By Eddie Pipkin

Recently I was at a new-to-me commuter rail station.  The train platform backs up to a major strip mall with a Walmart and dozens of shops and restaurants that have been there for more than a decade.  I was a little early for the next train, so I was exploring the platform and its surroundings, which included a wide paved walkway to the rear entrance of the shops – I could dash over for a milkshake, I thought – except there was a closed, locked gate across the sidewalk!  I asked a nearby maintenance worker what the deal was, and he shrugged and pointed to a trail through the bushes to the left.  I followed, and it led to a hole in the fence where some enterprising souls had pulled back the chain link.  Improvisation!  Why had the powers-that-be blocked off a logical path of egress and ingress?  Who knows?  But as I ducked back through the hole, milkshake in hand, just in time to make the train, I wondered how often we ministry leaders do a version of the same thing: Block an obvious path for folks and make them do something more complex than necessary or forge their own innovative solution to get where they’re going.

First and foremost are the pathways we create for people to get information.  This applies both to new people who don’t anything about us, and it continues to apply to people who are relatively new but still finding their place within the constellation of our ministries.

It applies both virtually and in the physical world.  Virtually speaking — whether our online presence makes it easier to find out what we need to know — may determine whether people ever show up at the physical door of our church.  Since this is the primary way that the majority of people now explore our ministry, if the experience is frustration, they may move on to the next church .  This seems unfair, but it is reality.  Our expectations in the age of connectivity are hard-wired:

  • Navigation should be easy and logical.
  • Links should work.
  • Content should be current.
  • Finding out more (asking for help or information) should be straightforward and uncomplicated.
  • Links to your social media presence should be prominent.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The majority of people now access your online information via smartphone (as opposed to a computer).  If you are not optimized for smartphone displays, people will become frustrated quickly.

Once they get to your door, it should be easy and obvious to get information.  Whether you have a dedicated Information Station, Info Booth, “Ask a Question” kiosk, or just plenty of happy, smiling helpful people (wearing some telltale sign of their official status as helpful), no one should ever have to wander around looking for a way to ask a question about where the nursery is or how to sign up for a discipleship class.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Strong signage is easy and important.  Every main destination on your campus should be very clearly marked — it’s a great way to alleviate new people’s discomfort.  You should have a good system in place for temporary signage as well: how to find a class or identify a special event.

Here are some other prime opportunities for unlocking the gates and giving people a direct path to engage your ministry:

  • GIVING: Many churches are still making this difficult, even as the world makes sending money from one place to another as easy as entering a few digits on the phone in our pocket.  Even if you are a small church, there are an increasing number of options for using third-party apps for making it easier for people to give.  (And even if you are a small, rural church, this ease of interaction will increasingly be the expectation — even rural folks love their technology.)
  • CONTACT NUMBERS: Make it as easy as possible to contact the right person at the church.  Display the church phone number and email address prominently.  This seems like a no-brainer, but I recently had an experience with a local church where their phone number was buried three clicks deep under a contact tab, and emailing (rather than just giving me a simple email address), required filling out an elaborate “contact form.”  Please don’t make people fill our an elaborate contact form like you’re customer service at Best Buy.  Please put your phone number and email somewhere on every page.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Have a direct contact link/option for each of your ministries which leads to someone who is passionate about that ministry.  It doesn’t have to be the leader of the ministry, but someone who cares deeply about it and can answer questions.  Don’t make all your info contacts a generic church office number!

  • DISCIPLESHIP:  People are hungry to grow spiritually, and if your worship is effective, they leave worship services eager to learn more and grow.  Don’t get them all fired-up and then knock them in the ditch.  It should be easy to figure out next steps for growing one’s faith (that’s our “one job”!).  Of course, this implies that your church has a clear discipleship path and plan.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Every church should have a web page and a printed handout to answer the question “What’s a good book to read about spiritual growth?”  If people want to know more about prayer, service, theology, etc., it should be reflexive that we have solid resources to which to direct them.  Surprisingly, most churches stammer and stumble when asked these questions.

  • HELP: Many people turn to the local church seeking solutions to problems.  We should be ready to help them navigate common life challenges from marital problems to elder care to unemployment and financial struggles.  These questions are predictable, and they are amazing opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives and get them connected to a larger faith-based support system.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: When people call the church office or show up at the door looking for social support services (from homelessness services to food security to counseling) we should have a “social services sheet” we can hand them that lists their options.  Even better, we should have established relationships with these social service agencies.

  • HABITS AND TRADITIONS: We should explain our quirks and traditions within our faith family context, particularly during worship.  Don’t just assume everybody understands why we’re doing things the way we’re doing things.  Make it clear.  Give it context.  Invite them to join in on your rituals and lexicon.

These are some of the ways I’ve seen churches make people figure out things for themselves — and miss valuable opportunities in the process.  What have you seen?  How have you changed your procedures or presentation to give people easier access to the amazing ministry you have to offer?