Churches find value in seeing themselves from visitors’ perspective

September 10, 2013

By: Christa Meland

Leaders at White Bear Lake United Methodist Church had known for a while that their second Sunday worship service could use a boost. But they decided to make changes after learning more precisely what both services were like for first-time visitors—and discovering that the church’s hospitality could use some tweaking.

As part of the Minnesota Conference’s Healthy Church Initiative, which the church went through in fall 2011, White Bear Lake UMC participated in a “mystery guest program” available through Missouri-based Faith Perceptions, a research and marketing consultant for churches.

White Bear Lake UMC member Marcia Faust, who served as the church’s Healthy Church Initiative co-chair, says greeters and hosts didn’t always know what to say to guests and sometimes left their posts to enjoy fellowship with other members. And the church didn’t offer many ways for visitors to stay connected after their initial visit.

White Bear Lake UMC has since trained hosts, greeters, and ushers to ensure that every guest is personally welcomed. At each service, greeters welcome visitors at the door and introduce them to hosts, who walk them to the sanctuary while making additional introductions and give them a loaf of bread after the service.

Another change prompted by the mystery guest program: Rather than just asking people to sign a “friendship pad,” visitors are now given a “connection card,” which asks for their name and contact information but also offers them the opportunity to learn more about specific ministries within the church or participate in upcoming, one-time events. Foust says that one Sunday, 15 people indicated interest in a knitting or crocheting group, about two-thirds of whom showed up to the first meeting.

“I think we’re a lot more intentional about [welcoming guests],” says Foust.

How it works

Here’s how the mystery guest program works: Faith Perceptions sends vetted “mystery guests” to worship services at a particular church over a period of several months. Most of the guests are what the company calls “unchurched” people, or individuals who might believe in God but who don’t have a church they call their own. After participating in the worship service, they take a 16-question survey that asks about everything from how easy it was to find the church and locate parking to whether they were greeted by members, to their thoughts about the sermon and music. After all the visits are completed, the church receives an extensive report that aggregates all responses, assigns numerical ratings, and groups open-ended responses.

“Regardless of where a church is at in their life cycle, finding out what people visiting the church experience . . . is pretty invaluable data,” says Faith Perceptions President Melanie Smollen. “One pastor told me, ‘I know why someone comes and they stay. I don’t know why somebody comes and they never come back.’”

Faith Perceptions, which works with all Minnesota Conference churches that participate in the Healthy Church Initiative and has evaluated more than 2,500 worship services nationwide, offers a more formal and scientific process for churches seeking to understand what visitors experience. But some churches within the Minnesota Conference have engaged in a more informal process that has also provided relevant feedback.

Twin Cities District churches involved in a Healthy Small Church Initiative (HSCI) pilot program in 2012 took part in a “secret-shopper” program through which members from one church would visit another and provide feedback on what they experienced. But David Raymond, who consults with churches through his company ChurchFuture and who led that HSCI pilot, says churches could easily pair up and send members to each other’s worship services even without a program.

Additionally, the Southern Prairie District hopes to roll out a similar “user-friendly inventory” program this fall; more than 300 individuals willing to make visits were trained over the summer.

“A benefit I am expecting is that all of those who take part in these . . . will be more aware of the posture and practices that are fruitful even in their own churches,” says Southern Prairie District Superintendent Phil Strom.

Visitor feedback

So, what are some of the most common things that churches learn from visitor feedback? One is that a lot of “internal speak” within churches can make guests feel isolated, says Smollen. For example, a church might have a children’s ministry called the “Reignforest.” It’s probably a name that members know and like, but a visitor would be clueless about the meaning of such a term. There’s an easy fix: Simply mention that it’s a children’s ministry each time the word is used.

Additionally, Smollen says churches have a great opportunity, through their websites, to inform potential visitors about what they can expect on a Sunday morning. But if something as basic as worship times is buried, would-be visitors might not take the time to find them and give the church a try. She suggests having a page for first-time visitors—one that’s easy to get to from a church’s home page and that tells them everything they can expect to encounter at Sunday worship: how people dress, what’s available for kids (including where they go for Sunday school, what’s taught, and who’s in charge), service times, and style of music and teaching. If there’s a visitors’ desk or welcome center, churches can also invite them to stop by.

White Bear Lake UMC now has an “I’m New” page on its website to address these very questions and list its belief statement; the page also indicates when communion is served and lets first-time guests know that they aren’t expected to participate in the offering.

For Riverside United Methodist Church, Faith Perceptions’ mystery guest program helped members see that their friendliness toward each other doesn’t automatically carry over to visitors, and the Park Rapids church began offering training sessions for greeters and ushers. Members have also made more of an effort to be friendly without making anyone feel uncomfortable. Sometimes in the past, when a member would bring a guest, he or she would introduce the guest to the whole congregation during worship. Rev. Lee Kantonen says that’s now discouraged because not everyone likes being put on the spot.

“To get the church family to be mindful of things when we’re used to doing something a certain way—it takes some time,” he says, adding that the church recently named welcoming as one of its five key ministry areas.

After receiving the mystery guest report, Riverside also decided to capitalize on one of its strengths: community awareness. Faith Perceptions has guests stop somewhere near the church to ask for directions in order to gauge the church’s visibility within its surrounding area. Kantonen says all of its guests received directions when they stopped to ask people nearby. Since residents know the church exists, it began hosting monthly community meals this summer to make deeper connections with them.

By contrast, White Bear Lake UMC Pastor Bryce Johnson says the mystery guest program helped his church see that it lacked visibility within the community, which prompted the church to host some events to get to know its neighbors, including three community pizza nights over the summer, all of which it publicized in the local newspaper.

Raymond, who visits each church he consults before working with its leaders , would add another common practice to the list of those that aren’t visitor-friendly: “sharing-and-caring” time (through which members voice joys and concerns) and announcements that last more than a couple of minutes.

“Churches have a tendency to evolve—or devolve—into a worship service that meets the needs of insiders,” says Raymond. “If you take [the feedback] seriously, members have to be willing to sacrifice some of the things that they really love and cherish to be responsive to the people God is calling us to reach and serve.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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