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You only get one chance

By: Steve R. Mills

Flies swarmed over our heads like military fighter planes on a bombing raid. The jelly on the tabletop attracted our elbows like nails to a magnet. The smoke clouding the room would have sounded a smog alert in any major city. A waitress, clad in an old dress draped with a filthy apron, walked over to take our order with an attitude like a bear awakened out of hibernation. "What do you want today?" she growled. We walked out and never went back. What a first impression!

This little episode demonstrates the importance of first impressions. The church and Sunday school have only one chance to make a first impression.

What is it like to be a visitor in your Sunday school? Does it feel warm and accepting? Is it stiff and awkward? Is it frightening and intimidating? Is it cold and indifferent?

We need to consider two areas in order to make a good first impression on visitors to our Sunday school and church. The first is how we attract visitors. The second is how we keep them once they have attended. Robert Bast's book Attracting New Members, and Win Arn's Growth Report discuss how to effectively attract and keep visitors.

How Do We Attract Visitors?

The most effective way to attract new people is for members to invite them. Statistics show that between 70 and 90 percent of people who join a church do so because a friend, relative, or neighbor invited them. Lyle Schaller says that the biggest reason people don't go to church is because they haven't been invited.

In churches where people actively invite people, we find several characteristics. Schaller says these churches "will usually display these characteristics: (a) the members are enthusiastic about their faith as Christians, (b) the members are enthusiastic about this congregation, (c) the members are enthusiastic about the current pastor, (d) the congregation as a whole conveys the expectation that members will invite others to come to church with them, (e) most of the members actively and enthusiastically greet and welcome visitors, and (f) that particular program or, if it is on Sunday morning, that worship experience is planned on the assumption that first-time visitors will be present."

Do people in your Sunday school invite and plan for visitors? The greatest factor in having more visitors come to Sunday school is for members to invite them. This implies that the members have a living, exciting, realistic faith. They are excited about what God is doing in their lives and in their church, and they want to share it with others.

The second greatest factor in attracting new people to your Sunday school is the programming. Most of the programs, activities, groups, and lessons are focused on the members of the church. If the Sunday school includes programs that appeal to the unchurched, more of them will come. If we want people to come to Sunday school, we need to provide classes of interest to them.

Ask unchurched people two questions: "If you were to go to a church, what would you want it to be like?" And, "What topics would you want the church to address?" People's needs must be identified before we can offer the kinds of programs and ministries that will attract them.

These programs must be of high quality. People can tell when we are serious about what we are doing and when we are doing our very best.

A program that attracts people will specifically and intentionally be designed to reach your target group, the unchurched. These programs will provide for the needs of all age groups. The Sunday school is a perfect place for this to happen because there is no other program that is structured and designed to minister to every age group.

A third way to attract visitors is through advertising. This can be done through TV, radio, newspaper, yellow pages, mailings, fliers, billboards, and outreach campaigns. Mail letters to new people in the community inviting them to your Sunday school and church.

When asked why they attend church, one couple said, "Shortly after we moved into the area, we received a letter from the pastor inviting us to attend the church. This was the only church that invited us to attend, so we came because we got a letter." It doesn't cost to advertise; it pays.

How effective is your church at attracting visitors? Your church can be more attractive if you do three things:

  1. Make members aware that 70 to 90 percent of people who come to church for the first time do so because they are invited by someone they know. Encourage them to invite friends and relatives to come.
  2. Make your Sunday school program attractive by intentionally designing it to reach the unchurched persons' needs. Survey the unchurched in your area to identify their needs and design your programs to reach them.
  3. Advertise through a variety of methods.

Yours can be an attractive Sunday school if you will invite, program, and advertise to reach the unchurched in your community.

What Do Visitors Look For?

Visitors want to feel loved, accepted, and needed. They want to feel they can belong. Studies show that the number one reason people join a church is that "they felt a sense of belonging."

Five elements often determine whether or not he returns. These elements are listed in order of importance.

1. A warm and friendly atmosphere.
Visitors notice how they are greeted and how people relate to them during and after their visit They want to feel important and that others are interested in them personally. This can be done on two levels.

A formal welcome, offered by the official greeters of the church, is the first level. This starts the moment the visitor steps onto church property. Greeters should get acquainted with the visitor and introduce him to others to make him feel at home. Some churches call greeters hosts and hostesses.

The second level, or informal welcome, actually leaves more of an impression than the formal welcome. This is how your members treat the guest after the service, do they greet him? During the week do they call and talk to him? Do they invite him to lunch or to a get-together with other friends from the church? Do they remember him the next time he visits the church?

Most churches think they are more loving and friendly than they are. Visitors often feel frustrated because people are friendly at church but not interested in getting to know them further. Your Sunday school will be more warm and friendly if you work on the informal welcome of guests.

2. A vibrant and meaningful worship.
People need to experience meaningful worship when they attend church. They need to feel the presence of the living, loving, healing, and forgiving God. In classes we must show them the relevance of God to everyday life. When we address real problems and real questions with real answers, we minister to people's needs.

When a visitor walks out of a Sunday school class or a church service, we want him to have had three experiences. We want him to have felt God's presence, to have experienced the reality and depth of Christ's love, and to have been uplifted and prepared for life. If he has experienced these things, he will likely return.

3. A place where children are loved and ministered to.
Baby Boomers make up 30 percent of the American population. Those people who were born between 1946 and 1964 are concerned about their children's spiritual welfare. According to one Gallup Poll, 74 percent of unchurched Americans said they would like their children to have religious education. This report also indicated that of the types of religious education, the Sunday school was their first preference.

American Demographics reported that fewer than 11 percent of American women function as full-time homemakers. It is predicted that by 1995, 85 percent of all Baby Boomer women will be in the work force, either part-time or full-time.

This means that the church that demonstrates a genuine interest in children will attract the Baby Boomers. Our Sunday school must be a place where children's needs and interests are taken seriously. One parent, talking about why he attends a particular church, said, "I know that my children are really cared for."

4. An attractive adult program.
The unchurched adult can be attracted to and kept in a church that identifies and ministers to his needs. If the church provides a variety of opportunities for involvement, people will more likely find a place where they fit. The adult program depends upon the needs of the adults you are ministering to. Each church and community is different. Special classes, social gatherings, and athletic events are just a few ways that a Sunday school can provide an attractive program for adults.

5. A church building.
Your facilities can either attract or deter people. While they can't always be changed readily, it is still important to recognize the part facilities play in determining if visitors will come initially and then return. Win Arn asks four key questions: Is your church visible? Is your church accessible? What is the condition of your property? Do you have adequate space?

How Does Your Sunday School Rate?

Most successful businesses take customers' comments seriously. They are concerned about the service the customer feels he has received. We also need to be concerned about the kind of service and impression we give visitors. Survey your visitors by calling them or by sending a comment card in your visitor's follow-up letter. Here is a list of questions you may want to ask:

  1. How did you hear about our church?
  2. What caused you to decide to come to our church?
  3. Did you feel comfortable and welcome?
  4. What did you enjoy the most about our church?
  5. What did you find uncomfortable about our church?
  6. Do you plan to attend again in the near future? Why or why not?
  7. Please give us other comments or suggestions that can help us to meet the needs of our guests better.

These and other questions can help achieve a better understanding of how visitors feel about your church. You will need to adapt your questions to your own situation.

You will attract and keep visitors if you consider the impressions your visitors take away. By doing your homework, planning, and organizing, you can be more certain that their first impression is a good one.

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