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Shopping for a church in the past

As few as 25 years ago Church shopping was an integral part of the physical neighborhood experience. When a new family arrived on the block, neighbors graciously welcomed them. This was the beginning of new friendships and relationships that may last a lifetime.

As friends, it wasn’t uncommon to have a conversation discussing the ‘best’ places to go in the area while seated in the living room of one of their homes over a cup of coffee, some coffee cake or perhaps a glass of wine and cheese.

These discussions would not only focus on the best stores, the best dance schools, the best little league coach but also where one should worship God. Often these conversations would lead to the established taking the new neighbor to their home church as a visiting guest.

Once a new visitor had attended and signed the guest pad, it was time for the churches welcoming committee to ‘do their thing’.

Today, processes haven’t changed but methods have

It’s rare that a welcoming committee rings the doorbell of a new neighbor with a bundt cake.

It’s rare that people sit around their living room chatting over the current events after an evening dinner.

It’s rare that families will pick up other families in their station wagon, or even invite another family to be their guest at church on a Sunday.

Instead, families arriving in a new neighborhood are turning to their ‘digital neighbor’ to learn the happenings and best places to go around their new home.

Social Media is now the Digital Living Room

Whereas we don’t gather in person, we do gather online. Facebook suggests people you may know through a plethora of individual data within your own profile:

  • Mutual Friends
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Location

If you are willing to ‘+Add Friend’ you’ve welcomed them into your home and living room which may lead to stimulating conversation, or at least some good cat videos. These new friends, especially if they are in your area, are wonderful resources for all that is good, and those things to avoid. Conversations within social media can go on for days, not just hours, and there are no dishes to clean up afterwards.

These new friends may invite you to ‘attend church’ with them, as was done in years past. BUT today you can ‘attend’ to the ongoings of an organization, church or otherwise, through a digital means and you don’t have to necessarily wait until Sunday.

Websites, Local Directories & Social Networks provide for a Virtual Visit

New parishioners don’t have to wait until Sunday. When ‘shopping’ for a church they turn online. They may use Google to search for

  • Church near me

Or Facebook

  • Presbyterian church in Livonia

Google will provide them results highlighting those with websites and directory listings. Facebook will list posts relevant to their search criteria. Each set of results will have messages and images influencing their further research and driving them to further drill down on a particular result.

Whereas one can’t gain the personal experience and welcoming of fellow parishioners, these digital results can show whether a church community is active and thriving.

Whereas it would take weeks of Sundays in the past to shop a church for the right pastor, today a shopper can view a video of a previous sermon or full service while comfortably seated on their sofa any day of the week.

Although final decisions on where to attend still need to be made through personal experience, initial decisions are now made virtually. If a church has been dismissed through the virtual there is no chance of the personal - even if that community is the most welcoming and active church in the neighborhood.

Digital is the new piece on the game board.

A good outreach strategy for churches shouldn’t preclude the various methods used in years past. There is still room for

  • Banners
  • Door hangers
  • Direct Mail
  • Neighborhood Welcome Wagons

But to really have skin in the game, a church needs to add the digital perspective

  • Website
  • Local Directories
  • Social Networks
  • Email

And each has a specific purpose.

Websites

Provide basic information about the church including

  • Denomination
  • Location
  • Service hours
  • Events and classes

But should also include

  • Imagery
  • Video
  • Blogs; Sermons
  • Email signup

Local Directories

In addition to websites, business directories help feed the internet with relevant information for the user. Google has a single purpose mission:

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

If directory listings don’t exist or have invalid information, Google will not serve up information about a church to user. Or at least not within the first couple of pages.

Joke: Where do you hide a dead body? On the second page of Google.

Social Networks

Facebook pages and groups can demonstrate the activity of the community. A Facebook business page can be used to promote the basic information of the church, similar to a website, but it can also be used to congregate and promote the various groups, organizations and activities of the church. Whereas Facebook may be used for all types of posts, Twitter may be used to focus on the Youth ministries. In either case, it’s important for regular posts about special services, inspirational memes, videos of activities or even real-time videos of a Sunday morning service.

Social networks, by definition, are designed to provide social activity. It is a platform for comments and discussion which is much larger than only those sitting in a living room with coffee cake crumbs in their lap.

In the digital world, this can make or break the ‘marketing’ for a church. If a shopper sees little activity, they are likely to turn away.

Would you go to a restaurant that has no cars in their lot or one that has a 45-minute wait?

The Strategy

It’s sad to hear about churches that bash marketing tactics. As much as those who are active and clergy like to think we are, the church is not the ‘Field Of Dreams’.

All churches use at least a few marketing techniques.

  • A sign
  • Local newspaper ads
  • Billboards
  • Radio ads
  • Word-of-mouth - a hope that existing members will invite their friends and family.

Instead of wishing for a ‘Field of Dreams’ here are a few ideas to consider when hoping you can build a larger church membership.

Don’t promote, instead elicit a response

Whether a business with customers or a church seeking parishioners, no one really cares about your name, nor does anyone really care what your building or premises looks like. Use the various tools to distribute a message, solicit a conversation, provide opportunities of engagement. There’s no need to promote the church itself or a specific ministry. If you have open dialogue, others will do that for you.

Don’t be all things to all people, instead excel at what you do

If you’re good at fixing cars, then fix cars but don’t open a juice bar. Keep sight on what you’re good at - a focused ministry. Don’t design ministry to connect with everyone, design a ministry that speaks about God’s work. This may mean some people may not like your church. That’s OK. God uses different ministries to reach different people.

Don’t consider other churches the competitor, instead embrace differentiation

If a homeless person is fed, do we care that he ate down the block and not at our restaurant, or are simply satisfied to know he is cared for? 25, 30, 50 years ago a church may have competed with the other denomination just caddy corner, in the last two-decades competition has become today’s culture. Other churches are on our team. It doesn’t help if you distinguish yourself from another church. You need to distinguish your message from the world people live in. Clearly communicate why someone should connect with your church instead of spending their time doing a million other things.

Don’t compete with yourself, instead provide choices

Ever been seated at a restaurant and the waiter gives you a menu the length of ‘War and Peace’?

More choices creates greater confusion. Work on a strategy that doesn’t have church activities which step on one another. Create a strategy that reaches out to a variety of peoples and their interests at different times of the week and the year. Does every rehearsal, meeting and evening class really have to be on Thursday night? Spread the wealth, allow parishioners to participate and not have to choose one over the other.

Don’t be afraid the digital voice, instead put the power in the hands of the people

Or better yet, in the hands of God. The digital platform is a wonderful place to talk about and expose the ministry. Use the website as foundation and provide the basic information a parishioner or a seeking needs. Use social media to promote the ministry through open dialogue about church activities soliciting input. Use images and video convey a vibrant community. Church isn’t just Sunday or Thursday or Tuesday, it’s 24/7. I learned in Sunday School a long time ago with folded hands and intertwined fingers:

This is the church
This is the steeple
Open the doors
See all the people

Empower the people to untangle their fingers and open their palms, to have them insert a smart device, to download a social app and to speak God’s words through those fingers.


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