The Invisible Church

The Invisible Church
By John R. Throop

Your community may not know as much about your church as you think.

One Friday and Saturday, church leaders from Grace Community Church stood outside a large supermarket in their area. Individually, they asked random shoppers, “Have you heard of Grace Community 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 Grace Community Church?” If the person expressed some interest in the church, then they received a brochure inviting them to come to a multi-generational money management seminar at the church.

Church leaders were astonished at what they discovered. Among the hundreds of people interviewed, most had never heard of the church, or had confused it with other churches in the area. Among those who had heard of it, most could not identify specific ministries or staff members (though they might know someone who attended the church). More troubling, however, was the leaders’ astonishment. They 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.

Benefits Check

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. And 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 people knew about churches and the benefits they offered, and 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 question needs to be: “To whom are we marketing, and what do they want and need to know about us? What matters to them?”

The first step in developing a marketing approach, then, is to clarify the message and the target audience, making sure that the two are 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.

One denominational church, for example, ran television ads geared to new parents who are unchurched, stressing the importance of having children baptized. All scenes were set in the church and the commentary focused on theological issues that only parents who already had some expectation of infant baptism would understand. But if the parents were not already believers, then why would the message be relevant to them? It was all about church, not about their interests, needs, and feelings from their standpoint. The message was relevant only to existing members and reminded them of this baptismal obligation.

Further, television commercials, half-hour “infomercials,” or personal discretionary products (like videos or DVDs) require excellent production values, especially for high-definition television. Some churches offer video or DVD “introductions” to their ministries, with content pitched to specific needs. A skilled production company can provide informed direction on message content, scripting, and visual composition.

Selected Targets

Churches also need to target and segment their market, focusing on certain populations for specific activities and services. Church leaders resist this practice, believing that the local church must preach the Gospel to all people. If they will make an honest assessment of their own congregation, however, they will find that it attracts a certain kind of person. God calls and equips churches to reach out to defined groups of people.

Community demographic services can help you profile your community and determine the group size of, say, all married couples with children, with household incomes at or above a certain amount, with a certain educational level, in a specific census tract. Direct mailing services can tailor their lists to precise populations at a reasonable per-name cost.

Brochures and welcome folders can be tailored to specific groups. My own church, for example, is on the National Register of Historic Places. We have many visitors who want to enjoy the historical setting, so we have a brochure just for them. We have different brochures available to church members to hand to friends in specific generational groups, each with the same core message, but with different emphases.

We have other brochures for people who have visited more than once in recent weeks, so that we can build on their interest and need. Graphics software can help to create a brochure template with core messages, but different approaches and appeals. Firms who specialize in this form of communication can customize a series of professional four-color brochures at a reasonable cost.

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 multi-cultural. Churches must do more than translate information into another language. They must be sensitive to cultural traditions, especially religious belief. A good promotional products firm will have some awareness of cultural preferences for food items, for example, or print church information in Korean, Chinese, or Urdu characters.

Increasingly, marketing 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?

Did It Work?

No matter what methods are used, church marketing efforts must be measurable. Even moderate marketing 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/or efficient methods?

The answer depends on your marketing objectives. If the goal is to increase public awareness, measurement could be through a pre- and post-campaign survey. 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 a marketing 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.

Sometimes people confuse marketing with a specific advertising campaign or specific methods. Those are events. Marketing must be an ongoing activity. Prepare a marketing plan that covers an 18-month period, and inventory the variety of marketing approaches the church will employ.

Analyze your community and then target specific populations and their needs. Estimate the cost and make the necessary budgetary and expense preparations. Then measure the results.

Perhaps when the next supermarket 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 “The Invisible Church” by John R. Throop is excerpted from Your Church newsletter, July 2007.