Podcast Episode 009, 46 min
First Impressions, with Greg Atkinson, EP 009
Karl Vaters interviews Greg Atkinson about how to make a great first impression with guests in small church.

Greg Atkinson: We need to be like water in a desert. We need to be welcoming and loving and accepting and give them a soft place to land where they can recover and grow in their life and being discipled and grow in their spiritual journey. But it all starts with that first visit. And we just don't know when that first visit will be.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor and welcome to Can This Work in a Small Church? My podcast guest today is Greg Atkinson and the subject is first impressions. Greg is one of the world's leading voices in first impressions for churches. He actually goes from church to church as a secret shopper to help these churches figure out what they're doing well and what they could do better.

But he usually does that in big churches because that costs a lot of money: the flying in to pay all the expenses. So in the meantime, he wrote a book called Secrets of a Secret Shopper that's specifically for small and mid-sized churches. And in fact, Greg is a part of a small church plant right now.

So in this conversation, Greg and I talk about everything from the importance of our online presence, to how everyone is really on the first impressions team in a smaller congregation, why small churches need to work even harder on making first impressions than our big church friends, plus a few tips for small churches to increase their first impressions with little or no money.

And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question: can this work in a small church?

Hey, Greg. Good to have you with us.

Greg Atkinson: Hey, good to be here.

Karl Vaters: You are a busy man, and I appreciate the time that you've taken away from a lot of things going on. You're a busy man because first impressions have become a big deal recently. When you and I were coming up, the word “first impressions” wasn't used, right? It was ushers. It was greeters. It was, and then somebody, I don't know, it was maybe 10 years ago, somebody figured out all of this is about making a good first impression and all of a sudden it became the term. And it's one of those new terms that I love because it's really accurate. Right? It really is about making the best possible first impression. Isn't it?

Greg Atkinson: Yes. I think it'd be probably attributed to Disney and their focus on guest services and then restaurants coming out like Chick-fil-A with a big focus on making people feel welcome. And then we just started to see this occur in the local church.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. So let's just jump right into it with the big overall question. Why do first impressions matter in a church?

Greg Atkinson: First impressions matter to me primarily because I see it as a biblical mandate. You know, when I talk about first impressions or guest services, my focus is hospitality. You know, I wrote a hospitality ministry handbook, and I go into the history of hospitality and the biblical mandate of hospitality, whether it's Old Testament or New Testament, we're instructed to welcome the stranger and to practice hospitality.

And as you know, whether you're a pastor, elder, bishop, you know, the requirements in First Timothy and Titus are that you practice hospitality. It's something God takes very seriously. And so some translations say welcome the newcomer, but in Leviticus and, and Hebrews, it talks about welcoming the stranger.

And then Jesus himself said, you know, “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.” And so, that language is all throughout Scripture that we're to welcome those that feel outside. And so, when I think of people coming to the local church, whether it's a small, medium, or a large church, we want them to feel welcomed and accepted and loved.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, I love that about the way you've always approached this because while the term, as we talked about, “first impressions” may have come out of the corporate world or Disney or Chick-fil-A or whatever, the idea of hospitality is a deeply rooted biblical principle. I mean, it's not a secondary issue at all.

“Welcome the stranger” is pretty core to the essence of the gospel. There are very few things that are more central to our understanding of the gospel message than welcoming the people in from the outside. I mean, that was maybe even the primary thing that scandalized the people around Jesus.

He was like, no, we're opening the doors now. Everybody's welcome in. That's what this whole new covenant thing is all about is that it's not just about a select few anymore. It's not about people who are born into a particular ethnicity or tribe or whatever. Now it's open to absolutely everybody and it's welcoming the stranger in.

So for a local congregation, where does the first, first impression happen now? Chronologically, what's the main place that people make the first, first impression about a local congregation?

Greg Atkinson: People check you out online before they ever come in person. And, it doesn’t matter if you're a small church or a large church. It doesn't matter if you're a church plant. I know some church planters that won't launch until their website is perfect. The first impression starts online. People want to check you out and see.

