There are plenty of explanations why churches aren’t growing today … and frankly, most of what I read has a lot of merit. Culture’s changed. The church hasn’t … or it hasn’t kept up with the changes. Boomers left. Gen-X quit. Pre-Mills never got connected. The Millennials view church as so much yesterday’s yesterday.
On the other hand, we’ve also been looking at the “new” solutions being offered by the pundits and mostly I just raise my eyebrows and ask, “Really?”
The churches we study that are reaching young families (and older families and seniors and …) seem to talk less about “new” and are focusing on what we’d have to call the basics. Like the late Coach Vince Lombardi’s basic training for the Packers: “Gentlemen, THIS is a football!” Sure, style and presentation has to change to reach the culture, but the basics of reaching people for Jesus hasn’t much changed since the Founder got started. (1) Get some attention; (2) Build some relationships; (3) Touch and transform some hearts; (4) Disciple, empower, and send; (5) Repeat continuously. Do it right and you end up with exponential growth. It’s how the founders did it. And frankly, that’s the nutshell of how effective churches are still doing it today … even to successfully reach those hard-to-connect with Millennial young adults.
And so, this is the first of a Make Disciples and Grow Your Church Back to the Basics series.
Step One: Get Some Attention and Increase Your Visitor Count
Most non-growing churches are culturally invisible. It’s like the church is wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. The first step in growing a church is to get noticed – preferably in a positive way.
Jesus did it with miracles. Healing the blind and the lepers and feeding thousands put Jesus “on the map,” so to speak. However, for most us in the West, relying on miracles to garner attention seems to be just outside of our grasp. Therefore, most of us will need to use different tools.
1. Do Something Remarkable
I used to say do something newsworthy, but over the years it became clear that most church leaders are hard pressed to understand the difference between something that’s newsworthy and a thinly disguised advertising ploy. By definition, something remarkable is something that’s so out of the ordinary that it garners remarks. And the more likely those remarks will be made by non-churched folks having coffee at the local coffee shop the better.
- Having a rummage sale and giving a portion of the proceeds to the food bank isn’t remarkable. Having a rummage “sale” that gives away new furniture, baby clothes, appliances, etc. to the working poor might be.
- Having a Christmas bazaar isn’t remarkable. Having a Christmas Bake-Off with significant prizes that’s being judged by three Pastry Chefs from three different local bakeries would probably be.
- Hosting an Easter egg hunt for the community isn’t remarkable. Santa Claus skydiving into the Easter egg hunt would be (it’d be weird, but it would get talked about).
Okay, the last one seems gimmicky even to me, but I hope you get the idea. (Here’s a post I wrote about how I got our church national publicity on Good Morning America by doing something that was “remarkable.”) Getting noticed by the Nones, Dones, etc. in your community is the first step to connecting with them.
2. Use Sermon Series
We seem to beat the drum for this regularly, but it still amazes us the chain-like hold the Lectionary has on some church leaders. A well-targeted, well-titled sermon series is one of the foundations for getting visitors to show up. That’s why pastors like Andy Stanley use series like Bad Blood; What Makes You Happy, and Bottom of the Ninth. Each of these series was aimed at a felt-need of their target audience … and each one attracted a flood of first-time visitors.
A well-conceived sermon series does at least three things:
- With a great topic and title, it’s possible that the series could be widely remarkable. You may not want to take out a billboard that boldly advertises your What the Bible Says About Sex series, but when Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi did, their pews were filled with newcomers who were talking about it – a lot.
- A good series makes it easier for your church members to invite well-qualified friends. For instance, if you did a series called Defeating a Debilitating Divorce Mrs. Petticoat has a pretty good chance of getting her just-divorced coworker to show up.
- A compelling series makes a return visit nearly a necessity. Of course, that depends on how well you deliver on the topic and title, but let’s face it: almost everyone who saw part one of The Hobbit scrambled to return to parts two and three as well.
Here’s a freebie … if you’re targeting young adults, wait for the next Marvel or DC Comics’ movie to start getting some publicity and then schedule the four part Living a Superhero Life series. This series includes “Living as a Man of Steel,” “Living as a Woman of Wonder,” Living as a Kid with Power,” and “Living as an Incredible Family.”
3. Do a Marketing Blitz
Of course, it doesn’t matter what you plan … if no one hears about it, no one’s coming. A key to increasing your first-time visitor count includes getting the word out. In other words, marketing.
