If you survey all the content, and training, and leadership materials on church growth, one of the main themes is focused on church marketing and promotion in order to get the first time visitor to your church.
In the social media world, all the rage is about how effective Facebook ad can be.
WHAT USUALLY HAPPENS
Social media managers are trained to work for vanity metrics such as Likes and Followers. Video views and click throughs are even better. Right?
But what happens to a lot of the times is that you will spend a portion of your budget (which you are not overflowing with) on social media activities and ads, and you sadly don’t have anything to show for it in terms of church growth.
The temptation for many is to simply blame Facebook, or social media in general, or as a direct message which I received recently argued, “None of this stuff works, and you all know it. You are all in cahoots with Facebook just to line your wallets with money from churches like ours that don’t have any to spare. Shame on you for all the empty promises.”
YOU HAVE BEEN MISLED
The truth of the matter is, social media and ads can do wonders for bringing awareness and exposure, but any person or church that thinks social media or ads alone will grow your church has been misled tremendously. You might get some visitors to show up, but that’s about it.
THERE IS MORE TO IT
There are actually three critical factors that all needs to happen together in order for sustained growth to be experienced by any church small or large.
My church consulting engagements as well as training materials inside Church Butler unfolds the details of this three-part framework. Once you see the intertwined system in full, you’ll understand why it is all needed together. And I will share with you a top line view of the system here today.
3 FACTORS NEEDED FOR CHRUCH GROWTH
Yes, social media and Facebook ads, if used strategically, can drive people to your website so that they will experience or receive something of value that resonates with one of their felt needs.
Understand that usually this does NOT mean ads driving people to a simple “join us” message.
But too many churches simply push promotion that is hype-based – meaning without meaningful messaging behind the shell of the invite — as if everyone intrinsically should know and agree they should choose to go to the church over the million other options and habits they already have in front of them.
What’s more, a simplistic advertising campaign that expects people to make a decision on first exposure and falls back on the priorities of the broken ABC church paradigm is not a good strategic use of your budget, time and energy. (A is all about attendance. The church doesn’t care about anything else. B is all about the building. If it doesn’t happen at the church, it doesn’t matter. And C is for cash and checkbooks (who writes checks anymore these days anyways!) – which is what everyone thinks the church is focused on siphoning off from you and your wallet.)
Let me repeat: If the majority of your messaging crescendos to nothing but a “join us” or “you’re invited” you are not doing enough.
Why not? Because just featuring an invitation isn’t authentically making it a welcoming offer to outsiders. In fact you are basically numbing the audience to your “join us” call to actions by constantly featuring only this as your tip of the sword.
SO WHAT’S MISSING?
As a communicator you must understand the spectrum of the audience journey and how you use promotion and marketing to move people along. Here is what most simply don’t fully understand, based on the streams of messaging I see across social day after day.
There is a difference between a lead and a prospect.
A lead is simply contact information you captured in response to some promotional message.
Many of the leads you accrue are just not a good fit for a variety of reasons. If you get their full attention at some point, they simply just wouldn’t respond to your final invitation no matter what at this time.
A prospect is someone that is further qualified. This is where you have some confidence that they are a fit for what ever you are promoting at the end.
And further, the difference between a prospect and a decision-maker can be simply about timing. Some prospects are actually going through transitions in life, facing certain circumstances, and/or open to or currently engaging with questions about faith, God, purpose of life, etc.
Your job is to be in relationship when those opportunities rise. And that happens through a healthy content marketing plan.
This set of your audience can be presented with opportunities when they become decision-makers who become ready to consider and commit to the final invitation you are making.
YOU MUST ALWAYS BE NURTURING
Others might be open, but need a longer on ramp as the Holy Spirit does his work in softening the heart in preparation for interaction opportunities.
These are the prospects you cannot forget about, and must nurture in a life serving and non-threatening way.
Without offering content and messaging that moves people from one end of the spectrum to the other, all your promotional efforts at the beginning of the relationship goes to waste.
And that’s what I see so many churches doing (or rather not doing) today. So here’s the three-part system that needs to be happening all at once in order for all of your investment of efforts to pay off in growth.
Assuming that you have figured out how to attend to the different milestones across the promotion spectrum, that means you will get some first time visitors to your church, events, etc.
This is where the ball gets dropped big time in so many scenarios.
Have you structured your environment, programming, and culture in a way that helps newcomers participate in a meaningful way related to their own evaluation process of joining and assimilating into the community?
