11 Minute Warning
Now here's a scary thought: The typical guest visiting our Sunday morning worship service decides within the first eleven minutes whether he or she is coming back! That is one finding of a recent study about reaching those without a church home.
The so-called "eleven-minute rule" means the person negotiating his or her way to the top of Poplar for the first is time is not undecided for long. From the moment he or she lands on our property, the clock is ticking. And at every step along the way, he or she is making judgments, consciously and unconsciously, about whether this place and this people are a good fit.
In other words, long before the best church choir in middle Georgia rises to sing, the guest already "knows" if he or she will return. Long before the preacher rises to offer his carefully crafted sermon, the pilgrim has already decided if this "Interpreter's House" is for him, for her. That means the two elements of the service the ministers and laity spend the most time preparing and sharing, come too late to alter the guest's instinctive sense about our fellowship: Does this place feel like "home”?
What then are the crucial factors in forming a guest's all-important first impression? This discernment process begins in the parking lot. Can he or she easily find a place to park? (That's why it's so important to leave those clearly marked "Guest Parking" spots for guests!) Does the church lawn beckon with flowers and color or does a ragged lawn shout, "We're not expecting guests!" Is the entrance to a large, overwhelming church complex clearly marked? Fortunately, our imposing banks of front steps make that obvious, assuming one has the physical vitality to mount them. But what if granddaddy is in a wheelchair? What then?
Then, upon entering that mysterious, sacred space called a "sanctuary," is there a warm, smiling greeter? Does the bulletin provide important clues about how to negotiate the service, such as listing the page number in the hymnal for the "Gloria Patri?” When the guest scans the congregation are there other young people/older people, singles/couples, white folks/people of color like oneself? And do the people seated nearest the visitor smile and nod in greeting, warmly welcoming him or her without being nosy or intrusive?
Longtime, deeply-connected members of the First Baptist family easily forget how intimidating it is for our guests to negotiate a room full of strangers. But that's who and what our church is to most people in their first eleven minutes of visiting: an unknown space full of strangers. Little wonder the Scriptures commend us to hone our hospitality skills (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2). For creating a safe space for strangers is the first, vitally important step in drawing people into the welcoming embrace of God's love, God's family, and God's kingdom movement.