(CNS photo/Tom Tracy)

‘Wow-ing’ Guests with Hospitality

How do we get people to church, or back to church?

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Father Michael WhiteThe COVID ordeal has added new urgency to the question that was already pressing pre-COVID: How do we get people to church, or back to church? I believe that one major key to unlocking this puzzle will be renewing our understanding of what hospitality is and who it is really for.

Literally, the word hospitality comes from the Latin for “guest.” At its root, hospitality is about welcoming guests, especially newcomers and outsiders. In the post-COVID era, hospitality will become more and more about reintroducing those far from the church back to church.

One definition of hospitality we like is “wow-ing” people with extraordinary service. We want each guest who steps onto our campus to feel like every aspect of the experience was designed with them in mind.

Here are a few ways we try to make that happen.

Focus on the first impression. When we first began focusing on hospitality, our parish’s hospitality strategy only started when Mass began. At that point, a volunteer (typically the cantor) might have offered a greeting from the altar before prompting the congregation to introduce themselves to those around them. This approach may or may not have been a good one (in some churches, it becomes awkward). However, we eventually realized that first impressions are created long before a first-time guest ever gets to their seat.

Increasingly, first impressions are no longer physical but virtual. This was becoming more the case even before COVID. Nearly all potential visitors to your church have visited your website in anticipation of their visit (just like everybody does for restaurants, hotels and vacation destinations). Your website is essential because it can answer some questions every potential visitor has. The most common questions potential visitors are asking are almost universally the same.

For example, newcomers will be visiting your website and asking these questions: Where are you located? How long will Mass be? Will I be welcomed, and will there be people there like me? What do I wear? What about my kids? Will this experience be relevant to my life?

If your site can successfully engage potential visitors by answering their initial questions, a prospective guest will be far more likely to consider visiting your campus. (Some of those questions, by the way, can most effectively be answered by photos on your site.)

The first impression of our campus begins in the parking lot, where our parking ministers welcome each and every car that pulls in. Visitors, if they so choose, can put on their flashers and park in reserved spaces in the front row. When they arrive at the front doors, they are welcomed into the entrance concourse by staff and ministry leaders, and once inside the sanctuary by our host ministers. By the time an unchurched person gets to their seat, they have had four or five positive, welcoming experiences, and they’re probably smiling.

Know the welcoming paradox. When making our first impression, we are mindful of how first-time guests want to be welcomed. The manner of the welcome can convey just as much, if not more, than the reality of the welcome.

Contrary to popular practice, we have found that most guests do not want to be singled out at any point during their visit. Rather, they want to blend in and get comfortable. At Saddleback Church in California, everyone is greeted with “Welcome back!” Returning members feel right at home and guests feel relieved that they look like they belong.

At my parish, we strive to be inclusive of guests throughout Mass. First-time guests worry that they will stand out because they don’t know what to say or do. Because we now have the technology, during Mass we project song lyrics, prayers and responses onto large screens, so the unchurched don’t feel excluded. Traditional monthly missalettes can do the trick too, though you might want to point them out to guests.

Define a path. Give your guests a clear path to follow up on their experience. Instead of bringing unwanted attention to guests, we offer a simple path they can choose to follow: We invite them to visit our “Welcome Center” after Mass. The “center” is simply a desk in our lobby where guests receive a free gift package and more information about the Nativity (it matters not in the least what is in the bag). Not everyone chooses to follow up (at least their first time), but we have given them an opportunity. Even if they don’t take us up on the offer, they might just come back next week. 

FATHER MICHAEL WHITE is pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, and co-author of “Rebuilt,” and a book on church financing, “ChurchMoney” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).

 
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