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How do you talk about your church?

Last week a church marketing ad showed up in my Facebook feed. I clicked the link and traded my phone number and email address for a template that would supposedly solve all my problems following up with first-time visitors.

Nevermind the two texts, four emails, and one voicemail the company somehow left without actually calling me over the next 24 hours; I figured I was getting into some version of that. I was more surprised by the content of their can’t-miss strategies to reach visitors, like apologetic emails that know you’re busy but hey, could you maybe squeeze in church this week? Please?

Or emails designed to go out on Saturday with some form of, “I’ve been working on the sermon, and I’m excited about it!” Would a more honest version of this actually be more effective?

  • “Hey (name), I’ve been working on the sermon, and I just don’t know about this one.”
  • “Hey (name), it’s Saturday night and I’m convinced my sermon is trash, but sometimes that ends up being a good thing on Sunday morning. Come see which one it is this week!”
  • “Hey (name), I know I’m going to get an email from these three people about this week’s sermon. If you correctly guess how many additional emails I get this week, you’ll be entered to win the new car we’re giving away on Christmas Eve!”

All of this, plus the fact that their template encourages me to follow up with first-time visitors in various ways for six days in a row. If I met anyone for the first time and they contacted me each of the next six days, I would call the police.

There’s a pseudo-personal element to all of this. Most clergy I know tend to believe the idea that your church will know you personally is important to you. This marketing firm is selling the appearance of just that, even though they are, in fact, carefully-crafted one-size-fits-all strategies. And, hey, maybe one size just doesn’t work here; maybe these ideas are dynamite at larger institutions, where there’s an unspoken agreement when you walk in the door that this church is just too big for you to really be known for who you are. God knows I could be better at it serving churches of less than 400 people.

But what are we really selling when it comes to our churches? In your church? How do we talk about these places? How should we?

For Advent in 2015 at my previous church, the senior pastor and I decided to preach on Star Wars. And it was amazing, thanks for asking. It was during the run-up to The Force Awakens, which would become the highest-grossing movie in U.S. history. The timing was right. We had incredible graphics. We promoted posts on social media and bought ad space on billboards.

And the total number of new faces we saw that December was zero.

(To be clear, attendance didn’t go down, and only one person complained that I’m aware of. The movie made almost a billion dollars in this country. Don’t act like people don’t love Star Wars.)

If I could go back to December 2015, I would preach that series again. But I would not expect it to be a tremendous marketing tool for our church.

We experienced growth during our time in Athens. But over the course of six years, the newcomers who were least likely to stay were the ones who first came through the doors in response to an event or special service. And we worked hard to have great events. Any church should. But I wonder if there’s an inherent miscalculation behind picking a church primarily by the services it provides.

We held new member classes two or three times a year, and once we decided to pay to promote the class on social media. Why not? If person is out there looking for a church, what better introduction could they have? And one guy actually came to the church for the first time because of those ads.

He lasted one week. He sat in on the new member class, and the first question he asked was, “What can this church do for me?”

(I said something like, “I guess you’ll have to stick around and find out!” He did not. The marketing firm might’ve suggested a different answer.)

I think about that guy a lot. Perhaps the more we lean on our services and events as our top sellers, the more we will attract a consumer mentality.

Here’s the thing: those services and events should be good, especially the ones we’re providing every week. Sometimes they’re the only option as a point of first contact for people who are new in town. If we’re hoping people will simply tolerate critical elements of the worship service…that’s a tough ask. The best pastors I know work really hard to make the message and the worship service as good as they can be this Sunday and better next week.

But if that’s what we’re selling more than anything else, we may be more disappointed than we hoped for with the long-term return on our investment.

In Athens, the newcomers who were most likely to stay long-term first came in through relationship doors. Sometimes it was through the church’s preschool or a scout troop that met in our gym. Sometimes it was, in fact, an event with a high relational component like trunk-or-treat.

But most often, the ones who stayed long-term first came in through a good, old-fashioned, pre-existing relationship with someone in the church.

The best advertisement is still word-of-mouth. Not from the professionals, but from the people. And not in scripted pseudo-personal ways, but genuinely, and organically. The Holy Spirit can work through a marketing firm. But it works much better through you and me, when we tell people about our church – the services AND the people – because we want to.

Church attenders get made in all sorts of ways. But disciples get made through relationships. That’s how Jesus did it, first with a dozen, then through local churches and the Holy Spirit.

At our new church in Pulaski, we just finished a set of congregational listening groups where people told us, among other things, what they loved most about the church. The services we provide – the music, preaching, Sunday school, and the atmosphere in contemporary worship and the sanctuary – were all represented fairly equally, 17-22% of the time. But with an overwhelming 79% of responses, what people love the most about our church is the people. It’s a great sign. When we ran these groups three years ago in Athens, a strong desire for more personal interactions led to the birth of in-home small groups. Through the ebbs and flows of the services a church provides, the people are the glue. And when those services really sing, the people are their greatest advocates.

There are all kinds of ways to get people in the doors. And the services they find there should pursue excellence every Sunday. But the health and heart of any church will still come back to its people. They are the most helpful connection in getting newcomers to become family. Relationships are the surest method for making disciples. And a genuine, organic invitation is still the church’s best advertisement.

How do you talk about your church?

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