Lay Out the Welcome Mat

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

When my driver’s license expired, I found myself in the unenviable position of visiting my local department of motor vehicles to renew. Until this experience, I’ve actually been impressed by my small town DMV. But something has changed.

On past visits, I’ve slipped in the door, taken the first available seat in the waiting line and moved forward to the next available clerk. Not on that day.

Lost is where I found myself that day at the DMV. Somebody, probably a consultant with a need for billable hours, convinced the motor vehicles Czar in Grass Valley to split the one obvious waiting line into three not-so-obvious rows of movable chairs. To “clarify” the experience for the likes of me, three wordy signs are now flown above the chairs, along with more instructions on placards at the head of each row. And now, instead of several clerks who know how to manage the many kinds of transactions that come in the door, there are several clerks, each with a specific “skill” set.

The church experience is similar in many ways. Visitors and members walk through the doors with their own set of expectations. Members become accustomed to your unique worship experience, whereas your visitors can quickly find themselves lost in what appears obvious to you.

What is the experience your visitors have when they enter the sanctuary? If your grumpy members welcome visitors, your guest experience becomes counter-productive. Anyone who’s been around church boards has heard wacky ideas ranging from charging for parking to granting preferred seating to big tithers. There’s little doubt why statistics bewail the exodus away from fairly standard church services.

So far, I’ve not been part of many church planning teams that consider the full weight of preparing the user’s experience. Here are some things we’ve picked up along the way that might be helpful as you consider your visitor’s take-away.

Personalize Your Visitor
Who is your visitor? Know the demographics of your community and particularly, your ideal visitor. What kind of people has your church been attracting lately and which demographic are you uniquely positioned to serve? Once you know some of the basics, you can begin to build what’s called a “persona.” Download an image of this person, or family, or couple and include them in your worship planning.

Instead of using the word, “visitor” use their given names. Know their fears. Talk about why they are visiting your church. Are they healing from a church split or new to faith questions because their kids are asking about death? As you think and talk through the worship experience, try to become that person. It will keep your head in the game from a very personal point of view.

Start at the End
The end. That’s what matters, isn’t it. A good practice is to write scripts about each visit that go something like this:

“Robert arrived feeling nervous. When the usher approached him, Robert wondered why he came at all and considered heading back to the parking lot. The usher quickly explained that everything in the service could be found in the bulletin, and the specifics would be shown on the projector screens, which eased Robert’s fears…”

With a script like this, you can extract how your ushers would approach Robert, open the conversation and seat him near a friendly member who would keep an eye out for worried fumbling through the service. In other words, craft the desired outcome for each element the visitor will encounter and try to dissuade his/her objections. This is not about dumbing-down or catering to relevance. It’s about exposing access points to the creative sensations you and your team worked so hard to prepare. If Robert is worried about whether the pew he’s chosen is reserved for a big tither, he’ll never hear the Gospel or the sermon.

The Kitchen Counter Rule
I make an espresso most every morning, and my kitchen counters have limited space. When I finish preparing my morning drink, I immediately put the espresso maker back in the cupboard because I don’t make espresso again until the next morning. My goal is to leave the counter clear for things I need during the day. I don’t need every appliance at my fingertips at once, what I need is the right appliance.

The same applies in church. Sometimes a church will have the hymnals, hymns, bulletins, announcements, flyers, order of worship, stewardship envelopes, printed lyrics and sermon fill-in-the-blanks sheets all printed on separate sheets. These tend to fall out of the program like magazine renewals every time you move.

Add to that pew racks with a traditional hymnal, contemporary songbook, Book of Common Prayer and matching Bibles. They all look alike at a glance. I’m forever grabbing one for another, and I’ve been going to the same church for five years. How does Robert feel when he’s turning through pages of contemporary songs during the introit of “Here I Lift My Ebenezer”?

Slip Into Something a Little More Uncomfortable
Find the worst restaurant in town, or the most poorly designed public place (the local DMV perhaps) and visit as a design team. Visit a church where no English is spoken and try to understand the experience. Go out for Sushi, but insist on ordering without a menu. Or, (this one’s my favorite): take your team to “Karaoke Night” and make them perform songs they’ve never heard in front of complete strangers.

Now they will have had the feeling Robert had when he saw the usher coming toward him. They will know the experience of being lost in a room of “members” who have the rules and social norms dialed in.

You and your design teams may have Robert’s future in your hands. Clever sermons won’t bring him back. Neither will the matching outfits of the back-up singers. The drama may sound just like Saturday Night Live, but if Robert can’t use it, or if he feels like he’s on the exterior of an inside joke, you might as well post a members-only sign in the narthex.