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First Impressions

The communication theory Estimated Relationship Potential shows us that first impressions are powerful.
First Impressions
Image: Chuttersnap / Unsplash

Editor’s Note: We asked Jeffrey Arthurs to record a video intro for his article. Check it out to see how his dog’s reactions to new people relates to our first impressions on those who enter our churches.

When we begin to re-open churches, we’ll have a fresh opportunity to make a first impression. Maybe some visitors who heard you online will step through the front door. They enter with a bit of apprehension. Half-submerged questions flit through the mind—Where should I go? What are these people like? Is this worth my time and effort? The greeters greet the visitor, and things seem to be going okay. They didn’t ask for money . . . yet. The visitor finds a seat near the back. Some nice music is playing, and then the service starts. The pastor stands to welcome everyone. Yeah! That’s the guy I saw on video. He looks pretty normal. Maybe a little tired or grumpy or something. The visitor wonders if he’s like that all of the time. After a while the pastor stands to preach. He still looks grumpy, and now he is projecting. He’s loud. In fact he’s kind of yelling. He didn’t sound like that on video. The visitor won’t be back.

We will make a first impression on long-time members too. Of course, they know where to go and what to do, but there will still be a sense of newness. As Heraclitus said: “No one can put the same foot into the same river twice.” That’s because the river is always flowing, and a lot of water has flowed since we shut the doors and turned on the camera. Even members of the church may wonder: Has my church changed?

Not only is the river constantly in flux, but feet are too. From year to year and even instant to instant, the same foot cannot be placed into the same river. Even if the church has not substantially changed, the long-time members may have. Isolation, grief, job-loss, anxiety, Zoom-fatigue, and a host of other Covid-19 factors mean that even the pillars of the church will be different people when they re-open the doors.

The Power of First Impressions

So, let’s remember the power of first impressions. Half-submerged or fully conscious, ideas and feelings flit through the mind when we enter a new room and meet someone for the first time.

A communication theory describes this. It’s called “ERP.” This charming acronym may sound like something that parents face when they feed their infant, but it actually stands for “Estimated Relationship Potential.” This is a social science theory that confirms the common sense notion that first impressions are powerful.

Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, we begin to estimate what kind of relationship we might have with the person. Will it be friendly? Will I feel safe? Will I like the person, and will they like me? ERP operates for all of us, even when “meeting” someone through writing. You’re forming an impression of me right now. (Or you may have already, if you watched my video Intro to this article.)

Unlike when we meet someone through writing, when we meet face-to-face the nonverbal channel dominates ERP. Things like physical appearance, age, gender, size, ethnicity, clothing, and grooming form impressions. Then we start to notice the affect in the person’s face and eyes—smiling, frowning, scowling, smirking, worrying, complaining, or challenging, the eyes are the window of the soul.

We are attracted to people who like us. That was part of the reason tax collectors and sinners were comfortable with Jesus. His face and eyes said, “I like you,” and then his words and actions confirmed that impression.

We’re also attracted to people who are like us. Birds of a feather tend to flock together. For example, if the greeter at the door has a tattoo on her neck, and you have a tattoo on your neck . . . well, there’s a bird you might hang out with. If you love the KJV, and if the pastor preaches from the KJV, the “halo effect” occurs. We assume that the preacher’s beliefs and attitudes, not just his choice of translation, are similar to ours. We organize and simplify many streams of incoming data into a unified picture topped by a “halo.”

I warned you that the theory of ERP simply confirms common sense, but the theory has relevance for preaching.

ERP’s Impact on Preaching and the Church

One takeaway from ERP is simply to start well. The first few sentences of your sermon carry a freight of significance that is out of proportion to the time it takes to speak them. Visitors are forming an ERP and even regular attenders who know you well are forming expectations for this particular event/sermon. The same principle holds true for video preaching. In fact, the principle may be doubly important when the entire experience of the preacher is confined to a screen.

An important way to start well is by smiling. This facial expression is understood around the globe as an expression of happiness and liking. If you genuinely like the listeners (do you?), let your attitude be reflected in your face. Practice projecting the thoughts of your heart. To be sure, smiling is not always appropriate, but it is appropriate far more often than most of us allow.

Application of ERP to ministry beyond preaching is also helpful. For example, choose greeters carefully. They lay the ERP foundation. I attended a church that used teams of adults and children as greeters. The nonverbal message this “strategy” projected was: “Our church is a family church. We value kids!” We want greeters who are poised but not stuffy, helpful but not pushy, and friendly but not fawning. Some of these skills can be taught, but most of them are caught, the result of natural warmth and years of effective socialization.

You also might want to evaluate the visual impact of your church. When visitors approach the building, what do they see? Walk to and through your structure to note cleanliness, signage, and disrepair. Do you need to make some changes? The changes can be as major as remodeling the foyer, or as minor as putting up signs to the church offices, children’s ministries, and sanctuary. The key is to experience your church as a visitor experiences it.

Take a look at your website also. It is the cyber front door of the church. Is it clear and clean or confusing and cluttered?

For better or worse, first impressions stick. So, when they re-open the doors, make your impression work for you, not against you.

Jeffrey Arthurs, Ph.D., is the Professor of Preaching and Communication & Chair, Division of Practical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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