My first church out of seminary had a cute little building on what the B-52s called The Atlanta Highway, better known by the locals as Highway 78. That highway ran between Athens and Atlanta and through both Between (yes, a real town) and Loganville. Ron Levin was pastor of the Between Methodist Church and I was at the Loganville Christian Church. Ron’s church met in a beautiful statuesque building on a side street to the north of the highway and my church was right on the highway to the south. Ron’s church was far enough off the highway that it was virtually invisible to those driving down the highway, but my church had a pull-in, pull-out driveway right on the highway itself.
You just couldn’t miss it.
Or so I thought.
In Ron’s former life, he’d been a marketing genius. Literally. He owned a marketing company in New York and represented a famous jeans company and a start-up for what became a famous athletic apparel company. Me? I’d spent my adult formative years running from God and had a resumé that was embarrassingly long and included a stint in the Air Force, ground beef production, restaurant management, nuclear security, and bar tending. In other words, I couldn’t even spell marketing!
But back to the church. Like I said, the Loganville Christian Church had a cute building that dated back to the late 1800s or so. Cute. Tall steeple. White clapboard. You couldn’t miss it – except the church had been there so long, no one really noticed it anymore. We did have a big ol’ message brightly lit sign board and I tried all sorts of messaging. Cute and clever (a word to the wise, C&C never brings in new people). Chatty and inviting. I didn’t do risque, but not because I wasn’t tempted. I couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to us.
So, I turned to Ron and he taught me a thing or two about getting people to pay attention. Network with those who are networkers. And learn how to “use” the media to your own advantage.
I started by making an introduction to Bob, the Editor-In-Chief of the county newspaper. I’d always been able to turn a phrase or two, so I pitched a weekly human interest column called, “A Pastor’s Ponderings.” It was a Q&A column, generated from reader’s questions. I brought him six weeks of columns to get started, in part so he could see that I could write, and I “got the job” (no pay, but I’d have my picture and church information associated with the column every week).
That got the ball rolling. People in the community began to glance over at the church now and again as they drove by. I wasn’t a household name, but the column was popular enough to start building a reputation.
But it wasn’t enough – at least not for me.
One early Monday morning I was at the church building during the morning commute and I started counting cars. I figured that there were about 2,500 cars went zipping by the church between five and seven in the morning. The germ of an idea got laid into my brain.
At the next church board meeting, I made my pitch and once they heard me out, they thought I was crazy, but they went along with it. I got busy and made a large sandwich board sign that said, “Coffee and a Blessing, next Driveway On Left” and got permission from the Gulf Gas Station owner to set it up on his corner. With that, I was ready for Monday.
The alarm clock hurled me out of bed at 4:30 and I made my way to the church. I started brewing a big ol’ silver urn of coffee (Starbucks hadn’t made it to the South yet). Then I opened my computer and created a page of business card sized “Blessing Cards” with a benediction kind of blessing on one side and a verse from a Psalm on the other (with a footer that read Loganville Christian Church). I printed them on colored card stock, cut them to size, then donned my clerical alb (a skinny version of clergy robes and vestments), and headed out to the parking lot. I put the urn on a folding card table along with a borrowed living room table lamp, set out the sign at the corner gas station, and by 5 AM I was officially Open.
From 5 until a little past 7 on Monday mornings, I stood by the table and waved at every car that drove by. I tried to see the occupants, but most mornings it was too dark to see anyone until after 6 or so. I remember that five cars and a school bus (no kids, just the driver) pulled off the highway and got free coffee and a blessing card. I did that for a month and I think we got one visitor who showed up on a Sunday morning. Nonetheless, the church’s reputation in the community began to grow.
Taking my cue from Ron, I decided to see if I could get the media to “pick up the story.” So, I created an anonymous Yahoo! email address and sent a note to the news editors of the county paper (where I was already publishing a column). The note said, “Every Monday morning there’s some pastor guy who stands out in front of his church serving coffee and waving at people driving by. Any idea what he’s doing out there?”
The next Monday morning, a Monroe Tribune news reporter showed up at the church and interviewed me. He took pictures and on Sunday morning, the church and I made the front page of the paper. It was a nice article and I figured I’d done all I could to get the church noticed. And it worked. We started having a visitor or two stop by most weeks. Little did I know, though, the ball was just getting rolling.
Two weeks later, a reporter from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution showed up. I was rather surprised, but excited that we were going to get a bit more momentum from the ministry. Again, pictures and interviews and the article made the front page, above the fold, or the Living Section on a Sunday morning. I was ecstatic and suddenly the little church on the south side of the street was getting noticed.
But fame is fleeting and within a couple of weeks, other things were in the news. Besides, it was January and even in Georgia, it’s cold at 5 in the morning. I was serving coffee to about a dozen people each week and the church began springing for a doughnuts to hand out and more people than ever were honking a waving as the passed, but the hype waned. Until the third week in January. That’s when I got a phone call from ABC television in New York. Someone had seen the article in the Constitution and Charlie Gibson of Good Morning America wanted to do a story.
On President’s Day, a satellite truck rolled into town and set up in our lower parking lot. There were lights and cameras and Action! in our little parking lot and I was wired up with microphones and a curly wired ear piece. I got the experience of a lifetime … but what was better was that the little church went from invisible to nationally known (At least for a couple days. Like I said, fame is fleeting!).
From then I relocated to the Midwest, I waved out in that parking lot every Monday whether it rained, blew, or snowed – and yes, it snows in Atlanta sometimes. When I was on vacation, Tim Kuhn, one of my faithful members, waved for us. And every Sunday a steady stream of visitors made their way to the church for worship.
As interesting as that story might be, the point is this … I knew nothing about marketing, but I got inspired by a conversation with a fellow pastor who reminded me that the media is always looking for a news story. He reminded me that if my church was invisible, then it was my responsibility to get it noticed; if I could do that through personal networking and enticing the media, all the better. And so the church got national recognition and it only cost us a weekly pot of coffee, some paper goods, a couple pages of cardstock, and some doughnuts. And my creativity.
Over the years while I was in congregational ministry, I managed to repeat this success a number of times and have made it onto CBN, NPR’s MarketPlace, quite a few radio shows, and into newspapers because of the various “creative” ministries that we’ve thrust into the peripheral vision of the media. Today, with online opportunities, the gate is pretty much wide open for churches and church leaders who can find that creative streak.
If your church is invisible, what are you going to do to get it noticed?
If you haven’t checked out the Four Keys to Church Growth, you’ll want to take a peak. Although it doesn’t address marketing directly, it will help you build a foundation for the church and help you free up enough time that you can invest in getting creative.