Thursday, June 23, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 4-Why would visitors find a home with you?

Last week I opined that many of the visitors who voluntarily find their way into your community are most likely "homeless Christians" in search of a home.  These are not random seekers who just "happen" into your place of worship, but are folks on a journey, looking for a home.  So why would they find a home with you?

In my ministry career so far, the congregations I have been a part of have welcomed over 150 new adult members (affirmation of faith, adult converts/baptisms, not including infant baptism) into their community.  Thinking back over these folks, their conversations with me and their reasons for joining, I have come up with a few reasons why these "homeless Christians" found a home with us.  In order of approximate % these are...

1) Invited/Referred by a friend/acquaintance, came here, the worship was good and I was genuinely welcomed (80%):  These folks first darkened the door of our congregation because a friend, relation, former pastor, recommended they worship with us.  After several invitations (some ranging into the 10-15 range or more) they attended and when they attended, the worship was good, the sermons relevant, the music done with quality and ultimately the welcome genuine.  Someone took interest in them, got their name and invited them to return.  On folks like this, if we get their contact info, we have a 60-70% retention rate.  This is frankly the lowest financial cost (but significant personal investment), highest return way of growing.  These folks quickly connected, found ways to contribute and made the church their home.

2) Came by invitation to a youth event, VBS, other outreach event (10%): A lower, but still effective way of inviting folks to be a part of the community. A youth attends an event with another youth, their parents get interested and they connect.  The problem here is, that these are high cost (both financial and time commitment by members) for a much lower return.   In Wisconsin, we grew our VBS from 10-15 students to 70-80 within 3 years.  Great stuff, but ultimately the return of folks who were not DMLC members who became members as a result was fairly small.  Still worth doing, but tough, and in the future they will expect significant programming and events.

The rest are a very small number, but they are...
3) Saw the Pastor at a Public Event: (3-5%)  These folks are interested in finding a church, they go to a public event and see a Pastor praying or speaking and think "I could go to that church."  Of course at the end of the day, this leads back into #1.  If they don't find good worship and genuine preaching and teaching and welcome, they won't stay.

4) Googled "Lutheran Churches", saw your website and decided to visit or moved into the area and was looking for an ELCA congregation: (3-5%)  These folks are looking for a new church home.  They are ELCA Lutherans, they are at home with their worship.  While it needs to be done well, these are really easy folks to make feel at home.  But there are VERY few of them.  So don't count on these folks to build your membership.  They can be great members, but if you don't have #1, even these might not stick around very long.

So assuming that folks would even darken the door of your community, why would visitors find a home with you?

-Quality Worship & Relevant Preaching
-Genuine Welcome and Investment in knowing them
-Attention to their kids, and a connection to the community.
-Reasonable Level of Programming (but within reason, most of us can't afford the showy programming, so don't try to compete when you can't)

Ultimately, the connection to the community is the most important.  It is the driver of visits and that of connection.  If a visitor doesn't make a connection with members or a group within the parish soon, they will quickly drift.  While programming is important, at the end of the deal I think quality worship and preaching is most important in driving return visits.  But ultimately, connections is why visitors will find a home with you.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 3-Visitors, who are they?

So who are those who visit your church?  Who actually darkens the door of a sanctuary these days who isn't a member.  First, a memory...

I was a 22 year old college grad living in Philadelphia during the summer of '99.   I didn't know anyone in Philly, but my company was headquartered there and as such, we spent 3 months at the headquarters learning the culture of the company and how to work Microsoft Excel to the limit. (it was well known that several of our consultants helped Microsoft debug a bunch of their Excel versions)

Being a good ELCA Lutheran, I decided to strike out and attend church one sunny summer morning figuring the place to start was in Mount Airy, the home of the Lutheran School of Theology in Philadelphia.  So I attended worship at the church on the campus there.  Immediately I was recognized as an outsider.  It was clear this community had not had many visitors regularly.  But I was welcomed warmly and invited to worship with them and attend coffee hour etc...  It was a lovely time I had there and I worshiped again with them multiple times.

My question however is, am I a typical visitor to a church, or an anomaly?  At that point I wasn't particularly religious (I was working in finance after all) although I was a committed Lutheran.  So one couldn't call me unchurched, but perhaps I was a homeless Christian?

I have a feeling that many of the folks we have visit our congregations on a Sunday morning are "homeless Christians."  They aren't truly unchurched, frankly the majority of them have religious upbringings and are searching for a new "church home" (ever see that lingo in your visitors brochure?).  I have a feeling, backed up by research from many places, that the majority of visitors in the USA know the story of Jesus, they just haven't, for many reasons, found a place to call "home."    

