The service started at 5:00, and we were pulling into the parking lot at 4:58. My wife would tell you that we were early; I knew we were late. We got the kids out of the van, bags in tow, and began heading toward what seemed like the entrance. The closer we got to the doorway, it became evident those doors were not the entrance. When we eventually found the right door, a younger guy greeted us, then quickly turned around and ensured the door was closed. I looked left and right and saw no sign of where to drop our kids off. I felt confused, out of place, and partially unwelcome.
Ever have an experience like that? Unfortunately, this is the reality for too many visiting families when they arrive at church for the first time. As the saying goes, “You will never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Making a great first impression is a priority for me, not just as a student ministries pastor, but as a father of three children under four years old. Knowing the importance of the welcome a church gives my kids caused me to rethink and retool our children’s ministries area, training, and priorities. These three also helped me realize that I am not the only one facing these and similar issues in children’s ministry. I am convinced children’s ministry leaders should be committed to making a great first impression with visiting families. Here are 6 ways you can get started.
1. Enter here!
There is nothing worse as a first- time guest than not knowing where to walk in. Signs should clearly mark where the family ought to enter the building, as well as the children’s ministry area. Signage is a huge first step to welcoming visiting families.
2. Welcome to church
While signs are great, they are also very impersonal. All types of organizations throw signs up. However, as the church, we recognize that a core need for every person is relationship. We are created with a deep need and longing for relationship (Gen. 1:18-20). Being the recipients and representatives of God who became man, the church must seek to be relational in every way possible. Having people at the entrance to personally welcome and connect must never be overlooked. These people serve by welcoming each family, introducing themselves, trying to learn names (especially of children), as well as walking visitors personally to the children’s ministry area. A personal welcome is the next step to making a great first impression on visiting families.
3. Check them in
While signs and people are steps in the right direction, there is still one main question on parents’ minds as they enter a church and children’s ministry area: Will my child be safe? Safety is a visiting parent’s primary concern. We must understand what we are asking visiting families to do when they drop their children off at our ministries. The invitation to your children’s ministry may sound like this to a visiting parent, “Come this way, drop your child off in this classroom that is hundreds, if not thousands, of feet from where you will be, and trust these complete strangers to care for and instruct your child for the next 60-90 minutes. Now go enjoy yourself!” Parents want to know their child is safe. The greatest way to do that is have a check in station/system. This shows the parent that you care about their child’s safety and unique needs. (Check out 10 Church check in software options you need to know about.)
4. What’s in a name?
By this point, a visiting family has entered your church, been greeted by complete strangers, walked further into a building they know nothing about, and possibly never been asked their names. Now is the time to get their names. The check-in procedure gives you a great way to do that and build trust. Ask for each child’s name. (If the child is old enough and does not seem frightened, interact with her about her information. This builds trust and relationship with the child and gives the parent a great chance to see how people will treat their child). Then ask for other pertinent information (parent name, address, email, phone number, child’s allergies, etc.). Use this time to interact with the family as best you can, using names as often as you can.
Names are important, especially to God. Remember He is the one who changed a rebellious cheater’s name to a holy nation (Gen. 33:22-30). Finding out visitors’ names, using, and remembering them is a great way to make a first impression.
5. Walk this way
Now that introductions have been made and safety has been addressed, the family should be feeling a bit more comfortable. There is another step in making a great first impression: walking them to each child’s classroom. Remember this family may have little to no knowledge about the layout of your building. And no matter how good your campus map may be, people are still people and truly enjoy being shown where something is rather than told. So after check-in is complete, either walk the family to each classroom yourself or have a designated volunteer to do this job. Showing a family where each child’s classroom is, rather than just telling them, makes a great first impression.
6. Let me introduce you to…
There is one final way to make the first impression last: introduce the teacher by name and make sure to introduce the child to another child in his class. Parents will appreciate knowing who will be caring for and instructing their child, and this will begin to build a bond and trust between the teacher and child. Children hate the feeling of being the “’outsider,” so introducing them to another child breaks the ice for them. So make a great first impression and introduce visitors to others.
Fortunate for us during that first visit experience, there was a podium to our left manned by a young woman who quickly welcomed us and asked if we would be dropping the kids off in the childcare while we enjoyed the service. From there we exchanged names, were checked in, escorted to each child’s classroom, and quickly engaged in conversation with the children’s ministry workers.
While we were a visiting family and the first impression was not excellent, this experience helped me look at welcoming visiting families in a whole new way as a ministry director. It helped me see the importance of first impressions in helping visiting families be less distracted about their entrance and more enamored with our God.