There’s no easy way to say it: Most people in your community probably don’t even know that your church exists.
As a church family, this presents a problem if you are actually trying to reach your neighbors. The problem isn’t that you’re doing ministry wrong. It’s not because we live in a “post-Christian world.” It’s not because your church doesn’t have the right programming or the right type of small groups. It’s not because of your budget, attendance or staff. The problem is so much simpler than all of those things: People just aren’t paying attention.
This sad reality applies to the efforts of almost every church in the United States, in every location, regardless of size.
You can have a church of thousands and be on the radar for millions of Christians across the country and still have most people drive by your location unaware of who you are or what you are like. You can have small groups in every surrounding town, reaching into their neighborhoods and still—most people will walk right on by without a second glance. You can have a booming youth ministry, reaching hundreds of students every week and yet so many people at a Friday night football game can’t differentiate your cool youth group name from an energy drink.
We cannot start to grow a church with unchurched people until we begin to understand that unchurched people simply are not paying attention.
But take comfort: People weren’t paying attention to Paul as he hung out in Athens until he started to engage them in their public forum (Acts 17). To reach people who aren’t paying attention, it just takes a different approach.
Grace Free Church has recently seen rapid expansion, despite being in a tough context for church growth. It seemed like no matter what we did or how healthy our church was or how committed our leadership, we struggled to grow. The journey all started with a simple question God had been leading us to ask: How do people even know we exist?
Start by asking your leaders that question. As you engage your team in this conversation, here are four ideas that can be adapted to your specific church context.
Four ways to grow your audience
1. Compete with the weekend.
Stop competing with other churches. Compete with the weekend instead.
To really understand how to grow your audience, you need to stop thinking about how to “out-church” other churches. In fact, you need to stop thinking like other Christians think. Your focus has to be completely on understanding the audience you are trying to reach. Our leadership knows that we want all of our area churches to grow. Our vision for our county is too big to accomplish alone. We’ve learned that if we are focused on other churches, there is no way we can be focused on the unchurched in our community.
Not only is comparison a thief of joy, but it is also a terrible outreach strategy. Instead of focusing on other churches, our staff talks about how can we compete with golf or brunch or sleeping in or a lazy Sunday morning. We do this by promoting the value that we can add to someone’s week. For example, we like to say that church is “one hour that will make your week better.” People need to know that church is valuable and that it fits in with the other activities on their calendars for the weekend. In a culture that is busy and heavily scheduled, consistency in messaging is key.
2. Engage people on their turf.
This isn’t just about having a hip small group drinking micro-brews or espresso and talking about Jesus in a living room. That’s all great and nothing beats actually engaging people face to face, but don’t overlook what already has your audience’s undying attention. It has a screen and they carry it around in their pockets.
Phones already have your audience’s complete attention, and you can easily start to engage them there. Through leveraging social media and a simple online strategy, you can reach almost every person in your community through the screen on their phone. As one of our elders constantly states, “Social media is the new town square.” Get in the town square and start mixing it up in a positive way.
Learn more about using social media effectively in a recent post on EFCA East blog, the blog for the Eastern District Association: “5 Social Media Tips That Will Actually Grow Your Church.”
3. Catch your audience’s attention.
Just being active on social media doesn’t count. I work with a number of churches who were already putting content online but were struggling to get the results they were hoping for. It takes time and some experimentation to figure out what really connects with the audience you are trying to reach. In every case (so far) these churches have been able to figure it out.
At our church, it took us almost a year to determine that what we thought was cool wasn’t working. We used to create stock images and videos with audio clips from sermons set to music. To church people, this sounded awesome. But unchurched people could not have cared less. We’d also post spiritual quotes from sermons, which I thought were great, but the audience we were trying to reach wasn’t engaged. Set lists for the worship service didn’t get the attention we’d hoped for, and announcements proved to be a waste of time.
Eventually, after some encouragement from a friend, we posted a video. All I did was speak a few encouraging words into the camera while sitting on a blue couch. Once we shared it, our online content started to take off. We had started to grab people’s attention. We continued to experiment with our content, focusing especially on videos, until our audience clearly responded.
Succeeding in the social media arena doesn’t necessarily mean doing more. Sometimes it means doing less. Once we knew what was working, we cut our number of posts in half, and our social media presence took off.
The goal is to create content that gets people to pay attention to your message. Getting people to pay attention means you have to stand out from the mess of information that is being jammed into people’s social feeds every day.
4. Add value.
You have to add real value to the lives of the people you are trying to reach. This is by far the most important piece of advice I can share on this topic. Use your efforts to show the love of God to others unconditionally. Get to know your audience and their needs. Share the truth of the gospel to them through the platforms that they’re already using. People need to know, now more than ever, that they’re not alone and that God loves them.
Our social media feeds are filled with people trying to sell us something. Everyone wants something from us. Don’t just use your platform to try to get people to attend an event or remember an announcement. Minister to their hearts. Showing the unconditional love of Jesus by adding value to the lives of people in our communities—without wanting anything in return—speaks volumes about who we are and who we serve.
Don’t be a church trying to grow a church. Be a church trying to show value and, ultimately, show Jesus to people who have yet to accept this incredible good news.
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