I remember showing people in my Facebook group that you at your church had created a virtual tour that people could see your facility layout, your campus layout, before they ever visited. And so people want to feel, they wanna see what the pastor looks like. They want to see what the staff looks like. They want to find out what they need to wear and what the service is going to be like.

And now a lot of people with live streaming and church online are watching services online to see if they like it before they actually come try it in-person coming out of 2020 and COVID.

Karl Vaters: Touch on that for a moment because in the last year and a half, that has been the big change. A year and a half ago, before COVID what you're talking about, they would check it out online. They'd go. . . But what I found out recently was one of the most visited pages on a church's website is the staff page.

Greg Atkinson: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: So make sure your staff page is up to date, that the pictures are nice, that you're accurately describing who you've got on your staff. ‘Cause it's, I think I heard that next to the home page or maybe third to home page, then the sermon page, the staff pages are really a highly visited place.

Greg Atkinson: Yeah. Some people say it's the most visited page on a church staff website. They want to see what you look like. They want to see male, female, black, white, Asian, Hispanic. They want to see your ethnicity. They want to see if you're an older congregation, if you're a younger congregation. Is the pastor in his forties? Is he in his sixties? They want to know this stuff. And in today's world where you can browse online and shop online and find nearly everything you could ever want on Amazon, people are used to checking out stuff online. It's just the technological world we live in.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. In the last year and a half to two years now, not only do people check the church website out and check out the church Facebook page. I'm guessing that they're probably watching a sermon or two online before they ever stepped foot in the building to hear a sermon. Is that what you're saying?

Greg Atkinson: Yeah.

Karl Vaters: So have you noticed in the last year and a half, would you say there are two or three pieces of advice, maybe mistakes you see regularly that we've got to stop repeating or things that some churches are doing well that we could use?

What would be two or three big pieces of advice that you'd say to the average small church pastor about doing our online service presentation?

Greg Atkinson: Well, I would start with the absolute basic, and this is as fundamental as you can get, and that is to simply do it. You know, I am now an executive pastor at a small church plant, a five-year-old church plant, here in the Charlotte area. They run about 80 people. And before that I was greatly involved serving as a volunteer, almost like an executive pastor, at a small church plant of about 40 people. And was very involved there.

And during COVID the first three weeks, the pastor showed Facebook live and I would stay at home and watch and feel connected and felt plugged in. And then the fourth week, I tuned in to watch the service and there was no Facebook Live. He had cut the camera off and just decided we're not going to do online anymore. We're not going to do Facebook Live. And so I felt greatly disconnected.

I went from March until March without traveling and from March until March without going to church in person. The first service I went back to my home church was Palm Sunday of 2021. I had gone from March of 2020 until March of 2021, without flying on an airplane. I was being careful, as you know, you had asked off camera, you know, how my health is doing. I have health issues, and I had to be very cautious with my immune system, but I felt very disconnected from my home church when they cut the camera off and there was no more Facebook Live. And so did many people, they actually lost about three fourths of their congregation.

Karl Vaters: Wow.

Craig Atkinson: So he was preaching to about 12 people in the room and everybody else that would have watched online wasn't able to watch online because the camera wasn't on. But on the flip side, this church that I'm, I'm a part of now in Charlotte, a church of 80 people that does a lot with church online and they have a very well-produced—they have a pre-show and a post. They have an emcee, they have an intro video. They're really pushing the bounds creatively and technologically to create a great online experience. Even though, of course, we want people to show up in person and to come worship with us. But, the pastor has really put an emphasis on the online experience. And so I really respect him for that because there have been some weeks where I wasn't able to make it and I watched online at home.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Obviously the COVID situation amplified and accelerated the need for that. But I think also what I'm noticing is: the technology changes and then we need to understand how the technology changes, what people expect.

So like two, three years ago, if you were offering an online service, especially if you're a smaller congregation, even the people who aren't attending your church would go well, yeah. I mean, I get it, it's a small church. It's a really expensive and technically complicated thing to air your church live online.

Let's say four or five years ago or whatever, but today, literally anybody in the service can turn their phone on, hit Facebook live and you're going there live. So the on-ramp to do it is so low that if you're not doing it, to me, it comes across as if you're not doing something that's that easy then do you really even want people in? It's not even any more that you might not be able to, but the absence of it is not neutral anymore. It's actually a negative in mind.

