It was a lovely winter Sunday, and I was sitting with four friends in the pews of a Unitarian church in the small town of Littleton, Massachusetts. Nothing terribly unusual—except that none of us were Unitarians and we had never been to Littleton before, yet we had driven more than an hour just to hunt down this church because of what we had heard about its pastor’s musical talents.

The choice for many Americans today isn’t which church they’ll attend—it’s whether to go at all. So how do we make people want to seek us out? The good news is you don’t need to have written The Purpose-Driven Life—or even be a reasonably well-known folk singer, as was the case with the minister in Littleton—in order to attract a following. What’s required is a willingness to dig into your current congregational practices to find the “gems” you already possess and might promote a little better and a willingness to try new ideas that stay true to your values yet are enticing to potential new members.

Where Do You Shine?

Jesus counseled us not to hide our light under a bushel. The first question to ask is where your congregation excels. Do you, in fact, have a famous folk singer for a pastor? Maybe your children’s program is top-notch, or your social justice committee is particularly vibrant, or your outreach to the gay community has earned you a loyal following. Maybe your hipster minister is popular with college kids, the chef of your church suppers is Cordon-Bleu level, or you’re the only bilingual congregation in the area. It’s always easier to build on your strengths than to fix your weaknesses, so start here.

Building the Buzz

Your goal is to get people talking about your congregation and how innovative and interesting you are. People expect churches to be stodgy and hide-bound; they don’t expect fun and creativity. Surprise them and you’ll attract buzz.
To be clear, publicizing how you’re unique or creating new events is not necessarily about changing your liturgy or other traditional elements, and it’s certainly not about “marketing” your congregation as something it’s not. Too often, marketing has gotten a bad rap from those who view it as a deceptive, secular exercise in obfuscation. Rather, it should be a process through which you look at what your church really stands for and find the best way to express it.

Why Should I Come?

Put yourself into the shoes of your ideal attendee (note: “everyone” is not an acceptable answer). As you have probably noticed from teenagers’ fascination with Axe body spray, a great many products succeed because people who are not in the target group are completely unimpressed. Of course churches are places that welcome and embrace everyone. But that is not synonymous with marketing to everyone. We can eventually target everyone, if you desire, but not all at the same time. To take just one example, the messages that work for seniors will be at cross-purposes with the messages for families with young children.

So, for now, choose a target audience based on your natural strengths. That’s what First Church Congregational in Somerville, Massachusetts did. Just down the hill from Tufts University and chock full of youthful parishioners, they decided to celebrate Mardi Gras with a 1980s prom. At a time when tapered jeans were coming back into vogue and Gen Xers sought to recapture their youth, First Church’s celebration—led by lay volunteers—leveraged fun and nostalgia to introduce new people to their congregation.

Maybe your town has a lot of Harley enthusiasts. For over three decades, New Hampshire—a hotbed of motorcycle tourism—has featured various “Blessing of the Bikes” ceremonies. Not to be outdone, New York’s St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral has offered its own “Blessing of the Bicycles” for the past decade to protect the spandex set. Reaching out effectively in your community is all about tapping into the local zeitgeist.

Going Viral

In marketing, we talk about “low barriers to entry.” If you want to read an article online, you’ll click on a link. If you want to read it badly enough, you may give them your name and e-mail address to be let into the site. But if you’re subjected to a ten-minute online registration process in which you have to type in your address, a secret passcode, and the periodic table of elements, you’ll probably decide midway through that the article just isn’t worth it.

The most effective form of marketing is word of mouth—friends telling friends. But these days a lot of people are afraid to talk about their churches or invite people to join them for fear they’ll be tagged as obnoxious proselytizers. Indeed, someone asking me if I’d like to join them at church could actually be pretty discomfiting unless I’ve specifically told them I’m church shopping. Will they stop being my friend if I say no? If I say yes once, will my friend keep pressuring me to return? What if the people at church are weird or have values that are radically different from mine? What if it’s actually a cult? (When I was in college, the administration warned all students about “love bombing” tactics from a particularly aggressive local church.) So much risk!

Our goal is to give parishioners an excuse to bring up church with their friends in a casual, low-pressure way—to invite them to an event or tell them about something unusual and fun. In short, to create low barriers to entry. “Do you want to come with me to a service?” may be greeted with suspicion unless you already have a strong connection. “Do you want to come with me to the Blessing of the Priuses?” Well, that’s just fun—especially if your friend is a hybrid driver. (A joke circulating on the Internet attributed the idea to Massachusetts Episcopal bishops—and despite its fictitious origins, it’s still a great idea if done with a sense of humor.)

Other ways to draw people in might include talks or workshops at the church; special “guest sermons” by interesting community figures (a well-regarded college professor, a local author, a nonprofit head); popular or interesting musicians playing during the service (how about your hymns backed with traditional Celtic instruments?); and the like. Our friends at First Church Congregational—they of the Mardi Gras prom—tapped into a near-universal New England obsession when they decided one summer to broadcast Red Sox games onto their outside wall using a projector. Located on a main thoroughfare, they quickly attracted convivial crowds for their “Keeping the Faith” parties.

Partnering Up

Another way to enhance your community relations—and expose new people to your church—is to partner with like-minded local groups. Odds are, there’s a neighborhood civic league with plans for a clean-up, a float in the town parade, or a car wash for the high school sports teams. Check out what’s going on and pitch in. A show of support from your congregation—particularly if members wear church t-shirts to quantify your impact—can elicit meaningful exchanges with people who aren’t happy with their current church or who haven’t found one they’re comfortable with.

