First impressions matter. Oftentimes in the programming and planning of church services we can quickly neglect an important aspect of our worship gatherings: how we welcome first-time visitors.
As I travel around and visit churches, one thing I love to do is play the part of a ‘secret shopper’ and experience how a first-time guest is welcomed at a church. I thought I had seen and heard all of the tricks and styles of welcoming visitors to churches, but my recent visit to Elevation Church in Charlotte changed my perception. They literally treat their first-time visitors like VIPs.
Here’s how it went down:
- Rockstar Parking. When we pulled up to the campus there was a sign for first-time visitors to turn on their hazard lights to let the parking lot volunteers direct you to the VIP Parking reserved for guests. We did and were given a parking spot literally steps from the front door of the church.
- A VIP Welcome. As we were parking, a volunteer came to our car and welcomed us. She was incredibly friendly and genuinely acted excited that we were there. She explained to us that at Elevation Church every guest is treated like a VIP. She then handed us a VIP brochure that included a short note from Pastor Steven Furtick, notes for where to go for your first-time visit, info for families with children, and ways to connect at the church. There was also an audio CD attached to the brochure that had a few songs written by the Elevation worship team and a message from Pastor Steven. All this in the first :45 of being on their property.
- An Incentive to Get Your Info. We were also handed information cards and a pen and told that if we would fill those out and return them to a designated spot after the service, they would donate $1 to a local charity as thanks for sharing our information with them. That was pretty cool. Even though I was an out-of-towner, I loved the idea that I could chip in and help a local charity.
- Warm Greetings All Around. As we walked in, the VIP brochure I was holding was a dead giveaway to the volunteers and each one of them greeted us enthusiastically. But, I will add, it wasn’t too much and didn’t seem pushy. (I would note we were in the South; people are just friendlier there.) The volunteer that met us at our car literally walked with us into the auditorium and led us to an usher who directed us to our seat. Unreal.
- Great Welcome From the Front. We all know how awkward those ‘if anyone is new here, please raise your hand’ moments can be in church. At Elevation, they didn’t put any pressure on you to acknowledge your newness, but rather warmly welcomed all of the VIPs of the day and reiterated how we could get connected and where to go after the service to get more information.
- I Got a Free T-shirt. So after the service was over (which it was great) I went to the table we were directed to go to with our info cards. Some of the volunteers recognized me and asked what I thought of the service and wanted to know about my experience. I turned in my visitor card and then they asked me if I wanted a t-shirt. Yes, an Elevation Church t-shirt. That may have been a little over-the-top for me, but it was still cool that for every first-time guest they’d invest as much as they did. Now I can literally say I went there and got a t-shirt.
As I was driving away I was blown away by the experience. The service was great and the message was challenging, but it was the welcome I received that really made the entire experience. If I would have been new to Charlotte and looking for a church home, there’s no doubt that my reception and welcome at Elevation would have kept me coming back.
But Wait… There’s More…
- A Real-Life Telephone Call. On Monday night I was back home in Chicago and got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. By default, I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t know. About a minute later I got a voicemail notification. I listened and it was a real-life person calling me from Elevation Church to thank me for being there the night before. He noticed I was visiting from out of town and wanted to let me know if I was just visiting that he hoped I had a great time and if I was relocating or coming back to Charlotte that he hoped I’d come back and visit again. He also offered that if I needed anything or needed prayer that I could call the church. WOW! In our automated age, the simple act of a personalized phone call is HUGE. I visited a church a while ago that routinely calls me every Thursday night with a pre-recorded message from the pastor letting me know what’s going on at the church that weekend. I don’t know how to unsubscribe from that. But this personalized call was unreal. Long gone are the days of the pastor or elders going to visit first-time guests at their homes, but this is definitely a 21st century spin on that.
- A Helpful Email. Then, the following morning I got an email with the subject line, “Thank for joining us! But wait, there’s more!” The email was beautifully designed and included a video message from the campus pastor of the campus we visited and included links for information about their small groups and children’s ministry. There were also links to take a survey to get feedback from your experience and a link to spread the word and invite your friends.
- A Handwritten Postcard. The day after that, no joke, I got a handwritten postcard in the mail, again, thanking me for visiting, inviting me back to visit and letting me know that they were praying for me. More bonus points for the personalization. That’s huge.
- A Letter From the Pastor. Then, seriously not joking, the day after that I got an official welcome letter from Pastor Steven in the mail. It was more like a form letter, but after the mix of personalized touch points, it was totally fine that he didn’t personally sit down and write me a letter. He’s kind of a big deal and a busy guy anyway. But, again, it was just an incredible continued way of keeping me in the loop.
While it may not be feasible for every church to provide the rockstar VIP treatment that Elevation does for their guests, I do believe that every church should take some notes from my experience there. I can tell you that I’ve been in many other great churches in the last few years where my presence as a visitor was hardly acknowledged.
Every time someone visits a church they are taking a risk. Everyone has their reasons for NOT going to church and people have reasons for making the choice to go to a church. They are searching for something and a need to feel loved and embraced by the church. The church is a family and we need to make people feel like they are coming home when they come to visit.
It’s been said that people will make up their minds about their experience at a church in the first five minutes of being there. If their experience from the parking lot to the sanctuary isn’t positive, it doesn’t even really matter what happens in the service. You’ve got to go out of your way from the moment they arrive at the door to roll out the red carpet.
I know this all could sound a bit consumeristic but let’s face it, we live in a consumeristic society and people go ‘church shopping’ with lists in hand of what they expect. I’m not suggesting churches bend to meet what people are looking for, but that we meet them halfway and go out of our way to welcome them. People want to feel like they belong. People want to feel valued. People want to be acknowledged. People need to feel welcomed when they visit churches.
Elevation Church has grown from a small group of 40 people to over 16,000 in under 6 years. There’s a lot at play and an obvious movement of God’s Spirit and favor, but I believe their commitment to welcome people like they have has helped them grow as much as they have.
First impressions matter and they made a great one.
A Cool Sidenote…
One of my co-workers was with me in Charlotte and she went to dinner with some friends in the area. They had a great experience at the restaurant. The manager came around and she told him about how she had always said she had wanted to find a church that welcomed people as warmly as the Apple Store does, but that now she would need to add that restaurant to the list. He said, “well, I think I have the church for you, then. It’s called Elevation.”