas that help communicate with your guest without giving them a stack of printed materials. These guest packets can be handed out by your parking crew and also your guest services/info desk which we’ll explain later. But first, there is the issue of the main doors…
Open the freaking door! This is where I write something and then delete it because it sounds so condescending. Have people at every main entrance to open the door for your guests. Open the door for the single mom pushing a stroller with her right hand, carrying a diaper bag and a purse on each shoulder, and holding hands with her other two children with her left hand. Open the door for the youth group guys that smell like they broke a bottle of cologne in the car and showed up 30 minutes late. Open the door for the early folks, the late folks, and everyone else. Open the door for everyone who shows up at church, from about 15 minutes before your first service, until the last service is about to end. No exceptions. Open the door!
Train your greeters to love guests. I love flying to Hawaii much more than I love flying to Chicago. Chi-town is closer, and actually has more restaurants, hotels, sports teams, and other things to do… but Hawaii is still better. When I land at O’Hare, my plane is probably late, and I’m expected to run a 5K with a carry-on bag to switch terminals over an obstacle course that includes a broken escalator and crowded hallway with about 1000 other people to make my connection in time. In Hawaii, I’m actually welcomed by young, smiling people and they put a lei of fresh flowers around my neck and offer to help me with my bags and find my way. Chicago truly is a great city with important history and so much to offer; I love it there. But hands down, I’ll sit on a longer flight if it means I end up in Hawaii every time. Which is your church? You may have amazing programs and stuff to offer, but if walking into your building is like walking into Chicago-O’Hare airport, I may keep searching until I make it to Hawaii. Your greeters should be friendly, happy, PAYING ATTENTION, and hopefully not all over 60 years of age. When someone walks in, welcome them, value them, and help them get where they’re trying to go. A guest won’t even know where to start. You need your greeters in place no later than 15 minutes before your earliest Sunday gathering, right up to the moment that last service is about to dismiss. Chicago is bigger and has more money and history, but Hawaii wins every time. Which are you?
Have all the answers. I mean it. Your greeters and parking lot folks may not have all the answers, but they can take your guests to someone that does. Every church needs a central authority on all the world’s problems near the front door. Call it the “Info Desk” or “Guest Services” or “Welcome Center” or whatever you like. This is the place that has to get it right. The people at this station are like the Wikipedia of your organization. They know where every bathroom, stairway, elevator, meeting room, and whatever else is and how to get there. They will introduce themselves, walk guests to where they belong, and personally introduce new faces to the leaders. They will greet families, personally introduce parents to the preschool and children’s ministry leaders, and make the check-in process easy. They must NEVER point to some hallway and say “It’s easy, you can’t miss it.” They have a list of everything that is going on, every schedule and event, and know how to answer questions about security, safety, giving/donations, counselling, recovery, small groups, worship style, and handicapped accessibility. Have all the answers that your guests are seeking.
Don’t underestimate your signage. Just because your student ministry chose a hip greek or latin name for themselves, it doesn’t mean a guest will understand what that means. You may have named parts of your building with fancy names, but that young family will probably benefit from seeing words they can understand. It is totally OK to put “gym” on the sign for the building you named the “Family First Center.” It is completely logical to call your coffee bar a “Coffee Bar” on your signs. It is totally ok if you want to name your ministry department “Revolution,” or “XTreme,” or “Vintage,” or “TNT,” or “Veritas,” or whatever. Just promise me when you make your signs for the church hallways, that they will say “Preschool,” Children’s Ministry,” “Middle School Ministry,” “High School Ministry,” “Young Adults,” and anything else that the rest of us mere mortals will understand. Larger churches with several entrances, offices, and meeting places will also need signage outdoors. Don’t underestimate your signage!
Equip your leaders to value others. When a parent takes their children to the preschool area, they shouldn’t have to stand outside the doorway and figure out what to do. Instead, someone can help them check their children in, and walk them to the right location, where the preschool ministry leaders will be at the door, introducing themselves to parents, answering any questions, and explaining how to pick the child back up. Nobody wants to entrust their kids to someone who stays seated across the room, gives a wave, and then turns away again. Value my children, and I might come back. Screw this up, and nothing else you do will matter. Take the time to talk and smile with the elderly lady who asks the question you thought you already answered well enough. Roll out the same red carpet for the guy who drove the Ferrari as you do for the folks that… came in something else. White folks, asian folks, black folks, hispanic folks, someone I missed folks… they’re just folks. Just make them feel welcome. The churches I’ve been around have spent a lot of time working through how to be a place that is open to everyone. Work hard at that.
Get the right people equipped to be your greeters. Some churches will let anyone with a pulse be a greeter. I say be really careful with that type of thinking. This is your front door we’re talking about. If something weird happens at the front door, then your guests will have one more thing to talk about while you bore them during the morning announcements. You want a variety of ages, but when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a young, friendly couple.
Don’t overdo it. Don’t go overboard; you don’t want your greeters to be like Gap store employees at Christmastime. Seriously, is there anything worse? And you don’t want them channeling their inner Michael Scott and creating awkward moments. You want people to feel welcome, and to have an experience in your faith community that leaves their family feeling valued.