Church marketing: Marketing thoughts for an open and affirming church

As a favor to a friend and as community service in my field, I wrote the following about church marketing, and particularly marketing an open and affirming church. Some details have been removed to keep the church’s information private. 

This letter is in response to your inquiry about marketing your church. In the below write-up, I focused on your recent transition to an open and affirming church and how you can actively talk to those who fit the description of wishing to attend a church like yours.

The below is based on my experience in marketing (which you can find at www.linkedin.com/nfinkbeiner) and the community that the church resides in.  These are merely my thoughts and reflect a unique marketing view as compared to the suggestions that you will probably receive from other marketers.

Don’t create a marketing plan, create a movement

What I am proposing is something not unheard of, but unique in the marketing realm, especially for churches. I am suggesting that you not create a traditional marketing plan. Instead, I’m recommending that you create a movement. That doesn’t mean you won’t need a plan, but this plan will be more loosely organized, less controlled, and go way beyond increasing the number of visitors to your church. This will focus on the fundamental role that your church plays in the community.

I am recommending that you focus on your recent transition to an open and affirming church and make that your church’s mission in everything they do. Every aspect of the church must live and breathe this movement and mission or your efforts will be in vain. Think Westboro Baptist Church, but positive vs. negative.

So, instead of developing advertising and spending money on media placements, I’m recommending that you instead focus your efforts and finances on hiring an experienced movement facilitator to come in (OFTEN) and walk you and your congregation of a process of taking a look at every aspect of your church, your church’s interactions with the community and see how the message that “everyone is loved and everyone is welcome” (or something similar, “open and affirming” is too stuffy and vague) can be incorporated in every aspect of what you do.

Ask everyone’s help

Imagine one of these sessions (all hypothetical for this portion of my write-up). The facilitator is leading your church through the discussion and hands and ideas are shooting up everywhere.

  • A couple that attend the traditional service point out that most of the people who are seeking an open and loving church go to the Koinonia service. But, that many of these people stop by coffee hour between the services. The couple admits that there isn’t much interaction between the two groups. They vow to step out of their comfort zone and say hello to visitors and make them feel welcome. They also vow to remember these visitor’s names the next time they come and invite them to meet for lunch the following week.
  • The man in charge of the visitor’s table raises his hand and says, “You know, coffee mugs are a great gift, but I was thinking, if we are trying to communicate that God loves everyone, why not spend the extra money and give them each a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel?”
  • The lady in charge of booking outside groups also raises her hand, “It didn’t occur to me until now that we have a lot of support groups meeting here. Yes, we offer them space, but does that really communicate that they are welcome? Perhaps one of us should be there each week just to say hello? And maybe bring them a snack?”
  • A congregation member points out that the website could use some updating to really communicate the new message. When visitors reach the website, the message that everyone is loved and welcome should stand out and be the first thing they see. There should also be more of an emphasis on communicating the different service times and styles of worship so that visitors can choose the one they are most comfortable with.
  • Everyone at the church must make a commitment not to judge and to step out of their comfort zone.

 

Empower them to act

The idea is that it’s not just the church leaders or a committee flaming the fire; it’s the entire congregation. But, beyond that, the church community must feel energized and empowered to take action and represent the church on their own (note, there is a danger in this, but I still recommend it). Imagine the possibilities:

  • A guy is standing on a busy street corner in Battle Creek with a sign that reads “God hates [a homosexual derogative].” An older member of the church drives by and sees this. She was going to go shopping, but she decides instead to take action. She calls a couple of her friends and they gather supplies and head out. The guy with the sign is still standing there, but with him are three older women with signs that say “No he doesn’t,” “Jesus loves you” “Not at our church” and they put the name of the church on the signs so people will know what church loves and supports them. Note: This one is especially powerful because it’s older people taking action instead of young people. People perceive older people to be less welcoming of alternative lifestyles, so the shock of seeing older people supporting them will be even more powerful.
  • A couple of church members are talking about a church that always hands out “You are going to hell” style propaganda at the annual town festival. They decide to create their own hand-out and spend their time at cereal festival handing out their flyer to let people know that not all Christians think the way of the other church.
  • A member of the church reads an article about a new LGBTQ group forming in the community. Even though he doesn’t fit this lifestyle, he decides to join as a friend of the group to show them that there are those in the community that care about them.
  • A church member decides not to sell his van, but to instead use it and go around his neighborhood and ask his neighbors without transportation if they would like to join him at church.