Greg Atkinson: Yeah, it was a definite negative in my situation. It felt like a slap in the face. I remember, you know, my pastor at my home church is one of my best friends. And, he said, “Greg, I want the people to come in person. I don't want to cut a camera on and to broadcast online, I want them there in the room.”

And this was in the height of COVID. And the pastor and his entire family ended up getting COVID and getting very sick. And his wife is still very sick. And I had begged him to, you know, when, when COVID first started, he was prerecording a sermon and broadcasting it on Sunday and it was very safe and welcoming and, but then he just . . . it's some stuff that I know you've heard Carey Nieuwhof talk about. There's no more going back to normal. It's not like it used to be. And so his mindset shift—his mindset didn't change enough. I want people back in the room. I don't want the camera on. And you know, I spoke at the church online summit and I said, “there will always be a camera on from here on out. We'll always be speaking to people in the room and people far away that are watching online. Always be aware of the camera. As we preach, as we teach, as we sing, as we lead worship, people are going to be watching in the room and out of the room.”

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Okay. After the electronic first impression—and we could go into this for sure several podcasts worth but we’ll move along. When they do finally physically show up to the facility, what are some of the—because we're talking about first impressions, and again, I want to, I'm going to pause here for everybody who's listening because occasionally I get this pushback of, well, you know, what about the gospel? We're talking about before they get to the gospel, right? I'm going to assume that every pastor who's listening, that you're preaching an awesome sermon.

I'm just going to go under that assumption, whether it's true or not. We want to get them to the point where they're hearing it. So these are not things that save people, but if they're not done right, they can put up a roadblock to them hearing the gospel and to them having the opportunity to ask Christ into their life, because we didn't do the first impressions correctly.

So, there is no salvation in a first impression, but with a bad first impression, you can actually put up a roadblock to the gospel.

Greg Atkinson: Absolutely. Yeah. My friend Mark Waltz, he wrote the book First Impressions. And he's speaking at our fall First Impressions Conference and I’m glad to have him back. He has the famous quote, you know, you have 10 minutes somewhere from the parking lot till the children's ministry. Those 10 minutes pass, they need to know they matter to us before they hear they matter to die. And so they need to know they matter to us and, you know, Danny Franks who's at The Summit Church with JD Greear, you know, he wrote a great book called People Are the Mission, and it talks about embodying the gospel and living the gospel.

The gospel isn't just words. There's aspects of it, of a herald and proclaiming and speaking, the good news. However, we also can live the good news and be the hands and feet of Christ. And so if we don't welcome people with our lives, with our personhood, with our being, to welcome people.

You know, what does it say if people show up to our congregations and they get a cold shoulder? They need to know that they're welcomed and loved and accepted and known and seen.

I've spent the last several years involved in very small churches being a part of church plants and the last three years of a church of 40 people. We had a greeters team and greeters that wore t-shirts that said “hello,” and yard signs and, and pop signs. And, put a lot of emphasis in it because, you know, Karl, if I go to a large church—and this week, I'll be consulting with a large church in the twin cities area of Minnesota.

But, I can hide in that church. I talked to my contact, who's bringing me in and she said, “we want you to evaluate the Saturday night service. It's smaller and kind of has a small church feel. And then we want you to come to our two Sunday morning services, which is a large church.”

And so I'll get to experience two different vibes, but if I go to a typical large church, I can hide, I can be anonymous. I can sneak in. I can walk into a room with thousands of people and get lost and sit in a pew or chair and not be seen or interacted with. However, if I go to a small church, like my church, of 40 or 80 people. They know, hey, that guy's new and it's very awkward because I know they know. I walk in and everybody's looking at me like, who is this guy? We know our 40 and you're not one of them.

And so, it's very, very important for a small church to make first impressions—you know, when I think of—so for me, this is the way I break it down. When I think of guest services in a large church, and I typically consult with mega churches, I'm thinking of wayfinding signage. I'm thinking of parking. I'm thinking of finding my way to the restroom, finding my way to the auditorium, because I have been in buildings so large that I couldn't even find the auditorium, you know, so finding my way around and, and feeling—it's what Andy Stanley talks about and what you just alluded to removing those roadblocks and barriers and obstacles.