Even better, organize your own community events and invite others to join you. Why do car salesmen love test drives? Feeling the hum of the engine, experiencing the smooth handling, and seeing the admiring stares as you drive by, you’ve practically sold yourself before you even get back to the showroom. Seeing—and doing—is believing. That’s why it’s important to get people on your turf. Let community groups meet in your basement, let your members host book clubs on-site, invite fascinating speakers to come and get as many cosponsors as possible. It doesn’t even have to be “issues oriented.” You could host a film series of romantic comedies and have discussions afterward about the meaning of love—a fun but meaningful
topic for churches to address. The main thing is that you want the community to feel comfortable coming to your church—to know where it is, to think of it as a relaxing and interesting place, to associate it with their own ideology and values, and—just maybe—to pick up a pamphlet about your services, have a conversation with a member, and decide to come on Sunday.

Professional fundraisers know that the biggest donations don’t come out of the blue from Warren Buffett or Bill Gates magically “discovering” your cause. Rather, they come from the people who are committed year in and year out, who originally gave $50 and then gave $100 and then $500, and now are writing five- and six-figure checks. You have to move them up the ladder. Similarly, you want to build a large base of community members who have heard of your church, have been there personally, and think highly of you (“Oh, yeah, they’re the church where I heard that great lecture on health care.”). This is public relations in the broadest sense—creating a cohort of people who, when asked for their recommendation about where to check out church services, will point to you.

Reaching Out to the Media

You’ll notice we haven’t talked at all thus far about the media, and that’s intentional—friends talking to friends is far more powerful. But stories in the media can be helpful for two reasons. First, they sometimes bring in new attendees who are lured by a specific program. Second—and more importantly—media coverage contributes to your long-term brand development. An adage in the world of political campaigns says it takes seven repetitions before someone will even remember a candidate’s name. The same goes with churches. Far more likely than someone seeing an article, clipping it, and joining you the next Sunday is someone reading the article, forgetting about it, and having a dim but vaguely positive recollection when someone mentions you. Another iteration or two and you’ve made the transition from “What did I read about them?” to “I should check them out sometime.”

So how do you make contact with the media? First, you’ll need to assemble a media list—contact information for every outlet that covers your community (daily and weekly papers, local access television, and local radio). Don’t forget relevant blogs or listservs that share your interests and values. If you don’t know the religion reporter’s name, feel free to call the newsroom and ask who the right person is.
Next, reach out. It’s human nature that it’s much harder to ignore people you know personally, so make it hard for them to ignore you. Give them a friendly call when you know they’re not on deadline (for most daily reporters, this would be in the mornings; for weekly newspaper reporters, the best time to call is usually the day their paper comes out). Introduce yourself, confirm that they’re the person who covers the religion/nonprofit beat, and ask them if it’s OK for you to occasionally send them items you believe would be of interest to them (note: it’s their job to report on interesting things, so they won’t say no). Try to confirm when their deadlines are and ask if there are particular types of stories they’re seeking. This will help you shape solid story ideas (known in the news business as “pitches”) that are targeted to their needs and are therefore more likely to get written.

Finally, know what makes for an appealing story. First, it has to be local. Check your paper’s coverage area. The Chicago Tribune usually doesn’t care what happens in Tucson, and similarly, if it’s called the Cambridge Chronicle, don’t bother convincing them to write about your church in Chelsea. Next, it has to be new. Reporters are constantly asked to justify to their editors why something deserves to be in the paper. It’s great that your church is doing an Iraq War vigil, but if your members have been out on the town common every Thursday for the past four and a half years and you’re trying to get coverage now, you’re going to have a hard time explaining why you deserve ink. Look for a hook that is genuinely “of the moment.” Maybe the fifth anniversary of your vigils would be a good time for the paper to look back on the war’s impact on your community.

It also helps if your event or story idea has a human interest angle, such as a profile of a particularly compelling parishioner. Maybe you have a centenarian in your congregation who can share tips for living to one hundred (including the importance of faith and a strong spiritual community), or a mother-daughter team that’s raising money for breast cancer research, or a new associate minister who’s coming to the community with an interesting background (volunteer work in Africa, graduate study in astrophysics, a past career as a minor league ballplayer). Think about stories you find interesting and would be fun for a reporter to write.

Lastly, controversy is the lifeblood of today’s media—and we can leverage it in a positive way to proclaim our values to a wider audience. Hate crime directed at a transgendered person? You can organize a candlelight vigil. Bernard Madoff embezzling billions of dollars? Host a forum on ethical investing. Your city’s administration supporting a coal-fired power plant next to a school? Time to mobilize a petition drive. As in surfing, it’s easier to ride the wave than to try to make your own. When the media is covering a story, they’re looking for follow-up “response” stories—and your congregation (if it moves swiftly) can garner both media attention and a reputation as a forward-thinking, moral force in the community.

Every congregation depends on a base of active, committed members. You can attract new parishioners by clarifying your church’s strengths, building on them to develop interesting programming, and creating an atmosphere where your current members and the media are excited to talk about what you’re doing. Done right, your marketing will take on a life of its own—and you might even get a carload of intrepid explorers driving miles out of their way just to check you out.

Questions for Reflection

  1. How is your congregation currently perceived by the public?
  2. What is the best thing about your congregation?
  3. What’s the most interesting thing about your congregation that most people don’t know?
  4. What community groups could you potentially partner with?
  5. What events could you organize that reflect your congregation’s values?
  6. What media outlets cover your community?
  7. What story ideas about your congregation might be of interest to the media?

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