Want More Visitors? It Has to Get Personal

The best method and timing for outreach … and the one essential ingredient.

People still respond to the things of God, when the things of God are viewed by us as important enough to talk about.”

Have you ever had that nagging feeling that no one was really listening to you? Maybe it was a meeting or a conversation with your kids or (gasp!) a Sunday message. But no matter how great a communicator you are, all of us have been unheard.

Churches are no exception. They have a message for the community but wonder if anyone is listening. So what do we do? Often the only answer has seemed to be: talk louder. For an organization, that often means mass marketing. But do these strategies work for churches?

During this time of economic tightening, church leaders want to know if radio, television, direct mail, websites and other means of advertising are worth the expense.

Shout to the Neighborhood, Or Speak to Your Neighbor?

In December 2008, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of 15,000 adults for the North American Mission Board to try to determine which of 13 approaches is the best-received when a church wants to be heard.

The best-received means of “marketing” one’s church is the personal invitation. The survey found that 67 percent of Americans thought a personal invitation from a family member would be at least somewhat effective in getting them to visit a church. Additionally, 63 percent said they would respond favorably to an invitation from a friend or neighbor.

Nearly two-thirds would be willing to receive information about a local congregation or faith community from a family member, while 56 percent would be willing to receive similar information from a neighbor or friend.

What About Advertising?

Trailing by a good margin is the reception Americans give to various forms of media advertising. Those who said they were somewhat willing or very willing to receive church information via newspaper ads stood at 46 percent; radio ads rated 41 percent, while television ads were at 40 percent. Outdoor advertising came in at 46 percent, and 45 percent viewed letters mailed to the home positively. How many think such ads would be at least somewhat effective at getting them or others to follow through and visit a church? About 20 percent less than invitations from family or friends.

Even “new media” efforts prove ineffective among most Americans. Only 30 percent say email would be at least somewhat effective in getting them to visit a church.

Still, the revolution that has occurred in social media since 2008 [nearly half the U.S. population is on Facebook] has changed the church communications landscape. A LifeWay Research study in September 2010 sponsored by Digital Church partner Fellowship Technologies found 47 percent of Protestant churches actively use Facebook today. The study found that 62 percent of churches use social networking tools for “interacting with individuals outside of the congregation.” We do not know what will be the next great social media revolution, but it will once again challenge the church to rethink how to interact effectively and contextually with our neighbors.

Regardless, a critical lesson for us is that marketing and media efforts help but can never replace personal relationships. Marketing while ignoring relationship is inappropriate at best and possibly even unhelpful.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, host of the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast, and a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He currently serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Naperville, Illinois.

He is also regional director for Lausanne North America, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by and writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, and his national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.