Is Your Church Invisible?
By Paul A. Murray
Your community may not know as much about your church as you think or you may be surprised as to what they think they know about your church. Not too long ago, our church stood outside the local area mall and asked shoppers, “Have you heard of Apostolic Lighthouse Church?” If the answer was no, the person was thanked. If the answer was yes, the person was then asked, “What do you know about the church?” If the person expressed some interest in the church, then they received a brochure inviting them to a “Strengthening the Family” seminar at the church.
We were surprised at what we learned. Of the hundreds of people interviewed, most had never heard of the church or confused it with other churches in the area or had false perceptions of the church. What was more troubling was how many in our church incorrectly assumed that nearly everyone knew about their church.
Why the discrepancy between perception and reality? Many church leaders have no idea how invisible the local church is to their community. When two-thirds of Americans indicate they do not attend church regularly and nearly one-half of those have no church affiliation, churches have a formidable and exciting marketing opportunity. People are barraged by thousands of messages from newspapers, radio stations, Internet service providers, television networks, billboards, banners, and signs. They pay attention only when it matters to them. It matters to them only when the message is cast in terms of intangible and tangible “benefits” that are both compelling and entertaining.
Churches historically have not had to do much marketing because there were relatively few denominational “brands” to choose from. Now, there are countless choices among churches, but there is a diminished sense of relevance and benefit that people associate with church. Today, each church must create a unique message targeted to a specific group of people. Frequently, church marketing programs begin with the wrong question: “What do we want to tell people about our ministry services and programs?” The first questions need to be: “Who are we attempting to reach and what do they want and need to know about us? What matters to them?”
The first step in developing a clear outreach message is to clarify the purpose of your church. The next step is to identify the target audience. These two priorities must be carefully matched. In identifying the audience, the church should distinguish between its internal and external audiences or run the risk of a message that has no value for those who hear it.
I know that we are very familiar with Matthew 28:19 and often our focus on outreach is grabbing everyone; when in reality our church dynamics, personality, language and ministries will not have an impact on everyone. Therefore, an honest assessment of ‘our world’ will find that our local church attracts a certain kind of person. God calls and equips churches to reach out to defined groups of people.
One example of targeting is to a specific ethnic group. Many communities are experiencing rapid increases in ethnic diversity and the number of primary languages. Marketing must be multicultural. Churches must do more than translate information into another language. They must be sensitive to cultural traditions. Increasingly, outreach materials must be age sensitive as well. Promotional items now are segmented to appeal to generation-specific interests (whether it is t-shirt design, food or computer accessories). One guiding principle is that the younger the audience, the less likely they are to open mail or read printed material. Messages to younger audiences must be brief, fast-paced, and colorful. How about creating lively banners to direct youth to specific activities? Or developing a youth ministry invitation via DVD with energetic scenes and peer interviews?
No matter what methods are used, church outreach efforts must be measurable. Even moderate efforts using several methods can be costly for a church. How will you know that your church’s approaches have “worked”? What are the most effective and efficient methods? The answer depends on your outreach objectives. If the goal is to attract people to a program or specific ministry activity, then perhaps the measurement will involve initial interest, actual attendance or some other level of participation. Make sure to tie your outreach campaign to specific objectives that have definite numerical outcomes. Gather all the data possible and analyze which methods seem to work best with specific types of people. Outreach must be an ongoing activity. Perhaps when the next mall survey is conducted, people will be able to say, “Of course I’ve heard of that church. I see the name everywhere.” Or even better, “I’ve been planning to come. I will see you there!”
This article “Is Your Church Invisible?” by Paul A. Murray is excerpted from ApostolicWitness May 2008.