Church consultant Greg Atkinson was stunned when he realized there wasn’t a single conference focused on first impressions, which is sometimes referred to as guest services or hospitality.
Atkinson assembled an all-star team to fill that gap earlier this year. In May, he and author Rich Birch hosted a three-day online event, the inaugural First Impressions Conference. He recruited speakers including Facebook’s faith-based partnerships leader Nona Jones, Tithe.ly CEO Dean Sweetman and pastors from around the country. More than 5,000 pastors from 10 countries participated in the gathering, which was planned in only six months and proved to Atkinson that he’d met a need in the industry.
The first in-person First Impressions Conference was Sept. 27 in Atlanta, but online participation was also available. The team plans to facilitate an annual online-only event each May, with in-person gatherings in between. Atkinson hosts smaller groups for weekend intensives near his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well.
Content at First Impressions Conferences aimed to teach church staff how to increase guest retention. “The end game is that people get plugged into a local church and get assimilated into the body,” Atkinson says. “They don’t do that on the first visit. [Church staff members want] people to take their next steps—salvation, baptism, serving or joining a small group—but all of that is preceded by having to return.”
Conference speakers and breakout facilitators explore how to create optimal first experiences for children’s ministry check-in, security functions and, of course, greeting and hosting. Communication is covered as well as pregathering emails and social media often establish an initial impression for potential guests.
Sixty to 70 percent of registrants for First Impressions Conferences are lead pastors. The remaining participants are worship leaders, children’s ministers and security staff. “Most churches don’t have people on staff for this role specifically,” he says. “I hope people walk away seeing the importance of putting leadership over it.”
And while the conference is a new venture, Atkinson is the first to note guest services can be traced back to scripture.
“The ‘why’ of hospitality is in the Bible,” he says. “This is not just a trendy thing. We’ve been called to be loving, gracious, generous, compassionate and kind. You can’t be a pastor without being hospitable.”
Think of attendees as your houseguests. When you’re expecting guests in your home, you clean up and maybe even light a candle so they feel seen, cared for and valued. Show your guests they are more than warm bodies by making your environment inviting and going the extra mile, whatever that looks like in your venue. It could mean toiletry kits in restrooms, unique seating, personalized centerpieces or something else entirely.
Nail the first 10 minutes. Atkinson says most people decide if they will return to a church within the first 10 minutes of being on the property. Apply that idea to your gathering as you plan your transportation directions, signage, parking and seating. Minimize confusion with clear directions, and assign engaging, helpful volunteers to greet along the route your guests will take from their car to their seat inside.
Utilize your transitions. Think through all of your transitions in the agenda and fill any dead time with upbeat music, a display of live social media updates, or an emcee or entertainer to keep the energy high. Aim for excellence throughout the entire experience, even when a speaker isn’t onstage.