Years ago the church staff on which I served went on a two-day retreat. Our main goal was to come out of the retreat with a definition of “excellence.” We wanted to know for ourselves what this word meant, and we wanted to be able to communicate that to our leaders and teachers. It took two days of defining, disagreeing, and discussing before we settled on the following definition of excellence:
We realized that as our Sunday School was growing, we had to continue to achieve excellence in that key strategy because it was the “engine” our church needed to engage people in relationships, Bible study, service, and missions. We knew that unless guests had a great experience each week, they were not likely to return for a second visit, and if our members didn’t have a great experience, they would stop inviting friends. One of my favorite authors at the time wrote these words in his book The Frog in the Kettle: “Local churches must take a hard look at their performance and dedicate themselves to excellence in all they do. In today’s marketplace, people are critical and unforgiving. They have high expectations, and they give an organization only one chance to impress. In this type of environment, a church would be better off doing a few things with excellence rather than many things merely adequately.” Those words of caution were sobering to me, a young Minister of Education who was trying to establish a solid foundation on which to build a Sunday School.
Excellence – A Factor in the “Breakout Church”
In Dr. Thom Rainer’s book Breakout Churches, a team of researchers looked for churches that had gone through a period of stagnation before experiencing a “breakout” period of vitality, measured largely through membership growth—while keeping the same pastoral leadership. A dedication to excellence was one element found in breakout churches. “The breakout churches were not churches of excellence in every conceivable area. They chose the areas in which they could be excellent and did not attempt to do everything else” (p.134).
See Things through the Eyes of a Guest to Achieve Excellence
When trying to sell my home just over a year ago so that I could move to Nashville, TN., my Realtor confronted me with a harsh reality: my house was too cluttered to sell. What?! Too cluttered?! I’d spent years collecting pictures of family, buying furniture and electronics, and I liked my house just fine, thank you very much. But my Realtor told me that he saw my home through the eyes of a guest. I had become oblivious to the fact that my house was a little too crowded because I saw it every day and had become accustomed to it over time. He had not. He was able to be objective about it, and with his advice my wife and I decluttered the house and it ultimately sold.
How many churches fail to achieve excellence (giving attention to details) each week? Little things matter. Attention counts. We must see our churches and our Sunday Schools through the eyes of guests. We must become professional observers of the obvious. Here are several areas in which we must give greater attention to the detail so we can achieve excellence:
- Is guest parking clearly defined? Nothing makes a worse first impression than not being able to find the right place to park
- Is there plenty of signage? There may be plenty for you, but think about what your guests need to see when they come to the church campus. Do they know which building to enter? Are classrooms clearly marked? Are there directional signs at key hallway intersections? You and I know where to go, but guests don’t.
- Do people wear nametags? This is a little thing, but an important key to helping people know one another and build relationships! I recommend using the stick-on variety of nametags available at any office supply store. They are inexpensive and are better than computer-generated nametags because everyone in the class will look the same…guests won’t stick out! And one thing guests want to do is to remain anonymous…or at least present themselves when they are ready, not when we say.
- Are restrooms clean? Custodians should clean bathrooms throughout the morning on Sundays because it makes a big impression on guests when they find clean restrooms. Just think about the way in which you make a decision to stop for a restroom break on a trip…you look for a sign that says “clean restrooms” because that’s important – and retailers that want your business know that about you! Custodians should check restrooms several times each Sunday morning.
- Is the nursery bright and clean? The quickest way to lose a new mom (and ultimately her entire family) is to have a dark nursery with old, donated furniture. She’s not going to leave her baby if there is any indication that this area isn’t a top priority for the church.
- Are there enough learner books for each member and guest? Every person from “birth to heaven” deserves to have a tool to help them connect with God during the week, and one that serves to prepare them to participate in the teaching time on Sunday. Learner books raise the expectation that people will both connect with God and participate more fully in the Sunday School lesson.
- Are preschool rooms located close to adult classes or the worship center? Young parents will struggle to leave their children in rooms that are not within a close walk of wherever they are (in worship or Sunday School). They want to know if their child needs them, they can be there within seconds. If you want to run guests off, place preschool and children’s rooms far from young adult classrooms.
- Are security procedures in place in preschool and children’s classrooms? It’s a fact that security is an increasingly important part of ministry to families. Computer check-in stations, or other less high-tech solutions are all fine depending on the church’s budget. All workers who teach minors should have background checks.
- Do student and adult classrooms have functional A/V equipment? Nothing is more frustrating to a leader than to lack the proper resources to do their job. Churches tend to collect old equipment that people no longer want in their homes. What?! We pass our junk along to the church?! Throw it out and spend a few dollars on new DVD players, flatscreen televisions, and other items that will help teachers be creative in the ways they teach God’s Word.
- Is there ongoing training? According to a recent report from the Georgia Baptist Convention, churches that have quarterly or monthly training for Sunday School leaders grow at a rate of approximately 13%. Churches that choose not to provide training actually lose people at the rate of -2.1% each year. Training matters. Training helps a Sunday School grow. It’s a little thing that pays big dividends. What’s your church’s plan?
Excellence is an attention to the detail, so get busy observing your church and Sunday School and looking for those “little things” that make a big difference. The ones I’ve mentioned in this article are just the tip of the iceberg! There are dozens more to pay attention to.