However, when I go into a small church, then it becomes about hospitality and welcoming and friendliness, Thom Rainer talks about this and has written a lot about this in his, one of his more recent books, talked about resources that they had done at Lifeway and that he had done a bunch of research into polling guests that had left churches and finding why they, they left the church. And it was because nobody talked to them because when you go to a small church, you want somebody to acknowledge you, to welcome you, and to notice you

I had a pastor friend of mine here locally that was preaching at a church with 12 people. And he had me come do a secret shopper and one person, the pastor's wife, spoke to me. So 11 people ignored me and one person spoke to me. So that feels like a bad visit. You know, if I walk in a room with 12 people and nobody notices me and nobody speaks to me and nobody acknowledges me.

So then it comes down to just the very basic concept of friendliness, being welcoming. And so when I reached out to my First Impressions Conference speakers, I said, “we want to encourage people to create welcoming environments.” And that translates to any size, whether you're small or large, you want to create welcoming environments.

Karl Vaters: And now a 20-second break to talk about something else.

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Greg Atkinson: And that translates to any size, whether you're small or large, you want to create welcoming environment and

Karl Vaters: Yeah, and the smaller the church, the more, I think it's true. In a small church, there's not really a first impressions team. Everybody's on the first impressions team. In a big church, it is, as you said, it's really about, it's about the technical excellence of it.

It's about signage. It's about making sure systems are in place. And obviously, in addition to that, you want the friendliest people in those places so it's not that it's devoid of friendliness, but people expect a certain level of technical excellence in their first impressions in a large church.

But in a smaller congregation, it is, as you said, it is completely about the friendliness of the people. And not just the people on the team who are given the assignment today, “you’re on the first impressions team,” but it's about literally every single person they see and either do or do not talk to who or does or does not come and greet them. And the smaller the church is the more, every single person in the room matters in the way they make a first impression about that congregation.

Greg Atkinson: Absolutely. You know, and Thom Rainer’s book and his research, he said that once the guests get past the parking team and past the front door greeters and past the ushers and they sat down in the congregation, the reason they didn't come back was because nobody spoke to them and it was once they'd get past all the “professionals” and they sat down in the congregation, nobody came up and said, “Hey, my name is Greg. What's your name? I've never seen you before.” Or, I'd like to get to know you” or just striking up a conversation.

So, you know, when I do a secret shopper, I actually have a thing on my form that rates the people friendliness. I want to know, whether it's a small church or a large church, is the congregation friendly? Because the pastor wants to hear about that and he wants to know how did we come across? How did our congregation come across to an outsider? Again, welcome the stranger, that biblical concept.

Karl Vaters: So let's talk to the average, small church pastor. What would be a couple of steps that you would give as advice to the typical small church pastor, who's listening to this now and saying, okay, our church needs to become more friendly to the outsider. We're a friendly church to ourselves. That's why we're all here, because this is where our friends are.

What are a couple of things they can do to become a more welcoming congregation that's going to cost a little or no money, but that in fact is really going to be about turning up the hospitality in the congregation.

Greg Atkinson: Yeah. Here's the leadership tip that I've shared before that costs no money. I think pastors and leaders need to be efficient and effective at leading conversations with three types of groups, that is: the large group, a small group and one-on-one.

A large group would be something you say from the pulpit, like an announcement, however you don't want to announce from the pulpit, “hey everybody, I need you to be friendly because we have a guest here today.” You know, you don't want to call attention to the guests. You don't want to embarrass them. You don't want to ask them to stand up.

Karl Vaters: You might as well shine a laser straight in their eyes.

Greg Atkinson: Yeah, when I grew up, you know, I got the visitor badge.

You can communicate to a small group of people, here's what I need from you: you're going to be unofficial greeters. I need you to float through the lobby and keep a lookout for somebody that you don't recognize and make sure that at least somebody talks to them before they leave and then to be effective in one-on-one conversations.

