You only get one chance to make a first impression.
That’s one of those truisms that’s actually true – in church and in life.
One of the hallmarks of healthy churches is that they work hard at making a good first impression. Helping guests make the leap from staying at home to being glad they came is essential. That’s much more likely to happen when they experience friendly people, helpful directions, easy-to-understand language and other expressions of love and care.
First impressions are so important that they’ve become a central part of today’s pastoral training, including the inaugural First Impressions conference that I was honored to speak at this week. With more conferences coming soon. This article is a shortened version of that talk.
Making a great first impression at your church is not about size or money. And it’s not about marketing or consumerism. It’s about caring for people.
This doesn’t happen automatically, or even easily. It takes training, preparing, recruiting, and more. The good news is, none of that costs money. It just takes the commitment to follow through.
My friend Greg Atkinson, a recognized expert at helping churches make a great first impression, says “excellence transcends.”
Greg is 100 percent right. Doing ministry with excellence will overcome any other deficit you may have, from your size to your resources to your facility (or lack of one).
This is especially true in first impressions, because greeting newcomers is all about the personal touch – and that’s what small churches can and should excel at.
First Impressions Really Matter In Small Churches
Being small is no excuse to do First Impressions poorly. In fact, it may be more important in a small church.
Coming to a small church for the first time is an act of great vulnerability. After all, it’s easy to walk into a room of hundreds or thousands. Everyone knows what to do as a member of a large audience. But what do you do when you walk into a church of 50 or 20? Sit alone in an empty room until the service starts? Walk up to strangers and interrupt their conversations?
It’s bad to go to an unfriendly big church. But an unfriendly small church is brutal!
The Intentionality Of First Impressions
There are a lot of reasons people go to a big church. Maybe they want to hear from a preacher they’ve heard about, be led by a worship leader they’ve listened to, and so on.
But there’s one reason people go to a small church – relationships. This is why it’s so important for small churches to do the personal things well.
In a typical small church (typical being 50 people, give or take 50) you probably won’t need a lot of what’s needed in a big church. Parking lot attendants, greeters with matching t-shirts and an attractive gift bag for guests are great when the church has a huge parking lot, multiple entrances and a budget to buy free giveaways.
But when your church’s parking lot is tiny (or non-existent), the front door is obvious, and your budget is tight, those things may not be needed.
Making a great first impression requires one thing, no matter the size of the church. Intentional friendliness.
A church doesn’t need matching shirts or even assigned greeters to be intentional. But you will need to be prepared. In fact, small churches should involve everyone in First Impressions.
Pastors often ask me how to balance these two priorities: do we spend our time pastoring the people we have, or reaching out to people we don’t have?
The biblical answer is discipleship. We need to disciple the people we have to reach out with Christ’s love to the people we don’t have. When we do that, no one gets left out.
Making a great first impression is not about marketing, selling, ego or customer service. It’s an essential aspect of discipling the church.
What First Impressions Is Really All About
The most powerful evangelistic tool in the world is not a program, a special service, a booklet or a flashy presentation. It’s not a big church or small church, a cool church or a traditional church. It’s a group of people who live what they say they believe.
The most powerful evangelistic tool in the world is a loving, worshiping, welcoming church.
We’re not called to be friendly so we can put more people in the seats. We’re called to love people as Jesus loves them.
Then and only then will we make, not just a great first impression, but a lasting impression.
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