Church Planting, Part 3: Generating a Buzz

Spreading the word about your new church and raising interest in your mission are essential to drawing people to your official launch service. While word-of-mouth and relational capital are perhaps the most effective methods, these church planters found that everything from direct mail pieces to serving the community helped generate interest and attract attendees.

What were the key steps you took to get people to attend your launch service?

Paul Andrew: Marketing is important, but I still believe the best marketing is when your people are bringers. Although we ran mainstream marketing campaigns as well, we focused our efforts with our own team on equipping them to invite people they knew. My wife suggested we hold “family dinners” at our home on Sunday nights, and it became one the most effective outreaches of all. People traveled from the five boroughs for a home-cooked meal and a sense of community, with as many as 46 people packed into our Brooklyn apartment. We also made our launch team meetings inclusive and encouraged team members to bring friends not only to hear the vision, but also to get involved. By the time we launched Liberty Church, the core of our church was already very strong, and the vast majority of those people are still with us today.
Paul Andrew, Lead Pastor, Liberty Church, New York City, launched Jan. 23, 2011, with 150 attendees. Current attendance: 200+

Damian Boyd: We realized that our key demographic is college students. And I was a college pastor at a church in Atlanta for 10-plus years, so we knew that was going to be our sweet spot. We did Facebook ads. We were in at least two articles in the school newspapers. With the relationships we already had because I was a college pastor, that helped get the word out. And we met with the community planning [groups]. We went to meetings so the community leaders knew who we were. They know they can depend on us.
Damian Boyd, Pastor, Vertical Church, Atlanta, launched Feb. 12, 2012, with 100 attendees. Current attendance: 50 to 100

Aaron Graham: We had our launch team reach out to their friends and invite them. We did some basic advertising on Google.
Aaron Graham, Lead Pastor, The District Church, Washington, D.C., launched Sept. 18, 2010, with 50 attendees. Current attendance: 280

Ken Hubbard: We asked our launch team to each personally invite five people, and hopefully out of that, they would all get one. We did a lot of social networking. But the thing that really worked for us the most was mailers. We did every home in our community, and then a week before the launch, we did the same homes again. We did 140,000 mailers. I would say that outside of the people we knew, probably about 80 percent did come from our mailers.

Ken Hubbard, Pastor, New Generations Church, Canton, Mich., launched Oct. 2, 2011, with 263 attendees. Current attendance: 130

James Johnson-Hill: There are some things that worked, definitely intentional, and there were some other things that just we stumbled upon. We didn’t do a mailer. We didn’t know if that was really going to be the right way, and they’re really, really expensive to do. We invited people to a free, informational coffee-type meeting, and we told them about the church.

We did a dual-page, full-color flier. We thought, Where could we get the most amount of people at one time? We have what’s called 16th Avenue. There’s a Super Walmart on one side, and there’s a Lowe’s on the other. And it seems like every person in Jones County goes there on weekends. We went early in the morning, and by 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock, both parking lots were packed. We took 13 or 14 of us, and we put a flier on every single windshield in Walmart, Lowe’s, these major shopping areas. We hit them at 10 o’clock in the morning, and we went back at 3 in the afternoon, when all those cars had cleared out and the next wave of people came in. That’s really what we did. We ran television commercials. We did a billboard in a high-visibility area as well. We did yard signs.

Probably the bigger thing that happened for us is that we ended up with a partnership with a group called Church Extension Plan. They are a branch of the Assemblies of God church’s financing wing starting a prototype project. They wanted to help new church plants purchase buildings. They thought with the economic times the way they were, they could get a building at an affordable price, help a new church plant, and then in five years, that church plant would grow to a place where they could secure financing for that building and grow. There’s a building right in the heart of our downtown that was an old Woolworth’s building that was vacant 10 years, and it was an eyesore. The city’s flagpole is right in front of this building. That building was horrible. But we were able through that grant to purchase that building at a great price and renovate it. Because we purchased that building, the mayor called a press conference in that building when we bought it. It made all the major newspapers and all the major news networks. Sixty-five people showed up at that news conference, but the funny thing was it wasn’t just 65 people from the community. All the bank presidents showed up. We had three city councilmen, county supervisors, the mayor—just incredibly influential people showed up. It put the word out that not only were we a new church, but we landed on the project that the whole city was looking at.
James Johnson-Hill, Lead Pastor, Agape Church, Laurel, Miss., launched April 4, 2010 (Easter), with 55 attendees. Current attendance: 100

Matt Miller: I had many one-on-one meetings where I would share the vision for what I hoped New City Church would be. Soon, as I hired staff, the staff were having one-on-ones too. New City also did a lot in our community. We had the goal of doing 25 community events from July to January. Most of these events were a type of “block party.” We also started our version of in-house Bible studies, city groups. We had six city groups that met during our launch phase. We canvassed our neighborhood and left door-hanger advertisements on more than 3,000 doors. And lastly, we always asked! We would say to our team, “Give them the opportunity to say no.” We always, always invited.
Matt Miller, Lead Pastor, New City Church, Shawnee, Kan., launched Jan. 8, 2012, with 322 attendees. Current attendance: 220

Aaron Monts: Simple conversation with people in coffee shops and around the neighborhood were the best steps. Much more personal of an invite instead of a blanket invite.
Aaron Monts, Lead Pastor, Ikon Christian Community, San Francisco, launched Oct. 11, 2009, with 90 attendees. Current attendance: 75

How did you make the community at large aware of your church plant and build interest in it before the launch service?