That's when you say, “Bob, you're one of the friendliest people I know. I would really love for you to make contact with a newcomer if you see them.”

I remember when I pastored a small congregation in Missouri, one of my elders would go up to and he was, he was wealthy and h, he was a very generous man, but he would go up to a newcomer and say, “hi, my name is, Paul,” and another guy Dexter did the same thing, “Hi, my name is Dexter. Could I take you to lunch today?”

And just say, you know, “Hey, I don't know you, but I'd love to get to know you. Can I buy you lunch today after the service?”

And about nine out of 10 times, he went to lunch with somebody. People love a free meal. I love a free meal. I'm a friend for life. If you buy me a meal. So, there's times where somebody would come up, Paul or Dexter would come up to guests and say, “hi, we'd love to take you to lunch today and get to know you and that goes a long way towards getting people plugged in, because if they have a friend, if they get to know somebody, then they return.

And, as you know, Nelson Searcy says that if they come back for a second visit, they're 80% more likely to get plugged in and stay and make a decision for Christ. So we want them to strike up friendships, to get to know people relationally, and to return for a second visit.

Karl Vaters: Okay. What you're saying to me feels like a little, interesting, and important contrast in the smaller congregation.

Like I said, everybody is really on the first impressions team, but if you've got an older congregation or if you've got one that has gone through some difficult seasons or whatever, and it's unhealthy, it's unfriendly, you're having some resistance to the idea of getting some old-time members to get out of their pew and actually go up to somebody.

How much of the general distance of a congregation can be overcome by training and assigning one or two people to just be that kind of friendly, like, there were 20 people in the congregation, the 17 of them didn't talk to me, but the three who did, were so friendly, they were so nice. They sat with me, they saw me afterwards. They brought me over a coffee. They did whatever.

Is that something that can overcome the general kind of neutral? I'm not going to call it—I don't think that can overcome an unfriendly church. But can it overcome a neutral church to a certain degree? And then can it serve as an example to the others to bring them along to become more free?

Greg Atkinson: Yeah, it can serve as an example, and it can overcome a neutral. However, the bad, it's hard to overcome the bad. You know, when I talk about pastors and I've said this for years in my coaching, when I talk about pastors being effective in large group leadership, small group leadership, and one-on-one: that's to deal with the unfriendly people, you don't want to chime in from the whole pit and call them out. However, I can do lunch one-on-one with Bob and say, “Bob, what's the deal? You've been in church your whole life. You know, about the fruits of spirit. You know about the people that Jesus ate with and what it means to be a Christ follower.”

We all have those horror stories of somebody sitting down in somebody's pew where they say, “hey, this is my pew. This is my seat. You're in my seat.” But where do people get off acting like that when we don't see this in the Bible? We don't see this in Christ's followers, characteristics or personhood. It's not part of the fruit of the spirit. And so to be able to have effective small group and one-on-one conversations with people to say, “Hey, I need you on board. I need you. I need you on the team. I need you to make a positive impression on people. And if they sit in your seat, they sit in your seat, just let them have it. We want them to feel welcome.”

That's the most important thing to have those heart to heart one-on-one conversations. I have been having those hard conversations since the early nineties, when I first started in ministry, when I was a teenager talking to people in their seventies and telling them, how could they improve their impression?

I've been at this a long time, coming up on 30 years. It's not easy. It's leadership. It takes strong leadership to have a strong one-on-one conversation with somebody when it's needed.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. Would that be, in your mind, one of the biggest challenges there is for first impressions in a smaller congregation, is you do really have to get so many people on board percentage wise of the congregation?

Like if you're in a big church, you've got to get the first impressions team on board with it because you'll walk into a church of a thousand. Nobody expects you to have a hundred conversations right now, if you can have five or six people. So you're talking, you know, 0.5% of the congregation says hi to you. And the rest of them just wander on by because half of them may be new to you don't know, but the smaller the church is the higher up the percentage of friendliness there needs to be. So we've talked about the pastor who is trying to get the church to be friendlier.

What would you say to the small church pastor who says, well, you know what? We got this small church and we're in this small town and we don't get any visitors anywhere. So why should I work hard on first impressions when we don't have anybody to have a first impression with, because it's just a few of us? What would you say to them?

