From the parking lot to the pew

By Ken Whitten

Visiting a large church can be a daunting experience. Trying to navigate the parking lots, find your way inside the building, register and drop off kids, and finally locate a seat in the worship center can be a challenge for any new guest. That’s why I’m so excited to tell you about Idlewild’s first-time guest parking initiative and guest services care team!

Each Sunday morning, first-time guest parking signs are setup around the campus — leading visitors to a place where they will be greeted personally. These signs are large and intentionally different from the other campus directional signs. They ask the first-time guest to turn on their vehicle’s hazard lights so our parking attendants can easily identify and direct them. The signs also have arrows pointing in the right direction, eventually leading you to the first-time guest parking lot.

Dedicating a parking lot to first-time guests has been a challenge, but our people are responding well and beginning to embrace this new initiative. In years past, we had a few spaces dedicated to first-time guests, but we didn’t always have someone out at those spaces to greet them and help them find their way around. We’ve changed that. Now, a small army of volunteers greets each vehicle that pulls up to the first-time guest parking lot and asks if they are (indeed) a first-time guest. A volunteer introduces himself, then personally walks the new guest wherever he needs to go.

As a side note, we’ve shifted away from pointing people in the right direction and now stay with them until they reach their destination. This subtle change not only communicates we care about our first-time guests, but it gives our volunteers a chance to get to know the guest a bit better and develop a personal connection. This applies to each guest — no matter where they’re going. Whether they need to drop their kids off, find a small group, or grab a cup of coffee, our volunteers stay with them and take care of the first-time guest the entire time. We like to think of it almost as a personal concierge that exists to help make the guest comfortable and ease any anxiety he or she may feel.

We always try to have first-time guests brought to Guest Central — our information hub, which often is brimming with excitement and noise. There, guests can find out about small groups, volunteer opportunities, and more. I plant myself in Guest Central after each service and cherish the opportunity to meet with people who are visiting for the first time or returning for their second (or third, or fourth) visit. In a church our size, it’s easy for people to feel they can’t connect with me or with someone on staff. Guest Central seeks to change that.

After a visitor is brought to Guest Central, our Director of Connections or our Connections Coordinator tries to meet them and get their contact information. We know we can’t follow up with someone if we don’t have a way to do so! The visitor also is presented with a welcome gift, which includes an Idlewild-themed item, a coffee gift card for our café, and a few other items. This welcome gift also helps others identify a first-time guest.

Finally, our volunteers walk each first-time guest in to our Worship Center and help them locate a seat. The guests are asked if they have a seating preference, and our volunteers try to seat a guest with someone the volunteer knows will take care of them and make them feel welcomed. This ends the initial volunteer journey with the guest, so the volunteer will head back out to the parking lot to meet the next guest!

If we were able to grab their contact information in Guest Central, either via our contact card or iPad form, we seek to have those contacts assigned to a pastor no later than the Tuesday following the visit. We also work diligently to make sure each pastor completes his first-time guest calls by week’s end. That last personal touch helps to make our church more inviting and caring.

All in all, it’s been a joy for me to witness a change in how we greet and take care of first-time guests. We’ve certainly seen our connection rates increase, yet we know we can always improve. If you’re around Idlewild on a Sunday morning sometime, stop by and turn those hazard lights on! We can’t wait to greet you!

Published May 30, 2018

Ken Whitten

Ken Whitten is the Pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida. Idlewild Baptist Church was among the top 100 evangelistic churches in the country in 2014.