Making Your Church Stand Out In a Crowd (Positioning)
By George Hanson
Positioning, in an outreach sense, is the space your church holds in the minds of seekers and skeptics. Like a supermarket shelf, the mind will only allow one item to exist in the same place at the same time. By definition, then, you must be different to hold a desirable position. Understanding the role this “mental shelf space” holds in determining the success of your efforts is critical to developing winning outreach strategies.
If I had to choose just one marketing concept to have right, I would choose positioning (followed closely by branding). If your church has a good position, it can make a lot of other marketing mistakes and still do okay. This is because positioning enjoys a staying power other marketing concepts can’t duplicate. FedEx will probably hold the “overnight delivery” position for a very long time. Volvo will always be the “safest” car to millions of people worldwide. How can your church come to own a powerful position like these companies?
Too many churches are chameleons. They try to be everything to everyone. They have services for Generations X, Y, and Z. They have 48 ministries to cover every imaginable desire. They suck. It is impossible to spread yourselves that thin and be excellent in anything. Not even Wal-Mart with billions of dollars in sales, an army of MBA’s, and decades of experience tries to do more than a couple of things well. Yet many churches try to accomplish dozens of things with budgets of less than a million or two.
You’ve Got to Stand for Something
A generic, all-things-to-all-people, will not come to occupy a valuable position in the seeker’s mind. To most people, to be generic is to be mediocre. When you have a heart condition, you don’t visit just any physician, you see a cardiologist. If you’re having issues with the IRS, you don’t just call any lawyer, if you’re smart you call a tax attorney. The list goes on and on. We live in a society that assumes—probably correctly—that the specialist is better than the generalist. Want to become irrelevant? Try to be all things to all people.
A Position is a Sacrifice
A strong position involves sacrifice. If your values as a church say you will be active in helping the poor, this most likely means you will not appeal to the congregant who just wants to be comfortable and write big checks every Sunday. Whatever position you choose, you must sacrifice something. People will not buy that you are outreach oriented when you spend just 2% of your budget on these efforts. If you’re truly outreach oriented as a church, your values, budget, and programs must reflect this conviction. The corollary to increased spending on outreach may be cuts to beloved programs such as the women’s guild, quilting club, or the church camp. You must decide if it’s better to be exceptional at a few things or merely adequate at many. Adequate churches don’t change the world. Exceptional churches have transformational power.
Becoming a Tall Church: The Halo Effect
You’d think the best indicator of a new MBA’s starting salary would be his graduate school grades, right? Wrong! The most important variable in determining starting salary for MBA’s is actually how tall they are. What does height have to do with how well you’ll do on the job? I don’t have a clue, but that’s not the point. In explaining this paradox, psychologists point to a phenomenon called “The Halo Effect”
The Halo Effect occurs when one positive characteristic such as height is generalized to create a host of positive attributes. People assume that since the new MBA’s are tall they must be smart, capable, motivated team players. Of course there is no statistical evidence to suggest that any of this is true. But what matters here are perceptions. And those perceptions write out some fat checks to tall people.
How then do you become a tall church? You must sacrifice. By becoming known for doing one thing well, you will increase the chances that people will think highly of your church on a number of dimensions. For instance, say your church begins to promote—and follow through with its actions—itself as the church that helps the poor become self-sufficient. By promoting your church based on just that one variable, it’s likely that your church will eventually become known as:
* Friendly (after all, you’re helping the poor)
* Kind (mean congregations don’t feed the homeless)
* Welcoming (if they help poor people, they must be accepting)
* Committed (it takes energy and resolve to help people)
* Biblical (I don’t know much about the Bible, but I know it says Christians are supposed to help people)
* Authentic (you can’t be fake and help poor people at the same time)
The list goes on and on. Notice, your marketing efforts only communicated that you are passionate about helping the poor; you said nothing about any of these other variables. Imagine the power of standing for something, just one thing, in seekers’ and skeptics’ minds. Also, notice how much more effective it was to say that you “help the poor” than to say you are “helping the poor, friendly, kind, welcoming, committed, Biblical, and authentic.” Most churches choose to market themselves across too many positions. The result is that nothing sticks. To be memorable, give something up.
How Should I Position Our Church?
Once you determine the need to develop and carry through on a single, powerful positioning statement, how do you go about creating one?
Step 1: Have You Hugged a Seeker or Skeptic Today?
Just as Paul performed “market research” before approaching the Athenians, we can benefit from knowing more about our market. Get out and talk to people in your target market. What do they think of church in general? Of God? Of other churches in the area?
Step 2: What’s Missing?
After speaking with the unchurched in your community, you’ll get a good sense of what they’re looking for, what they think about churches in general, and the positions other churches occupy in the community. Based on these factors, you can begin to position or re-position your church to fill a desirable niche.
Step 3: Final Reality Checks
Before you jump headfirst into position your church as this or that, be sure to consider the following factors:
* Was the group of people I spoke with to formulate my ideas representative of the larger community? If not, you may think a bigger need exists than reality suggests.
* Will people care about the new position? It’s possible that you could fill position that was identified in your research as being needed only to discover that you are not attracting visitors. To avoid this, you need to ensure that the need is compelling enough to get people out of bed on Sunday morning. For instance, say your research suggests that people want a church to take care of the elderly in the community. In response, you set up a meals on wheels program, hire a nurse to ensure their healthcare needs are met, and take out a loan to build a new senior center. To your surprise these efforts do not help grow your church at all. In this case it’s quite possible that, although people want the elderly to be taken care of, the position you hold is not compelling.
* Is the position attractive to enough people to support my church? If only a few hundred people in a 15 mile radius care about the position your church occupies, you can’t expect your church to worship 2,000 every weekend.
* Will the position be viable for the long haul? Positioning is hard to do. Ideally, you will do it just once.
Final Thoughts: There’s Nothing Like the Real Thing
The human mind dreads change. Once it has decided on something, it will take a lot of effort for it to alter its view on that subject. In order to capitalize on this characteristic, you must become the first church in your area to [insert your positioning statement here]. You absolutely cannot copy what another church is doing. In doing so, you’ll only hasten your demise. If you ever want to test this theory, try this: Ask people to name the first president of the U.S. Most people will, without hesitation, answer George Washington. Next, ask them to name the second president. Most people will not know it was John Adams. This works on nearly any question, try it and you’ll soon discover no one cares about a replica, people want an original.
Be bold. Stand for something different and watch your attendance skyrocket.
From: Marketing For Non-Profit Organizations and Churches by George Hanson. Baker Books 1999
“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”