A pastor of a small church asked to meet with me to talk about what he called a “marketing problem.” Over coffee, he explained that he had a high priority on church growth. He was pastor over a relatively new non-denominational church. The church had not reached critical mass to break even, and he wanted to get the number of regular visitors up. He wanted to see if I had any ideas that would help. (Just to clarify, he used the term “break even,” not me.)
I asked him several questions about the current church community, about the structure of his weekly services, the worship and his sermon. He generally starts each week’s service with forty-five minutes of worship. Then he allows a small break for people to connect with each other, get some coffee, and then he goes into his sermon.
A visit to the church to experience this service and the pastor first hand was very revealing. It told me a lot about the challenges this pastor was having growing his church. A second meeting at the coffee shop was in order.
I began this meeting by sharing that I noticed there seemed to be several new visitors there that week. He told me that this was encouraging but it was a familiar pattern. New people arrive and then they don’t return. I believe the term he used was “tire kickers.” People who apparently go to a new church each week until they finally find one that is comfortable for them.
I asked the pastor what his view of the purpose of worship was. He told me that worship was critical to opening people’s hearts, to encouraging them to rejoice and celebrate, and to worship the Lord with joy and happiness. He believed people should be free to dance and clap and lift up their hands and their voices to the Lord during worship. He then spent a lot of time talking about musical style.
I believed that something else more important was at play here, and the pastor completely missed it. As someone with some experience in marketing, I think that many churches get so wrapped up in the “worship style” debate that they are missing the point. The central issue, in my opinion, is that you must have a strong and closely knit community before you can grow. Strong communities are magnets for people who are lost or feeling disconnected.
I experienced this several times in my experience at building strong teams in large corporations. Teams changed from being demoralized feeling totally un-empowered, to high performing communities that worked hard and also genuinely enjoyed working together. In no time at all, people from all other parts of the company began inquiring about job openings with these teams.
I took the pastor back to his original statement about new people coming to “kick the tires” and not coming back. Many of them, he said, were families who had recently relocated into the area. I pointed out to him that the goal might be to have each new visitor raise their voice in praise and sing out loud in worship with everyone else in your church – from the very first song!
To “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs,” as the Psalmist says. If they feel heartened to sing with you and you are all enthusiastically worshiping the Lord, they will instantly feel part of the church community.
Why? First, because it pleases the Lord and that should be reason enough. Second, because it simply makes a lot of sense not only in pleasing the Lord, but in engaging the community in meaningful worship. Their spirits will be uplifted. They will join together to praise the Lord as one community. They will be brought closer together through this shared positive and joyful experience.
I explained that I believe that instead of a marketing campaign, this (and any) church needs to focus on building the strength of their existing community first. Using internet language, that will make your community “sticky,” and visitors will feel connected and want to stay.
Sadly, there seemed to be a disconnect for this pastor, or his church and their visitors. The focus on worship style seemed to break up any opportunity for the existing community to unite with one voice. I advised the pastor to concentrate more on community, and less on music style.
Upon my last visit, it was readily apparent that the outcome for this church now appears to be far more positive. The members of the church are working together, worshiping together, and acting as one community. At the end of the service people were lingering around and clustering in small groups and catching up with each other, making dinner and other meeting plans, and showing a genuine interest in each other. This is a wonderful start to a new beginning that will allow the church to grow both in strength and numbers with ease.
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