Andrew: Outside of our relational strategies, we also employed mainstream marketing, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter, pay-per-click advertising on both Google and Facebook, advertising and interviews on Christian radio, and advertisements in newspapers, including AM New York. Some of our most effective marketing was very low-cost though, particularly having a quality website (ours is built on WordPress, which is free) and a podcast so people can hear your teaching. YouTube videos of Andi [Andrew’s wife] and I enabled people to get a sense of who we are. The other thing that helped us was that both our venues are in high-profile locations—the Tribeca Cinemas (home of the Tribeca Film Festival) and the New York Film Academy right on Union Square.

Scott Bloyer: Facebook. We had people sharing stuff. It was that viral media kind of idea of, “I’ll share it with this five friends, and this five friends will share it,” and that’s kind of the way we did it. We couldn’t afford anything.
Scott Bloyer, Lead Pastor, Elevation Church, Aurora, Colo., launched Oct. 10, 2010, with 227 attendees. Current attendance: 200

Boyd: The service piece is important because it’s love first. That is not in any way insignificant because if you love people, they are more prone to open up. The other thing we did very intentionally was provide food at our worship gatherings. College students like to eat. if you can give good food for free, you have an immediate open door. We also serve the local campus ministries, the parachurch ministries. They all meet on campus, and we started doing what we could to serve them. That opened up some doors. Our uniqueness is that we’re within walking distance, which is a draw automatically, but also, we’re going to feed you, and then we’re loving in community. This generation has an altruistic culture about it. They want to see a church that does good works. They want to see a church that’s doing just as much as they’re proclaiming. In doing that, it gave us a fast-track to the heart of this generation.

Graham: We went to a local neighborhood festival and had a booth where we gave out free bottled water, did face painting with the kids, and gave out little connection cards with basic info about when and where we would be meeting in a few weeks.

We did some servant evangelism near the subway stop with free granola bars and bottled water on some of the warm days in the summer.

We sponsored the summer movie nights in the neighborhood by giving out food and building relationships with area residents.

We began to serve in several local neighborhood organizations.

Johnson-Hill: I sent my launch team out and said, “Get involved in some place; serve on a volunteer basis.” We just found any opportunity we could to serve. Someone got involed in the school district. We really got involved with the downtown association, really just being a support there, showing up at city events, just being very present and visible.

Miller: First, we had the curiosity of the community as they witnessed an eyesore (a run-down theater) being brought back to life. That was built-in awareness. We also did 25 community events between July and January. We developed a super strong relationship with the elementary school that is next door to our facility. We also took advantage of our theater vibe and started Free Friday Family Movie Nights. Every Friday, starting at 6 p.m. New City Church offers free popcorn, free soda and a free family movie (we got the license to do this) for our community. We average 120 people every Friday night who don’t attend Sunday morning—yet! Lastly, we put out 3,000 door hangers to our surrounding apartments. This was a big win for us.

Monts: We didn’t do the standard mass-mailing, not that that wouldn’t have worked. We simply wanted to try something different. We utilized billboard advertisements on our public transit platforms that were fairly unique. They forced people to check out our website if they wanted more information. We paid for the rights of the artwork from an artist in Seattle who did an ironic series of wood engravings depicting the fruits of the Spirit. We added the title beside it and our information above and below.

We also turned these pieces into postcards that we blanketed local coffee shops with. Our hope was to create a buzz with word-of-mouth in our neighborhood.

What resources did you find to be effective at getting people to come to the launch service?

Andrew: Although print advertising did bring some people to our launch, we learned from guest card feedback that digital advertising such as Google and Facebook were 11 times more cost-effective. There is also an ongoing benefit for our Facebook connections since we can send updates and event invitations long after our launch. Not surprisingly, word-of-mouth was incredibly successful, but I was surprised that Christian radio was also quite effective, and it brought an older demographic that our digital strategies did not. I might mention that on the other side, our Saturdays spent handing out invites in the neighborhood produced frozen toes but not a single visitor.

Bloyer: We did take a big risk. We actually paid to have a former Denver Bronco [linebacker Karl Mecklenburg] be here. He came and shared his story. So we knew we had some kind of a draw. Then a young [Ultimate Fighting Championship] fighter that gave his life to Christ through our ministry [Justin “The Viking” Wren] came and spoke the second week. We tried to make it a launch month, not a launch week. So we did different things each week to try to draw people in. But we didn’t have any mass mailings or anything like that, so no one really knew about it other than by word-of-mouth.

Graham: Creating a basic website was obviously key, with a memorable name and Web address. Targeted promotion has always been most effective—friends inviting friends and neighbors.

Miller: Word-of-mouth was our greatest resource. We also had success (I know this is not popular but it works well in apartment neighborhoods) with door hangers. We also invested money in our website. We use Google AdWords too. We created a New City Facebook page, and I use an email client, Mail Chimp, to send out weekly invites and information.