Contact the media when action happens

When something dramatic happens or if you know something major is going to happen, call up your local media sources and let them know. They may come out, they may not, but it’s still worth the phone call.  The action must be unique and significant for the media to pay attention (and please don’t contact them if it isn’t . This means your meetings you hold don’t count. But, taking the examples above, the older women standing next the man with the derogatory sign, for example, should be reported to the media immediately. Just in case it doesn’t last long enough for them to get there, snap a close-up, high resolution photograph and email it to them. Consider also posting it on your website and social media sites.

I would also recommend creating video testimonials from a wide variety of people at your church on the subject of everyone feeling welcome. These do not need to be professionally done. In fact, they will probably seem more genuine if they aren’t. Post them on YouTube and Facebook and embed them into your website.

The commitment

As you can see from the above, this isn’t a marketing campaign. It’s a movement and that means the church, if they choose to do this, must agree to a long-term commitment. This isn’t a month or even a year campaign; this is a radical change to how the church is involved in the community.  There must be a long-term and serious commitment to this movement or it will not work and could potentially backfire (people thinking you just were “in it” if you could get new congregants out of it).

The biggest commitment will be time and effort. Again, I recommend you hire a facilitator, someone who is very knowledgeable in change movements, to come in regularly to meet with your church and keep the momentum alive. Your church will be facilitating a lot of discussions, making a lot of changes based on suggestions, and need to find a way to celebrate and encourage positive changes within the church and the community. As a pastor, you will probably find that this is taking up a majority of your working hours each week.

In regards to costs, there will be the cost for the facilitator, any costs from holding the meetings (you know people love food at those), and additional costs based on changes. An example of a cost based on changes is above in the coffee cup example. The coffee cup is a lot less expensive to give out to new people in comparison to the book, but it’s not going to be nearly as effective either.

Another factor to consider when looking at the costs of something like this is in comparison to a traditional advertising and marketing campaign. Although I believe heavily in traditional advertising and paid advertising for many organizations, I don’t think it will be effective for your church. Your target audience is used to people paying lip-service to their cause, but not being willing to take action. So, you could spend $20,000 to $50,000 per year in advertising (which would probably be the minimum in your market using newspaper ads or radio or billboards to effectively get your message across), but, in my opinion, it would be a lot less effective than creating the above described movement.

The results

Despite what some marketers will tell you, it is very difficult to judge whether or not a marketing campaign is working. For more on this, read Addressing the question: Measuring advertising ROI.

With that said, I think the movement vs. a traditional campaign is going to have the best chance of success. Not only will this campaign reach those in the LGBTQ community, but it will also reach those who are looking for an open-minded, accepting church.  In addition, this approach has the added benefit of enhancing the mission of your church as an open and affirming congregation and one who is spreading the word of God to all people.

Ultimately, how well this movement works is entirely up to your and your congregation’s commitment. If you do this campaign half-heartedly or don’t keep adding wood to the fire of the movement, it won’t be successful. Also, if everyone is not on-board, it won’t be successful either. Think about it from a traditional business perspective, a company can do all of the advertising in the world, but if you walk-in and have a bad experience with an employee, none of that advertising matters to you. And, you are likely to tell your friends, which will overrule any positive advertising effects they have had too.

Within a couple of months, will you see dramatic increases in attendance? Probably not. This type of campaign will take a long time to show results. This is mostly due to the skepticism of the target audience and their perception that this is a short-term campaign vs. a long-term commitment to making them feel welcome. Also, building a strong reputation takes time in general.  Very few organizations gain a solid reputation overnight. Most take at least a year if not more depending on the size of the market area. Finally, people are busy and distracted now more than ever. Reaching them will take repeated exposures to your message in a variety of ways before it will finally “click.”

Thank you

I’m not a long-term candidate for advice or consultation on this project due to the distance of where I live compared to you now and my lack of interest in doing any consulting work, but as a form of community service, these are my thoughts for your consideration.  Thank you for allowing me to share them with you.  If you have any questions about this write-up, please feel free to contact me.

Nicole Finkbeiner

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