I began this morning as I do every morning—at the local coffee shop, indulging myself in a decaf mocha and the day’s San Francisco Chronicle. It must have been religion-page day. I found two whole articles covering religion—usually I’m lucky to find one a week.

The first article, “Sex abuse settlements will force church to sell assets,” included a 6-by-5-inch picture of a sexual abuse victim testifying, along with a smaller head shot of the “defrocked” Roman Catholic priest. The second, “Borrowed sermons rock church,” featured a Michigan rector suspended for cribbing sermon material.

Both page 3 articles were syndicated by the New York Times, so there’s a good chance that if you happened to read your local paper the same morning, you saw these articles, too. Perhaps you even spoke of these reports among your parishioners to set things straight or to comfort.

But what about the unchurched? A non-churchgoing newspaper reader hears about the church only when scandal erupts, or controversy surfaces over social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. The “good” impressions of church and ministry in secular media seem to have waned in recent years.

What’s more, the church is losing audience, so it’s likely that reliance on secular media for perceptions of the church is increasing. A 1999 University of Michigan study reported that church attendance in the United States dropped 5 percent between 1981 and 1998.(1) The most prominent mainline churches seem to be bleeding the most, with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last year suffering the worst membership decline since 1994,(2) and the United Methodist Church consistently losing membership since 1965.(3)

The good news is that the growing share of unchurched people does not signal a lack of believers. The Michigan study showed that 50 percent of those polled gave the importance of God a “10” on a 10-point scale, and 46 percent said they thought about the meaning of life “often.”(4)

Individual spirituality is burgeoning, but churches are shrinking? Sounds like a wake-up call to me. Perhaps we should shift some of our focus from those attending church to those sitting in the coffee shops reading the newspaper (I believe coffee shops are still growing in attendance, but that’s beside the point). Aren’t these stray sheep our responsibility, too?

That’s a rhetorical question. Of course they are. In fact, reaching them is obligatory to community ministry, and improving our track record among them takes nothing more than a committee of laity and a budget that rivals the fellowship doughnut fund in affordability.

Building Communication and Credibility 

Here’s a key term: church public relations—for our purposes, the congregation’s endeavor to encourage connection and dialogue with its surrounding community.

This powerful concept would reveal itself in a diminished reliance on our parish alone for membership sustenance, and in a community in which both members and nonmembers are fully aware of our church events and successes. For the unchurched, church public relations offsets the “bad” things churches do on a national level with the “good” things we do on a community level.

Certainly we could idly blame the media for giving churches a black eye, though in reality our collective ministry provides a thousand blessings for every disgrace. But in the media’s defense, do we inform them of these blessings?

That’s not a rhetorical question. When our parish sends 30 youth to Mexico to build a church over their spring break, or our church celebrates its 10-year anniversary of providing a community soup kitchen, or a former drug dealer finds salvation in our ministry, do we let the media know? When the pastor gives a sermon about a pervasive secular concern—say, terrorism—do we invite a local journalist to attend? When we hold community events like the Christmas pageant, a fundraising car wash, or a guest-speaker seminar, do we seek publicity more broadly than inclusion in the parish newsletter?

Public relations is the ideal yet underused tool for spreading the Word and the workings of our ministry. PR has two major advantages over advertising: it costs time rather than money, and it provides credibility, a quality that the church dearly needs if it is to stage a comeback.

Let’s get started. Church Public Relations 101 class is now in session.

Form a Committee 

Like most undertakings, church public relations can best be achieved in numbers. A team of at least three is recommended, but the more, the better. Parishioners who have sales or marketing backgrounds would bring useful skills to the job. Creativity, written and spoken eloquence, and Internet surfing dexterity are also key traits.

