When I ask congregants to tell me their church’s greatest strengths, one answer is always “we’re friendly.” They like to think of themselves as welcoming, hospitable and kind. Closer to reality, church folks are friendly to the people they know. They greet visitors with a forced smile or a handshake, then leave them to go chat with other members or their own family.
Businesses understand the work that goes into welcoming visitors. Their livelihood depends upon staff showing hospitality, or as they call it excellent customer service. Anyone who has ever been in a store where the salesperson is grumpy or rude appreciates a respectful, smiling customer representative. Hospitality has the power to determine the kind of experience people have and whether they will return.
Congregations could learn a few things from corporations like Starbucks and Apple.
Have you ever been to an Apple store? They make hospitality a priority.
1. It is easy to identify who works at an Apple store. They are dressed nicely in matching shirts and equipped with technology to communicate with one another. What if congregations had hospitality teams that were easy for visitors to identify and equipped with the tools they need to make folks feel welcome?
2. The staff gathers before the store opens to go over responsibilities and get pumped up to serve customers. What if church leaders and greeters gathered before the church doors opened to get ready for the days’ activities and pumped up to serve visitors?
3. Someone is assigned to meet you at the door with a smile and a welcome. They also find out what you are looking for and connect you with the person to help you. What if trained church greeters were at every entryway and in the parking lot to welcome and direct visitors.
4. At our local Apple store, the greeter not only welcomes those who walk in the door, but also smiles and speaks to people walking by. What if churches had greeters outside the building just to say hello to folks passing by. (This is a great idea for urban congregations that have a lot of foot and bike traffic.)
5. The Apple greeter connects customers with a specific person to serve their need. This person stays with them for their complete visit. What if congregations had people trained to stay with visitors through the complete visit to help them find their way around, follow the order of service, and get information they want about the church?
6. Apple employees always ask customers if they got what they needed and thank them for coming. Thanking people for visiting is not just the pastor’s job. What if the church had specific strategies for thanking people for coming and following up with them?
7. Space matters as well. Apple stores are modern, well-lit, clean and well-staffed. What if churches put a lot more thought into their space like companies do? What message does the space give visitors – warm and cozy like a Starbucks, or bright and energetic like an Apple store? Congregations have plenty of people to help with hospitality because every member can participate.
There are many ways to show hospitality, and true welcome does not stop with the first visit. To be truly hospitable means to show people the kindness, grace and love that Jesus shows us. It means welcoming all, especially those who may not fit in to our cultural expectations. Before we can practice this kind of extended hospitality, we need to get past the first step of welcoming the visitor. How is your congregation doing?