Philip North explains how churches can create a good first impression

I was very struck by a conversation I once had with a church organist. His own parish had given him ten weeks sabbatical leave, and finding himself for the first time in many years in the position of being able to make a choice about where to go to church, he decided to do an experiment. For ten weeks he would go to a different Anglican church each Sunday, meaning that in the course of his sabbatical he would visit every parish in the deanery.

His reflection on his experience was fascinating and well worth some study because it brings home the importance of first impressions. He told me that his mind was made up about whether a particular church would be the sort of place where he could belong in thirty seconds. If the first thirty seconds was bad, no matter what the quality of the subsequent preaching, liturgy or music, he was ill-disposed towards it. If the first thirty seconds was good, it did not matter what disasters followed, he felt he had found a church where he could belong. From the point of view of a priest, this is very alarming because the first thirty seconds are the period of time when we have no control of what is going on.

A good place to start

The industry of evangelism has a habit of making church growth sound terribly complicated and difficult. It has invented its own language (missional, modal, sodal, etc.), its own technocrats (pioneer ministers, church-planters, etc.) and its own culture (fresh expressions, new monasticism, etc.). The impact can be debilitating for an ordinary parish which feels terribly left behind by all the whizzy vocabulary and ideas. However to a great extent, church growth is manageable and do-able for even the most humble parish as long as we focus on doing a few things well. And perhaps the best place to start is the first thirty seconds. We all have new people drifting into our churches occasionally. If they can receive the right sort of welcome and feel they have found a place where they can belong, a very important start has been made. So what do we need to get the first thirty seconds right? Here is a checklist.

Exterior and journey in

If your church noticeboard is chipped and out of date, if you still have a sign on the wall saying ‘The Millennium is Christ’s Birthday’ or an advert for a fayre which was held in 2009, then no one will want to go near. A simple, attractive noticeboard with as few words as possible, a banner or two and a working party sorting out the grounds are simple steps that can make a world of difference.

Solid wooden doors, long paths, dark porches, doors which don’t tell you whether to push or pull, poor signage and the lack of disabled access are all things that seem small to us but which can put huge barriers in the way of a visitor. We need to see our buildings through the eyes of a visitor and so make the journey into the building as simple as possible. Remember, visitors will be embarrassed, nervous and unsure of themselves. The journey in needs to be simple, clear and well signposted.

Welcome and order of service

The single most important factor in the first thirty seconds is the person who you meet first on getting through the door. What is required is a trained welcome team who will smile, who are genuinely pleased to see people, will enquire after the names of newcomers and show them to a seat. This is one of the most vital tasks on a Sunday morning and it is worth investing time in calling the right people to participate in it.

What is placed in the hand of the person walking into your church? Is it a heavy book and endless tatty bits of paper which require a degree in librarianship to negotiate? With orders of service it is the simpler the better, and increasingly parishes are using technology to produce an eight-page weekly booklet with the Mass, readings and notices all in one place. Or you could of course give up on paper altogether and go for the big screen! But the basic rule is, the simpler the better.

Atmosphere and seating

Walking into a buzz of conversation can seem friendly for those on the inside, but for a new person it can be intimidating because they feel that everyone has friends except them. The best atmosphere is one of prayer with music playing gently in the background. A brisk music practice before Mass begins can also be very helpful in building up the right sort of atmosphere. It gives an opportunity for a non-liturgical welcome, demonstrates that we are all learning and provides an opportunity to invite people into prayer and stillness before the Mass begins.

‘I am afraid this is my seat.’ Anyone who says this to a newcomer should be excommunicated! But there is more to the layout of a church than this. Too few chairs and people feel crowded and hassled. Too many and they feel lost and abandoned. Obviously churches with fixed pews cannot do much about this, but if you are lucky enough to have chairs, then attention given to layout is well worthwhile.

We need to resist the tendency to complicate church growth. In many ways it is simple, indeed at times almost trivial. An audit on ‘The first thirty seconds’ in your Church might bear surprising fruit. ND