The PR committee should meet at least once a month to be effective, and preferably more frequently at the onset. The first meeting or two should focus on establishing PR goals and developing a working model for executing a seamless PR program. For example, a PR goal for the year might be five new visitors who are referred via the media (including the Internet), two inclusions in secular media, and 10 percent more attendance at community events. Keep goals conservative at first—the disappointment of unachieved expectations shouldn’t overshadow the thrill of breakthroughs.

Miscommunication is the bane of PR, so a good working model is critical. A protocol or channel of some sort should be established to ensure that the PR committee knows about everything going on in the church, as well as whom to call if the group needs more information. This task could be as simple as a committee member scheduling a meeting with an omniscient church staff member once a week. If your church holds regular meetings that include all task forces, a PR team member should definitely be there.

One team member should be assigned the role of media contact—meaning that her phone and fax number and e-mail address should be made available to media, and incoming media calls should be directed to her. Others on the team might pitch in to initiate press relations, but to avoid confusion one contact should be responsible for reactive opportunities.

If the size of your team allows, another member should be responsible for Internet visibility. As a colleague once told me, every Web site is a publication. The Internet visibility team member would be charged with finding and seizing Web-related opportunities.

As to budget, the beauty of the PR committee is that it can do plenty of good without one; the only necessities are a phone, a fax machine, a photocopying machine, and an online PC with a printer. Of course, a little kitty would help, especially if you have yet to get your Web site up and running.

Erect a Web SiteWhen I moved to California from my Chicago-area parish, the first thing I did was to hit the Internet to find a congregation. For a community immigrant, a Yahoo.com or AltaVista.com is the best way to church-shop, and it provides far more information than the Yellow Pages. Journalists love Web sites, too, because they provide background and contact information as reporters write their stories.

Hands-down, my favorite church Web site is that of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco (www.glide.org), but attempting to emulate Glide on your first try would be futile. That church’s Web specialists have clearly taken Church PR 201 and 301, but it is great fun to bop through the site. Check out Old First Presbyterian Church (www.oldfirst.org), also in San Francisco, for a simple, substantive, yet easy-to-navigate site that is more attainable. Here you can find staff contact information, descriptions of the various ministry groups, and gobs of current news and events complete with a calendar.

If you’re really strapped
for cash, find somebody in your congregation who could host and design your Web site. A good place to start is to talk to your “techie” and/or business-owner parishioners. Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) hosts small, do-it-yourself Web sites for free, but the domain name assigned to you might be long and ugly. For $30 a month, Church Square (www.churchsquare.com) will design and host your site for you, giving you step-by-step advice on what to include. The firm specializes in church Web sites, and it has a nice portfolio of current customers.

Once the site is up, your Internet visibility team member should make your site more accessible by giving it search-result priority with the major search engines. He or she simply needs to go to the major search engines (Yahoo, AltaVista, MSN, Lycos, Google, etc.), conduct a search using key words that a visitor might use (like “valdosta church,” “church valdosta,” “episcopal church valdosta,” etc.). When the search is completed (that is, when results of your search come up), click on “submit a site,” an option usually available on the results page. This feature allows you to submit your own site to be reviewed by the search-engine staff and possibly included when people search these words in the future.

For an additional $10 a month you can subscribe to a service that tracks and reports Web-site visitor referrals, characteristics, and tendencies. Although it won’t provide visitor contact information, the tool will satiate your curiosity as to how many “hits” your site is getting. For more information, check out SuperStats (www.superstats.com).

The most important thing is to get a Web site up, even if it is only one page showing contact information and worship times. Latest studies show that more than 64 million U.S. adults use the Internet regularly,(5) so the potential return on this investment makes it a no-brainer.

Use the Internet 

Depending on the size and location of your community, use a variety of ways to increase your church’s visibility on the Web. Again, the beauty is that most of them are free.

Here your committee’s creative juices need to be squeezed, because the sky is the limit for referral possibilities. I would begin by finding the main site for your denomination, and getting your contact information and Web address included. The “church locator,” one of the most visited places on a denomination’s Web site, provides useful information for members who are relocating.