Greg Atkinson: Eventually it will be somebody's first Sunday.

I've always tried to encourage people that somebody is going to walk through the door today for the first time and they need to see and feel and know and experience the love of Christ. You know, I pastored in a small town of 13,000 people, in Missouri and inherited a congregation of 125 people.

We did a lot of Facebook ads. We did a lot of social media marketing and reaching out and growing the church. And then we also worked on our first impression and what people experience. We never know, one: when somebody is going to walk through the front door, but two what they're dealing with, what they're struggling with, if it's their last hope, if this is their last chance before they go take their life. Maybe they're just giving God one last chance before they end their life. And we need to be like water in a desert. We need to be welcoming and loving and accepting. . . give them a soft place to land where they can recover and grow in their life and be discipled and grow in their spiritual journey.

But it all starts with that first visit. And we just don't know when that first visit will be.

Karl Vaters: Right. You went heavy there. And there could be somebody out there just kind of wanting to roll their eyes and dismiss it. Oh, we got to make a first impression because there may be somebody walking in who's suicidal.

Yes! Yeah. Churches are one of the kinds of places suicidal people go. We have a higher likelihood of that than the average place does percentage wise. And, you know, is there likely to be a suicidal person at the movies? Sure. But they're not going to the movies for help from that. They're going to a movie, maybe for an escape from that, or they're going to a restaurant because they’ve got to eat in the meantime.

But if you are in that situation and there are a lot more people out there in those situations, in those dire circumstances than we realize. And they walk into a small church. I mean, first of all, walking into a church alone on your own for the first time is brutally hard, but it is exponentially more difficult the smaller the church is. So if someone takes the kind of mental and emotional effort to walk into our congregations for the first time, they are expressing a desire for something, a desire for Christ, even if they don't know how to express it as a desire for Christ yet, they're expressing a desire for Christ on a huge level because of the amount of intimidation that it is simply to walk in the door.

And if we haven't taken the time to prepare, to greet them and to make the rest of their journey towards Christ as easy as possible, we may literally be failing people in circumstances of potential suicide, self-harm, or people who are looking for escape out of an abusive situation.

I mean, the circumstances that are out there right now—and this is not just big city stuff, in fact, rural pastors in fact may be facing this more than big city pastors because joblessness meth addiction, single parenthood, depression, all of these things are as relevant in a rural context, as they are in a big city context. You have no idea the burden that people are carrying when they walk in.

And if we wait until they walk in, going back to the question that I had for you earlier for the pastor who says, well, you know, we don't have people come in, so why should we worry about it? Well, you can't put together the first impressions team after the person walks in.

Greg Atkinson: Right. I wanted to address that because two things, one: I've always said people that who walk through the doors of a local church for the first time. One, they're extremely brave. Two, they're making a spiritual decision whether they recognize it or not, it's a huge spiritual decision. They may not be aware of it. When somebody gives for the first time, it's a huge spiritual decision. When they decide to get baptized or commit their life to Christ. But when they walk through the doors of the church, it's a spiritual decision whether they realize it or not.

And Nelson Searcy, who you always encourage people to read the book Fusion but Nelson spoke at our first First Impressions Conference. And, you know, he talked about this concept of what he calls the principle of spiritual readiness.

And that is where people say, well, we don't have any guests. And he teaches that like, well, God is waiting for you to be ready and prepared, spiritual readiness, ready and prepared for guests so that he can send them your way so that you can steward them well. And churches that take it seriously and prepare, it's like a boy scout. Be prepared. The churches that prepare and are spiritually ready, they seem to be overflowing with guests. When I pastored a small team church here in the Charlotte area, we had six to eight guests. Well, we were a small congregation, but every week, we averaged six to eight guests. We had a principle of spiritual readiness. We were ready and prepared. We had a gift, we had a connection card. We had a process and we were prepared to welcome them and meet them where they were.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Yeah. It's amazing how people show up to churches that are ready to receive them and do not show up to churches that are not ready to receive them.

