By Dwayne Moore
Recently my wife and I visited a large church in Huntsville, AL. This church has campuses in many parts of our state. It’s become quite well-known across the country, no doubt due to its explosive growth and excellent programing. I had visited before, but my wife, Sonia, had never been and knew nothing about the church.
Before the service started that morning, before the band had played the first note or even come out onto the stage, Sonia turned to me and exclaimed, “I’d like to join this church!” I was shocked she said that. My wife is not flippant with her comments, and she certainly isn’t fickle with her church commitment. She is not a “church-hopper” by any means. We love the church where we are members, and we’re quite content there. Yet, here she is, with this big smile on her face, saying to me, “I love this place. I wish this was my church!”
The thoughts which immediately started swirling in my head were, “How can this be? What has enamored my wife so much about this place that she’s ready to join before she’s even heard the pastor preach? How has this happened?!”
I’ve invested a great deal of time trying to figure out an answer to what prompted Sonia to want to join a congregation so quickly. The church had undoubtedly made a really good first impression for her to go from totally disengaged to totally amazed in just 10 minutes. In the automotive world, that’s about the equivalent to going 0 to 100 in 10 seconds! (Apparently they’ve made a huge impression on a lot of people, because the place was packed and seats were hard to come by.)
3 Great First Impressions
Looking back on that experience and after talking with my wife in depth about it, we’ve identified three things we believe helped to grab our attention as well as our imaginations. All of these things took place within the first 10 or so minutes after we arrived (and they carried on during the service as well).
1. They were friendly.
They weren’t just friendly to people they knew (like happens so often in churches). They were intentionally gregarious toward guests. They had a culture of genuine friendliness that immediately pulled us in and disarmed our first-time apprehensions.
As Sonia put it, “It wasn’t just one or two who were assigned to greet us. It was several people. Everywhere we turned someone was coming up to us to say hello.” We didn’t have special badges that told them we were visitors. Granted we may have had that deer-in-the-headlights look, but I think their people are just intentional in speaking to people they don’t know. Their smiles were sincere and their words weren’t rushed when they addressed us. They weren’t merely throwing us friendly words and gestures out of obligation.
2. They were prepared.
Even before we arrived at the campus, we began seeing attractive signs on nearby street corners pointing us toward the church. When we pulled in to the lot, several parking people with yellow vests and wands directed us into our parking spot. When we got out of our car we were greeted by a golf cart and a friendly face asking if we needed a ride.
When we walked inside, one of the first things we noticed was a nice check-in area for children. It wasn’t fancy by any means, but the banner and booth were bright and attractive. We noticed several volunteers standing behind the booth talking with parents and smiling as they checked in their children. There were also large, bright banners standing in the hallways of the school where they meet. The banners welcomed us to their church and had images and text that gave glimpses into their values and activities.
I visited this same church once before Christmas while Sonia was gone on a trip. I arrived a few minutes late that day and had to go to the overflow area because the main meeting room was full. I wasn’t turned off in the least by having to be in an overflow area for my first time there. They had people along the route to smile at us and point the way to the overflow area. The medium-sized TV monitor in the room was more than adequate, and the room was well-equipped with good sound support. Thus, I could see and hear the service just fine. My initial impression from that experience was that these people give attention to detail–even in the overflow area. That was impressive to me! We weren’t an afterthought to them.
There were also well-marked paths of signage pointing to where to go. They even had small speakers set up in the hallways playing praise music to make the long trek to the overflow area more enjoyable. The music helps engage people in worship before they even reach the room.
Overall, everything seemed to be in place and working well. It was a clean and organized environment that served to make us feel welcome and calm. They meet in a public high school, so for them to have their act together so well, we knew some church volunteers must arrive much earlier to get everything ready before we came!
3. They were excited.
The same level of enthusiasm we had seen from the greeters, children’s workers and people out in hallways now spilled over into the worship gathering. As we entered the auditorium, the screens were showing high-quality videos of images from around our city. Praise music was playing energetically in the background. The room was already filling up, and we could sense a genuine excitement in the air from those around us.
We didn’t know anyone there, and yet we didn’t feel like strangers or out of place. A nice man at the back of the auditorium greeted us and pointed us toward an area we could sit. But he didn’t tell us where to sit. He left it up to us. None of the volunteers we encountered were in any way forceful or insensitive.
The service itself was certainly good. The singers and band started the service right on time, and the volume level was raised to allow everyone to sing loudly without feeling like they’re singing a solo. The service flowed well and was very well put together to take the congregation on a journey of discovery and worship. When the band came out to lead they did exactly what we had already come to expect: They smiled contagiously and moved well on the platform to help communicate their joy and desire to worship–Ie. they carried on the same excellence and excitement we had sensed from others before the service.
It should be noted that we weren’t “blown away” by either the music or the message. What they did wasn’t utterly amazing. On the “shock and awe scale” we would give it perhaps a 7. It was certainly above average. The band and singers were well-prepared and the music well-rehearsed. However, they didn’t try to astound us with beautiful voices or in-the-stratosphere high notes.
The pastor’s sermon was simulcasted onto a large screen that made it seem as though he were there in the room with us. Yet, they weren’t trying to fool us. Everyone knew it was a video screen. It took a couple minutes for my mind to adjust and accept that I was watching a video and not an actual person. Because of the excellent production and non-assuming approach, it was quite enjoyable and engaging. The pastor’s message was uplifting, informative and simple to understand.
By the time the service started, we felt so welcomed and were so impressed with what we’d seen that all the musicians and pastor really needed to do was keep the momentum going. They didn’t have to wow us or woo us to engage in worship with them. They didn’t have to jump over negative notions about their church, since our experience with them had already been so positive. (Just goes to show how important first impressions really are!)
I agree with what one of our NLWI Lead Team members told me the other day: If guests don’t have a good experience before they enter the auditorium, it makes our job as worship leaders much more difficult.
As my wife and I left the school campus and got into our car to go home, we both said how much we enjoyed everything about visiting that church. We weren’t wanting to pick it clean to find things they could have done better. All we felt was jubilation and appreciation for a job well done, for people who acted like they genuinely wanted us there, and for a pastor and staff who lead their church well and want to reach and help people in their community. It was refreshing to see a group of people who didn’t make it only about themselves. They were clearly there to also serve us–their guests.