Also check out inclusion possibilities on your community Web sites, like the chamber of commerce or the main tourism Web site. If you’re located near a medium or large city, get your information included free on CitySearch (www.citysearch.com). Perhaps the Web sites of your local newspaper or radio station have sections for community organizations.

Also, many of these sites have message boards for community events—a great tool for getting new faces at your visitor-friendly fellowship activities and fundraisers. Churches near large cities should check out the widely popular Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) for free categorized message board listings.

One of the most “viral” (don’t think sickness, think growth) Internet word-of-mouth generators out there is the e-mail discussion group. The thought of having an ongoing discussion with multiple participants may sound hokey at first, but it spreads like a Methodist Jell-O recipe if the subject is compelling. A main “church” e-mail group is not too inviting to nonmembers, so I would opt for a more specialized group name. Perhaps an e-mail group can be started for women’s Bible study, for church-and-politics enthusiasts, or for community-wide updates and volunteer needs. The toughest thing is to draw enough initial interest, but once the ball gets rolling, the numbers of member and nonmember participants can grow quickly. Check out Yahoo groups (www.yahoo.com) to get one set up for free.

Invite the Media 

The most important part of media relations is the second word, relations. It is the PR committee’s responsibility to develop relationships with appropriate media contacts in the community. I recently spoke with Michael Miller, religion editor of the Peoria (Illinois) Journal Star, who suggested, “Be open, be honest, and don’t assume we’re out to get you. Most religion journalists are very sympathetic to local ministries.”

Call up your local and city newspapers, and ask who covers the local church beat. Read some past articles to see what interests the newspaper, and invite the religion writer over when you have something newsworthy. “We’re normally not interested in run-of-the-mill events like a singles convention or bake sale,” Miller said, “but drop us a line if you have an unusual event, an interesting speaker, or people in the congregation who have done something unique through your ministry, like an intriguing type of volunteerism.”

Don’t confine yourself to Miller’s suggestions alone. Editors might also be interested, he said, in a pastor’s contributed article in response to a major secular event (for example, a court ruling on schoolchildren and the Pledge of Allegiance), essays or reflections from parishioners, or journal entries from a youth mission trip. If you have an extra seat on the bus, invite a journalist to your next Habitat for Humanity project. Be creative!

If you have a newsworthy event, announcement, or accolade on the horizon, don’t wait until the last minute to contact the media. Send a press release a good two to three weeks in advance.

“Err, . . . a press what?” A press release simply contains the 5 W’s (who, what, why, where, when), along with the contact information for your committee’s media person (and don’t forget your Web site info). A site called www.press-release-writing.com provides a great how-to resource for the specific style and format of a press release.

Mail or fax the press release on church letterhead; then follow up a few days later with a phone call. If the reporter doesn’t return your call, keep calling until you get a live voice. Persistence wins in PR.

Newspapers aren’t the only outlet for getting the word out. Local radio stations usually invite public service announcements (i.e., the five W’s in no more than two sentences) on upcoming events, and the local TV news is always looking for a newsworthy community lead.

The stories in our Bible live and are meant to be shared. Our ministries throughout the world rewrite, relive, and supplement the canon with our own experiences and works. Let us charge ourselves with spreading our stories and miracles beyond the church walls and into the arms of a surrounding community.

I hope we can find such stories within our parish and discover ways to uplift the spirit of an agnostic or an unchurched person. And I hope we can work harder at inviting outsiders in, and making our ministry accessible and available through the myriad of intermediaries at our disposal.

In the end, I hope that I can one day enjoy a decaf mocha at my local coffee shop and hear God’s Word while reading page 3 of the Chronicle.

1. Charisma Christian News Service, January 2000.
2. Maranatha Christian News Service, May 2001.
3. United Methodist News Service, November 1999.
4. Charisma News Service, January 2000.
5. NUA Internet Surveys, 2001.