So much here in so many different places we could go, but I want to get to the lightning round questions here for you. So are you ready for the lightning round?

Greg Atkinson: I am.

Karl Vaters: Okay. Question number one. What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years and how have you adapted to it?

Greg Atkinson: I think what was originally first started talking about at the very beginning of the podcast of what first impressions and guest services looked like when I was first coming up and you just had ushers that handed it out bulletins whereas now where you have full parking teams and section hosts, and a welcome center and you know, all the stuff that happens now with a greeters holding up pop signs and official teams and ministries.

And that's why we started at the First Impressions Conference to be able to offer resources to people, to build these teams because they didn't exist before. When I first started out in ministry, there was not the position of first impressions director, guest services director, you know? I was minister of music and youth. There wasn't a, you know, who's going to oversee the greeters and the parking team? We didn't have a parking team. And so I've seen that really evolve.

Karl Vaters: Okay. Great. Secondly, what free resource like an app or a website has helped you lately that you'd recommend for small church ministry?

Greg Atkinson: I would encourage people to go to firstimpressionsconference.com because we have free resources on there.

We have a first impressions download, a resource bundle, and you can download the bundle for free. It also includes editable connection cards that you can use at your church. you can put your logo on it and edit it and make it however you want it to be to use for a connection card.

But, we're preparing and getting ready to launch next week—and it'll be launched when this comes —our fall First Impressions Conference, and it's totally free. It doesn't cost anything. This is our sixth First Impressions Conference and it's the first one we've ever done for free. And so, it's a completely free resource and would be a great tool for small churches, and any church size, really, to, to learn more about this ever-growing ministry.

Karl Vaters: Absolutely. That's great. And we will put all of the references to that in the show notes so that you can find it there.

What is the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

Greg Atkinson: My very first church in 1994, I was 18 and my uncle was a minister of music since the seventies. And he came to visit my small country church that I was on staff at.

I wanted everything to be perfect to impress my uncle, who was somebody I looked up to and a mentor and had been a worship pastor since the seventies. And I went to lunch with him afterwards and I said, “So what did you think?” You know, cause I had, I'd worked hard on the music and wanted to know what he thought.

And he said, “Greg, walk slowly through the pews.”

I was rushing around so quickly trying to get everything ready and prepare everything that I was flying by people and not taking the time to stop and look people in the eye and say, how are you today? And talk with them. And so it's ministry advice I've carried with me my whole career and wrote about in my first book Walk Slowly through the Pews.

Karl Vaters: I love that. And the smaller the church is the more important that is because when I talk to small church members and I ask them, why do you attend a small church? By far the most common answer I get is,” I go to a small church because the pastor knows my name.”

Craig Atkinson: Absolutely.

Karl Vaters: It is important to be known by others, but in the smaller churches, the more important the pastoral touch. Like, Hey, we, you talked last week about, you know, a hospital visit coming up or their son leaving for college or whatever, and to follow up next week and say, how, how did it go last week?

Or, you know, we've been praying for you, those little touches that let them know that you've remembered previous conversations and that you're a part of their life. I'm absolutely convinced that there is as much or more valuable ministry happening before and after services, especially in small congregations, in those conversations than there are for most of the sermons we preach.

Yeah, well, at least for most of the sermons I preach. I'll put that on me.

Greg Atkinson: I consulted with a Baptist church here locally, and I saw a woman rushing around, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, like a chicken with their head cut off. And I said, “that's a staff member.: And afterwards I asked the pastor, I said, “who is that woman?”

He goes, “oh, that's our children's minister.” I said, “well, she needs to slow down.”

But because she was running around so much, it was obvious to me that she was a staff member that was stressed out. And so walk slowly through the pews.

Karl Vaters: And then finally what's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church?

Greg Atkinson: This is not funny at all. I'd put it under weird or bizarre, but my first church, in 1994 at the age of 18, country church, I was leading worship on a Sunday night and the pastor wasn't there. He had left me in charge of the service. And this woman, who I loved dearly, started screaming out in pain and ended up she was having a brain aneurysm right in the middle of the service.

I asked people to call 911, and the ambulance came and took her off. I rode with her husband to the hospital. This is me as an 18-year-old college student, freshman in college. people say, what was your college experience like?