Unless your church has at least a $25,000 marketing budget, jumping into traditional mass marketing isn’t going to help you much. But don’t despair. You can garner great publicity with a little work, a bit of timeliness, and a smidgen on luck.
First, if what you’re promoting is actually remarkable, then letting the traditional mass market mediums know about it is a must. To start with, let them know by sending a PSA (Public Service Announcement) and a Press Release. Before you write either, make sure you understand the difference and the ins and out of both. Here’s a great post on PSAs by WREK in Atlanta. And here’s a fine post on Press Releases by CBS News. Here’s a template for making Press Releases from FitSmallBusiness.com.
Be sure you’re timely with your PSAs and Press Releases. Give the media at least ten days to look at it and decide what (if anything) they’re going to do with it. When I did church planting, I sent PSAs and Press Releases at least six times a year. About a third of them were promoted as written. Another third got us an interview. And the last third ended up in some editor’s trash basket. But in the Seattle-Tacoma area, our church had more feature articles during a typical year than almost any other church.
Second, if you have a marketing budget, consider dipping your toe into the water of direct mail. You’ll want to check your community’s response, but many churches are reporting they’re getting better-than-expected response from repeated direct mail mailings. Just know that it typically takes three to five mailings to the same household before you see measurable results, and a good response today is 1 percent of less, so sending to a large audience is a must.
Finally, if your event (or sermon series) is well targeted, don’t overlook Word Of Mouth Marketing (WOMM). Printing a business card from PaperDirect or VistaPrint with good graphics and the necessary details and getting them into the hands of your members at least two or three weeks in advance has a fairly decent chance of drawing newcomers. If you’re in a small congregation, don’t expect this to work for every event or sermon series, but if you’re consistent you’ll see the response increase over time.
Check out #5 below to discover one way how to use Social Media Marketing effectively.
4. Leverage Your Contacts
If you’re like many churches I’ve visited, you’ve been gathering contact information for your events, but you’ve done little or nothing with them. (Of course, if you haven’t been collecting contact information from visitors to your events, it’s time to start. Now. To get their contact information invest in some sort of valuable door prize for your events – we’ve found that a $50 gift works pretty well – and watch the contact info pile up.) If you’ve got ’em, then it’s crazy not to use ’em.
- Add the contacts to your newsletter list … either the snail mail mailing AND/or the email list.
- Put each household in a rotation for a handwritten note. Get every staff member (including the pastor) to send five to ten notes a week and you’ll probably run through your contact list a couple times a year. Be sure to invite the person/family to whatever is coming up next.
- Use your contacts as your church’s personal direct mail list. Since those on the list have shown some interest in what the church is doing, you should see a higher response rate to well-targeted events.
5. Do a Social Media Blitz
We adapted this idea from Bob Franquiz in his book Pull. The week before your event, get as many of your Facebook and Social Media active folks to show up for a thirty minute social media blitz. Before they show up, put together a couple of images about the event (or sermon series). For Instagram you’ll want a 1080 x 1080 px image; for a Facebook profile go with a 360 x 360 px image and if you’re feeling ambitious, put together a cover image that’s 828 x 315 px (this one’s a bit more tricky, since a user’s profile image and tag lines will obscure part of the cover image) – get the latest dimensions here. Once you have these, upload them to your Google Pictures or Facebook account so your team can access them. Once finished, you’re ready for your Blitz Team.
Here’s what to get each member of the Blitz Team to do during that thirty minutes:
- Change their Cover Photo and Profile Photo to the one you provide.
- Get each one to video record an invitation to the event for all their friends – virtually all phones, tablets, and laptops have the ability to create videos. Have them post it and tag all their local friends.
- Everyone should post on their local friend’s wall and/or invite them to the event. Encourage them to get their friends to Share the event as well.
- Have them start conversations with their friends on Facebook’s Instant Messenger app with “What are you doing next Sunday?” and then invite them to the event.
- Upload the image to Instagram and have them title it appropriately. Have them add a comment with the event’s details and then send a Direct message to their local friends inviting them to the event.
- Finally, have them call one person on the phone and invite them to the event.
When you’ve finished this, you’ll have reached out well beyond your church’s immediate circle of influence. Do this four times a year and you should see some significant response from first-time visitors.
Of course, in the end, all of this is for naught if you don’t deliver something worth returning to. That’s part 2 of this series.