So many of the events that we invite friends and families to are structured in a way so that participation is awkward for them.
Have you called out the elephant in the room and addressed issues that make it scary, anxiety filled, or flat out uninviting for a stranger to co-participate with you in worship, or ministry, or fellowship?
Big point: notice that I usees the word “stranger” – because that’s what all of you are to them when they first walk into the building.
It doesn’t matter if they know one person, five, 10 previously somehow — you all, assembled as a church congregation, small group, or even an individual in this circumstance represents something larger than yourself.
This is where you have the opportunity to mobilize volunteers to help with hospitality, building a visitor centric culture where they are the VIPs whenever present. They should never feel pressure to figure out the unwritten rules in order to fit in. The church should be the one figuring out how to democratize the experience to the point where you flatten any and all anxiety that might pop up for anyone in their shoes as strangers.
Pet peeve: are you one of those churches that singles out visitors and make them stand up during the service and self identify themselves amongst the crowd but all knows each other, but they don’t? Please stop that immediately, as in don’t do it again this coming Sunday and beyond.
Now, if you have Promotion and Participation down pat, but don’t have the third pillar of the framework in place, you’ll generate some first time visitors, but probably find that people don’t generally come back. That’s why the last piece is so critical to consider and install into your workflow and culture.
THIRD: PERSONAL CONNECTION
There was a study with exit interviews of people who visited a church and left as well as those that eventually became part of the congregation. Do you know what one of the biggest differences voiced between the two groups?
According to the Barna study, those who stay as repeat attendees were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with someone inside the church.
WHO IS YOUR CHURCH MADE FOR?
Does your church have a system in place to make those natural personal connections and foster them? Again, visitor-centric ministries look quite different than those in the classic holy huddle inward-facing formation.
Does your church exist to serve its members? Or for those that or outside of the four walls of your church?
IF YOU CARE YOU’LL FOLLOW UP
One of the key things about churches is that most don’t care if you ever come back. Or do they?
If you met someone you were interested in striking up a friendship with at an event, would you simply ignore them? Or never reach out to follow-up? Of course not.
Then why does your church ignore and not follow-up with visitors? I know you imposed on them to give up their contact info with the awkward exchange of the visitor form or connection card or clipboard form when they first came. Why haven’t you done anything with that contact info?
There are so many easy ways to follow-up in a systematic way that’s personalized too. Text In Church has a robust follow-up system which really takes advantage of the communications tool most people prefer today — texting via mobile phone.
If building a texting system (it really isn’t that hard at all) seems daunting, you can start with an easy first step. I’ve had our team at Church Butler build a ready-for-you fill-in-the-blank template package of pre-written emails called the Repeat Visitor Machine. It has 3-months to a full year’s worth of follow-up emails you can quickly customize and copy/paste into your email marketing service so that every first-time visitor gets the personal touch on an on-going basis.
With today’s technology, you don’t have any excuses for not following-up with gentle nudges and friendly note to help visitors learn more about how embracing your church community really is.
There you have it, the three critical success factors for church growth.
YOU NEED ALL 3 FOR IT TO WORK
You do really need all three for a growth engine to flourish within your church. Just think about it, if you promote well, but when they actually came, they found an experience that didn’t let them feel comfortable participating, any attempt at a proactive campaign of personalized followup and outreach will simply feel relentless and creepy. You want it to feel natural, just like when all three things are put into place well.
If you did get the participation structure right and your people are ready to trigger natural, personal follow-up, that’s all fine and dandy, but without appropriate promotion, your church will not see new visitors and all that enlisting, training, and prep can leave people deflated. On the other hand, if you have a system in place that brings people in, take care of them while they are there, and follows-up to establish deeper connections, your people will be energized for ministry and more outreach.
And if you have the promotion and participation aspects fine tuned, but don’t make those personal connections for follow-up, you’ll soon find every Sunday is a 1-hit wonder with one-time visitors, not “first-time” visitors. That’s really not the vision any pastor has. I believe that missing this entire canvas is why churches aren’t experiencing the repeat visitors they know they can see if they just know how to solve it. Well, these three factors are the solution.
Now, these seem trivial and it is easy to consider them casually, but it really isn’t so. When you have all three pillars in place, you’ll find it a growth engine with sustained effects over time. I will go deeper into each of the three categories in future articles to explain further about the necessary ingredients for each pillar.
But for now, I challenge you to reflect upon your own ministry experience for any stranger encountering your church for the first time.