You can't connect people like this.
Most people know the Pantheon as an architectural masterpiece (the inspiration for Monticello, the Jefferson Memorial and more). What most people don't know is that the Pantheon has been a church since 609 AD. What even more people don't know is that for centuries, on every Pentecost Sunday (the Day our movement was born as recorded in Acts 2), a ton of rose petals are shoved through the oculus high atop the enormous domed ceiling to fall on the heads of the believers below like the fire that fell on those who first heard the gospel in 33 AD. As the sun shines through these petals, there is a "fire like" effect that takes place that attracts people into this 2000 year old structure every year on this day.
That's why I planned a trip to Rome during Pentecost Sunday as part of my first Sabbatical as a pastor. On that morning, I checked the church website to see if there were any special instructions for those attending the service at 10:30am. It said to arrive by 9:30am to secure a seat so we arrived at 9:25am and discovered a line (no stanchions) that extended far into the piazza and then took a U-turn around Bernini's fountain and headed back to the portico of the Pantheon. I asked a church rep with a blue blazer on where the line began as it was heard to tell. He pointed it out and we got in line.
While we waited, I noticed that they were letting people into the Pantheon 10 at a time. What I didn't know was that the church was already full and they were just squeezing in a few more people here and there. What I also did not know was that another line had formed down an old street that was converging with the line we were in. At the point of convergence, some scuttle was taking place as to which line was the legitimate one and people were becoming argumentative but to know avail: we were all sent away. The service was full.
Lets face it: for most new people at your church, connecting will be more of a climb than a coast. That's why I like to think of those of us who serve guests as "Sherpas", making that climb for guests just a little easier. With that in mind, Sherpas like us need to remember that the barrier I experienced at the Pantheon probably exists at your church and mine on big weekends and in some form, every Sunday.
Here's the principle: Lines are the enemy of connection. Learn to leverage their existence to accelerate connection in ways like this:
- Give people waiting in line at your big weekends a meaningful activity to engage in. Christmas services are our Super Bowl at my church with 20,000 people, most of whom are guests, in attendance. Lines form at least one hour ahead of time to get into the auditorium. They are stanchioned and weave through rooms off our main lobby to give lots of room in the common areas for people to maneuver. We have used people's time waiting in those lines to assemble gift bags for homeless people in our community. As they pass certain areas in line, there are decorated stations with different items for the backpack we give them. By the time they reach the end they have created a fully stocked gift bag, become more educated on the needs of people in our community, and have signed a Christmas card for the person who will receive this gift. It feels pretty good to them to be occupied in this way as they wait and to help bless someone in need over the holidays. An experience like that can be created on almost any big weekend or holiday to engage people with your churches mission regardless of their faith paradigm.
- Entertain those waiting in line. At Christmas services, we will often have carolers in the common areas entertaining those waiting in line. On Father's Day, we will park vintage cars in various places in the lobby for people to marvel at while walking the halls. On big weekends, we also set up fun photo ops for friends and family to use for posting on social media. Think of what Disney creates for people waiting in line at their major attractions and be inspired to design engaging environments for those who wait on your campuses.
- Offer overflow rooms so no one misses out. On our big weekends, we offer one or two overflow rooms so that if the auditorium gets filled (like the Pantheon did for me), people don't have to miss out. If you do this, be sure and have it staffed with greeters at the door, people to pass things like communion or offering if you do that in the main auditorium, and the welcome and final farewell should be done by a live person. This allows you to leverage the smaller setting for more engagement, rather than less.
- Provide comfortable closer areas to wait for handicapped or older guests. We have a nice large sitting area near our info counter that elderly or physically handicapped guests can wait in on big weekends instead of standing in line. When the auditorium opens, they are escorted in first to find appropriate seats. This honors them, meets needs, and sets a great tone for all who observes this. It reveals a little of our heart too.
- When a line forms at your One Place to engage guests (i.e. Guest Central), group them into circles. After a service, we send guests to exchange their contact info for a free gift at Guest Central. On big weekends, this can create lines. Since lines are the enemy of connections, many people will just leave for the parking lot rather than stand in one after services. Train your hospitality team to get out in front of the counter when a line forms and circle the guests, pass out cards on clipboards for those who haven't filled them out, ask their names and how long they have been attending your church, and pass out your free gift. People will smile, see others new to your church like them, and you will get to know them a little better this way too. It is the role of your members, stage teams, and communications team to get people from the street to a seat. It is a Sherpa's job to get them from the seat into a circle. Don't be afraid to group them into one rather than keep in then waiting in a line. They will be grateful!
- Identify key volunteers and staff to "work the line" at a big event. Our Volunteer Director, Julie Liem, can be found in the center of our lobby area 45 minutes prior to every service on a big weekend. Staff and volunteers can check in with her to serve in any understaffed area. One of the opportunities Julie will send "Sherpa types" to take advantage of is working the lines. Walking up to people waiting in line to engage them in friendly discussion always creates a great impression. Asking them if this is their first time at your church, how they heard about it, etc. can be educational as well as welcoming and engaging. Use Sherpa types in ways like this to build bridges and answer questions that would not have been asked any other way.
At the Pantheon, there were helicopters circling overhead filming this big weekend for that church in Rome. Putting as much attention and prep for guests on the ground would have made an incredible impression and well as opportunities for that church. My takeaway is this: Lines are the enemy of connection. Make them your ally. We want the roses and the fire to be able to fall on everyone.
- How many big weekends do you have per year? Where do the lines form? If you were a guest waiting in one, what would you be thinking and feeling?
- How do you want a guest to feel who is waiting in a line at your church? What experience could you design to make them feel that way?
- What specific teams would you want to run point on these experiences? By what date would training and preparations need to be completed so that guests in lines are as engaged as possible?