I’m in my 30’s. I often have to double check my age with my husband because I can never remember the exact number. Once I turned 21, I stopped caring and the numbers seemed insignificant. Bless my heart. Claiming a decade instead seems safe because I at least know I can be right about that. But I digress.

Somewhere along the way, I had myself convinced that in my 30’s I would have my stuff figured out. Husband, kids, purebred dog, mortgage, career, and friends whose lives mirrored ours. Check, check, and check. So why was I doing a final walk through, eyes hot with tears, before locking the doors for the last time to the house I loved, in a neighborhood I adored, living the life that I thought I had finally accomplished?

God.Thats the honest answer. This one is totally His fault. Pinkie promise.

Our American dream life came to a record scratching halt when my husband (a youth pastor of 12 years) came to me and said “its time”. And I knew exactly what he meant. Church planting had always been our someday maybe dream. After a series of events that would put me way over my word limit, God had made it more than clear that it was time to uproot our lives in Southern Illinois and start The Refuge Church in Maine. Most of the training and advice we received was how to take this dream and turn it into a reality. But it was in between the dreaming and reality seasons that we learned some of the most valuable lessons.

A funny thing happens when a pastor resigns their position. You not only lose your Monday-Friday, but you also lose your Sunday (and lets be honest here, most of your Saturdays as well).

So here we were jobless, homeless and churchless. Standing on the cusp of the greatest adventure of our lives.

which leads me to the entire reason i’m sharing with you: lessons from a professional church hopper.

We saw our “church homelessness” as an opportunity to see what other churches were doing. We became students of church. I kid you not when I say that we were in a different church almost every week for a year. I would take every piece of printed media I could get. I have more church ink pens and mugs than I can count (yes…I totally accepted the visitor gifts, don’t judge). We shook hands, took photos, and even started a hashtag (#thesundayheralds).

So my credentials for sharing what I’ve learned: the hardest year of my life.

1. don’t forget to think about the trip from the street to the seat.

In a culture that is completely distracted by shiny objects, a guest’s first impression needs to be high on your priority list. Marketing gurus say you have 7 seconds to make a first impression. Churches spend so much time and energy on what happens IN the worship experience that they neglect the things that happen BEFORE the worship experience.

The smallest details come together to make your guest’s overall first impression. Do everything you can to relieve that anxiety that a first time visitor feels as they make their way from the street to their seat in your auditorium. Some of my favorite details were done by portable churches.

[Tweet “A host is like a greeter, but they aren’t stationary. They become your friend.”]

Signage: think you have enough? Good. Add a few more. Pretend this is your first time visiting this space and you have the IQ of Forrest Gump. Use a sign to show people where everything they could possibly need is. One thing even better than a sign, hosting: a host is like a greeter that you know from traditional church, but they aren’t stationary. They become your friend. A host greets you and says: “let me WALK you guys to our kids check in.” Or “if you’re looking for a place to sit in the auditorium, you’re more than welcome to sit with me!” Insta-friend.

Something I love even more than a sign and a person: a person holding a sign.

Mind. Blown. Seriously, kick your signage up a notch and add a living breathing smiling face.

signs for visiting guest

Other details we loved from church hopping were: bathrooms with essentials baskets (don’t lie guys, you like it too), high quality hand soap, good coffee… no chump stuff, volunteers that were easy to recognize (we use lanyards with hard plastic press passes so our dream team members can write their name on them with wet-erase markers!), music playing… always. Your imagination is the limit! And when you’ve reached that, there’s always Pinterest!

2. the art of the follow up.

This goes hand in hand with point #1, follow up with your guests! We ask our guests to fill out “as much information as they’re comfortable sharing” on their connection cards. If they leave you more than a name, consider that a gift from them (and please give them a gift for doing so.)

Use the information they’ve given you and connect with them the same week!

Please don’t send out a pre-typed letter that begins with “dear visitor”. Let them know how valuable they are. Cursive may be dead but hand written cards are not. One church that impressed us had their volunteers send cards to visitors as well. Not every guest will talk to the Pastor, so sometimes getting a card from him seems a little impersonal. If they also get a card from a person they connected with, they now have a name and face to look for the next time they visit! To implement this we tell our “dream team” to write out a card before leaving on Sunday if they connected with a visitor. Try your best to get a first and last name and if you can conversationally find out what town they live in, the address is usually pretty easy to come by.

3. the cover of your book matters.

This lesson brought us to one of our biggest financial investments for our church plant: branding.

Each week we would scout out the next church to visit. Our criteria? A reasonable drive, great social media presence, and excellent branding. A church with dated branding and an outdated website said to us: we’re a church of dated believers and outdated methods. Is it fair? No. Is it accurate? Maybe not. But we all know how valuable time is, so if we can’t hook them with the cover of our book, why would they be willing to invest the time into cracking open our cover? While you can’t do much about the reasonable drive criteria, you sure as Sally can do something about your branding and website. On the connection cards we receive from the visitors at The Refuge: 40% of visitors mark that they heard about us on social media. When someone is scrolling through their media feed, you have two seconds to grab their attention, and then they’ll give you eight seconds of their time. Without something that grabs them in that two second glance, you’ll never earn that eight second ride.

When you consider your branding, bring it back to the vision of your church. Who are you trying reach? What would grab their attention in two seconds. Some jobs are best done in house. Others are not. Consider hiring the best graphic artist you can afford to create the one piece of art that will literally be plastered on everything your church puts out. And please put it on everything.

One church sent our kids a fantastic “thanks for visiting us” card in the mail one day. The only problem? We had no clue what church it came from. The kids ministry and church name were entirely different. Which is fine. But you’ll get a lot farther if people are able to recognize your name and where stuff is coming from . 

[Tweet “If you can’t hook them with the cover of your book, why would they take time to open your “book” ?”]

refuge church maine

the homeless heart.

When our year of church hopping ended, we were elated. Not just because we were anticipating the birth of The Refuge Church, but because our hearts were desperate for home. One of our dearest friends and mentors challenged us when he said “you might be a pastor, but who is pastoring you?” Every heart needs to be pastored (even the church professionals) and that can’t happen if you are constantly sampling the smorgasbord of churches in your area.

Commit to a church. Dig your heels in and stay.

Find your tribe and no, online church doesn’t count. Pastor Steven Furtick isn’t your chief, unless you go to Elevation. And if so, rock on. Pastors, find a mentor to pastor your heart. Guys, we need to fight like hell to reach our cities. Because that is exactly who we’re fighting.

church hopper