Visiting a new church for the first time is a big deal. A family makes the decision to go to a place where they won't know anyone, but people will know each other; they won't know where to go, but everyone else will, and they will drop their kids off with people they don't know. For many people, the entire experience can be uncomfortable, and if churches aren't intentional about creating good first impressions and focusing on hospitality, especially in the area of children's ministry, we could be missing out on many opportunities to connect with guests and help them feel welcomed and comfortable enough to come back!
Last summer, I took a short sabbatical in my transition time in between churches, and enjoyed visiting other churches... but it was also an eye-opening experience for me! Even coming to my current church as a new person taught me a lot about what our guests notice when they first come, and a lot of it is things that we often overlook because we're so used to them! One thing I do remember that stood out is the friendliness of the people. No matter who you are, it's intimidating visiting a new church. There are things we can do to help ensure our guests have a good experience and feel loved.
As a children's pastor, I take first impressions and hospitality very seriously, and always reinforce this value with my team. We want to always be thinking of ways to improve in the area of First Impressions, and it's good to have people to give good feedback on all the details, from the guest experience in the parking lot, to the drop-off/pick-up process. Here are a few things we do to help guests have a good first impression....
It's a good idea to have a special area at the kids' check-in desk for guests to check-in, and the check-in process needs to be as easy and fast as possible. Parents don't want to fill out pages and pages of forms, but they DO want you to ask for the important information that you need to know to keep their kids safe. I'm attaching a copy of our one page Registration Forms that parents fill out on their first visit.
After parents fill out the form, our check-in leader collects their information to print out a simple Guest sticker from our computer (it includes the kid's name, parents' names, parents contact number, kid's grade/age, and any allergies or needs). They print out two stickers- one for the kid, and one for the parent to turn in when they pick up their kid. We tell them that the next time they come, we will have entered their information into our computer system, so they won't have to fill out a new form (if they are a true ONE TIME guest, we won't add them into our system). *We also let parents know that we have the ability to send them a text message via our computer if they are needed in case of an emergency, which makes parents feel more comfortable knowing you can get ahold of them if needed.
It's important to make sure the check-in process is streamlined and fairly quick for all parents- not just guests. If new people look over and see chaos in the regular check-in line, and frustrated parents who have had to wait too long, it makes everything feel chaotic. Make sure the check-in time is easy for all families.
Aside from our regular check-in volunteers, we have hosts each Sunday, who are specifically there to greet and welcome new guests. They are trained to engage the family in conversation, answer their questions, walk them to any room need to go to, and help them with the check-in and drop-off process. It really makes families feel great when our hosts remember them from their last visit and seem genuinely glad to see them.
Identify your volunteers
It's important for new families to know who is on our children's ministry team, and identify who they can go to for questions. One way we do this is by having all our volunteers wear lanyards. Sometimes, we've had our volunteers wear name tag stickers, and some of them wear T-shirts with our logo. However you do it, this is one important detail not to overlook.
On their first day visiting, we give all kids a fun little prize box that's filled with small and simple, but cool little toys and something small with our logo on it. Even though these prize boxes are simple, every time a kid gets one, and looks inside it, their eyes lit up, because they got something that is just for THEM.
Try to connect with a first-time-guest within 72 hours of their first visit, either through email or postcard, and let them know you're glad they came. I usually send a simple email while I'm adding the guests into the check-in system on Monday mornings.
Engage kids immediately
Train your volunteers in all age groups to engage all kids quickly when they come into the classroom, especially the new kids. Teachers should be looking for the new kids, and pulling them into a conversation or opening activity- kids should never walk into a room full of chaos, or just be left to wander or sit alone. Often, it's good to introduce them to other kids their age, and then engage the kids in an activity together.
We plan arrival activities to help engage kids as soon as they come. Our arrival activities change every week. Sometimes it's a craft, or a large group game, or a team challenge or other activity that is designed to draw kids in and introduce them to the Bible lesson as soon as they enter the classroom - and I don't like for the arrival activities to be (or even look) chaotic, because no one likes walking into a room that seems to be in chaos, especially new kids!
Information for Parents
Make it easy for parents to get their questions answered. Make sure signage is clear and visible, and make sure parents can get simple information about your ministry: who's the leader, where kids go in each age group, what your safety policies are, etc. We give parents a paper with detailed, but streamlined information about our children's ministry. We're working right now on making our signage even better, and helping our guests know where to get the complimentary coffee we offer everyone on Sundays.
*Here is a copy of our "Thanks for Coming" information paper we give parents
Someone told me recently that they took their kids to visit a church, and they had to go to three different check-in desks, and fill out registration forms three different times for one kid, because none of their volunteers knew what was going on, or what to tell them! It seemed disorganized and difficult for the parents. They were sent to several different rooms. All of a church's volunteers should be knowledgeable and ready to help new guests. Also, make sure your front line people (your greeters, front desk people, etc.) are genuinely friendly and have the gift of hospitality! It's a tendency for everyone (even me!) to just stand in doorways and talk to people we know, but we need to remind ourselves to be outward-focused on Sunday mornings, and always looking to connect with others, especially people we don't know! Constantly remind your team of the value of hospitality and friendliness.
*Another note: first time guests don't know who's who, or where everything is (even things like the bathroom or the coffee bar), and they don't know what your church does on Wednesday nights or what the youth group is called. Make sure to have easy information at their fingertips, or a place they can go to get answers (we have a Welcome Desk that is staffed and has plenty of information about the church); but if you think through the details ahead of time, people won't have as many questions.
Safety and Security Policies
It's hard for parents to leave their kids with people they don't know, and we can let them know we're thinking about that. We let parents know that we take their kids' safety very seriously, and let them know about our safety policies. We explain our check-in and check-out procedures and give them a written overview of the safety policies on our Parent Information Page. Parents need to know that we care about their kids' safety. We have caring volunteers in every room who are trained and screened, and we make sure our classrooms have safe ratios of kids, and aren't alone with a kid in a room, we have our sickness and health policies posted, and parents know we have their cell phone number in case we need to get ahold of them.
Think about Parking
We have designated visitor parking spots up front, but even if all the spots are filled, it's a good idea to have people available to help with parking direction if needed. If guests can't park, or don't know where to go to get into the service, they won't want to come back.
Second Time Guests
Many people will try out a church one time, but studies have shown that there is great success in assimilating new families into a church bodies if they return even a second time! If a guest family comes back a second time, it's a win! We want to make sure they have a good experience EVERY time they come! Try to remember their names when they come back. Make sure kids get connected with other kids, and invite the family to a small group, Wednesday night program, family church event, or something else to get connected.
We don't always get this all executed perfectly, and I always appreciate hearing feedback and getting ideas to make or guest services even better, but I am thankful to be at a caring and friendly church that truly values all people, and have a children's ministry team that understands and values this as well!
Families may visit your church on a Sunday and have an "ok" experience, but what if you go the extra mile in every one of these areas? What would it look like for your whole team to go above and beyond to help people feel loved, valued, and welcomed at your church? In the parking lot, at the check-in desk, inside the classrooms, and even in the sanctuary? Many people who come to visit are craving a place to belong, a place for their kids to have fun and want to return, and know their kids are learning Bible truths WHILE having fun and making friends, and a place to know their kids' safety is a top priority. If you can help a family find those things, you will see more and more second time guests, and third time guests....
Do you have any other ideas for helping welcome new families?
Children are a Gift
kidmin leader, mother, and servant of the Lord.
These are the views of Lynne Howard, and are not necessarily the views and opinions of any church.