So, I'm standing next to this husband and the doctor comes out and says, “she's got a 10% chance of making it through the line through the night.”

And the man falls in my arms and I catch him and hold him up ‘cause he's just about fainted. And I held him up and stayed with them throughout the entire light. And she ended up surviving. She was in the hospital for about three months, but she survived. And, it was one of my favorite couples in that sweet, small country church that I served during college.

But, that was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen to have someone have a brain aneurysm in the middle of the service.

Karl Vaters: Wow. Yeah, but those are the kinds of things that we go into ministry for. And especially when you're in a smaller congregation, to be there for those big moments in people's lives and to make those kinds of permanent, long-term connections, they'll never forget that you were there.

Greg Atkinson: Yeah, and the hospital was right across the street from the college that I attended. So I could go over and visit her every day.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Wow. Hey, first of all, I highly recommend to all of our listeners, your book Secrets of a Secret Shopper, you specifically wrote it, because you know, when you go in to do a secret shopper, mostly it's larger congregations that can afford to fly you in and pay your expenses and so on. but there's a whole bunch of small congregations out there that can't do that. So you wrote this book to help us and there’s a whole bunch of great advice in there.

So I highly recommend Secrets of a Secret Shopper by Greg Atkinson. Where else can people find you online? You've got the First Impressions Conference coming up, which we'll put in the show notes, but, what else can people know about you online so that they can find you and get some resources?

Greg Atkinson: Yeah, just check out my name, my blog, Gregatkinson.com. I blog regularly about resources, about ministry thoughts, about principles, about leadership tips. So just Gregatkinson.com.com and then everything on social media is @GregAtkinson. You can find me and connect with me and I would love to interact with you.

Karl Vaters: And you've got a really strong presence online and a really helpful one, especially on Facebook, you run two or three, but particularly you run a—it's not first impressions, what's it called?

Greg Atkinson: Weekend worship and guest services.

Karl Vaters: Weekend worship and guest services, which is a great place where you can have conversations with others. It tends to lean toward those who are the head of the first impressions team at their church, which means it leans a little larger, but we can still get great advice just from the conversations that go on there.

So I really recommend people make those kinds of connections with you online, too. Appreciate your advice today. always good to be with you, Greg. Thanks very much.

Greg Atkinson: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Karl Vaters: You know, every time I talk with Greg, I feel like we only get to scratch the surface of all there is to learn, especially about this important topic of first impressions. But let's start where he starts. We always have to start with the understanding that first impressions is not some new corporate idea.

There is an absolute biblical precedent for us to welcome the stranger, for us to be hospitable. And I love that that's where he starts everything in this. It's also great to know that one of the world's leading experts on first impressions for churches has been and still is very active in a small congregation.

So let's take a look at the question and the title of our podcast: can this work in a small church? Can we use the principles of making a first impression in a small congregation? And the answer today of course is a big, huge, yes. Yes. If we do a handful of things well: first of all, we have to see it as an essential step in the great commandment and the great commission.

Secondly, we have to use every tool we can starting with our online presence, which thankfully is much easier to do now than it's ever done before, but of course makes it more necessary to do than it's ever been necessary to do before. Thirdly, we have to recognize that first impressions in a smaller congregation is more about developing an attitude of hospitality than it is about the technical expertise.

Fourthly, this was quick at the end, but it was a real big one for me. I think we need to recognize the courage that it takes for everyone, whoever walks into your church front door for the first time, that it takes courage to do so. And that when they do so they are already making a spiritual decision. And we want to acknowledge that courage. We want to help them make their spiritual decisions as easily as possible. And that's what first impressions are all about.

If you'd like to become a Patreon partner for as little as $3 a month and get these resources into the hands of the ministries that need the most, check out our Patreon link in the show notes. And if you want a transcript of this episode, it will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at christianitytoday.com/Karl-Vaters. You can find that link in the show notes as well.

This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver Edited by Jack Wilkins. Original theme music written and performed by Jack Wilkins of JackWilkinsMusic.com. Podcast logo by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

August 5, 2021

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