Over the last few years there has been much hand wringing and self-deprecation in my tribe (the ELCA) about our inability to do evangelism these days.  Frankly, we aren't alone.  The reality is, most of the people who show up on Sunday mornings in your pews aren't unchurched, neophytes to the Gospel.  They have been exposed to the Gospel story, but have either left the church of their home, and become homeless, at some point because of...
1) Age, 20 somethings typically don't do institutions.  They are too mobile, and that is growing into 30 somethings.
2) Experience, they got turned off by some experience, typically of hypocrisy or they found church "boring"
3) Mobility, many Americans move multiple times in their lives due to jobs,family, etc...

These homeless Christians that are visiting you aren't, despite the rhetoric of "seeker sensitive" worship and such, truly unchurched.  Heck, if the Southern Baptists (see previous reference) aren't baptizing the "heathens" in their previous numbers, then who is?  The people visiting?  They are "homeless Christians" looking for a home, probably because they are...
1) Away from home due to a job.
2) Just about to have a baby and think they need a place to raise their kids (or at least get them baptized)
3) Wondering if you truly are welcoming to them despite the fact they are divorced, gay or otherwise marginal.

These are the people who are showing up at your door, wondering if they can come in.  They aren't truly unchurched, they are "homeless" and wondering if your church will provide them refuge.  A place to come to the table of grace and be received.

The communion table as a "soup kitchen" for "homeless Christians."  Is that an acceptably image?  There are many of my Lutheran brethren who would say no.  The table is only for those who have this as their home.  It is a dinner table for a family.  My contention would be, the table is a "soup kitchen," everyone who steps forward gets fed the banquet of grace.  But we must be realistic, those who step forward will probably understand at least partially, what that table means.  It is our job to take them from "homeless" to "home."

So given that, why would they find a home in your church?  That is the next weeks question.  And perhaps we  will now change the rhythm of this series.  Because having identified that most of the folks you will see visiting your church aren't really unchurched, but homeless, how do you reach that growing percentage who don't know the story of the Gospel?  The children of the homeless.

 So in the next three weeks, these are the topics I will address...

1) Why will these folks find a home with you?
2) What about those who truly are unchurched, how do we reach them?
3) Why does evangelism matter in the end?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 2

First off, a shout out to our council who met tonight, had a great meeting in which we spent a good portion of the time around scripture, especially 1 Corinthians 5-7 (how do we live as free people).  Great conversations about mission and ministry, how we use power and how power can be both a positive and negative in community.  

But on to the purpose of the Blog today.  The question that has been posted is...Do signs, advertising, mailers actually work in generating visitors?

My short answer is that I don't know definitively and nobody else can guarantee they know all that much either.  But what I do know is that your local Mega-Church (or wanna-be) is probably spending 15-20x's what you would ever consider to spend on these tools.

These I believe are worth your investment.  Initially expensive, probably costing you $15-30K for a good one, especially if you want it to have an electronic message board.  But the benefits are significant for the 1) self-esteem of a community (nothing is worse than a business/congregation that doesn't announce its presence boldly) and 2) at least make the community aware that you exist.  My congregation in Wisconsin had an unfortunately reality in that our parking lot, not our building, faced the main road in town.  However, by having a good sign, which we could change the message on regularly, at least allowed us to get our message out.  If 3,000 people drove by daily (conservative) that would be almost 100,000 views a year, which drives the cost of the sign down quite quickly.  If you are in a bigger city (as my current parish is) multiply those looks by a factor of 5 or more.

We are currently debating this in our current congregation.  Local phone books will run you into the hundreds of dollars per month for a good placement and ad with more than just your phone number.  Does this generate leads and visits?  Probably not as many as you wish, but then again, some of your local churches must be budgeting $10K a year for their ads.  So I guess they must feel it is worth it and according to this, they are probably right.  However, how much are you paying for each potential visit?  My thesis would be that only those with significant budgets are going to get much bang for their buck there.  They are moving towards the "major buzz" factor of being omnipresent and connecting to those folks the most, moving into other media as well.  I won't even go into radio advertising or tv as most folks I know aren't even thinking about that market.

Direct Mail:
In theory a good idea, yet another tough sell unless you have lots of money to spend.  Every Christmas and Easter I receive a postcard or two from a church in my neighborhood.  Given that the DMA assumes a  less than 2% response rate for a generic mail prospect list, at say $1.50/mailer, you would have to spend $500 dollars just to generate around 5 interests and do those actually visit more than your website?  An anecdotal example would be that on internship we sent out probably 1,000 postcards inviting folks to a free cookout in our organic community garden.  My gut on that day is that our response rate was closer to 0% than 1%.

So at the end of the day, I guess I am most driven to think about costs and also long term impact.  A good sign will last you 10-15 years (unless you are a congregation that assumes you buy something once and never pay for another one, then it will last you 50).  Even at a high initial price tag, that will have a much more visible impact/dollar than either mail or advertising.  

But really nothing replaces relational advertising by your community, inviting others to be a part of their discipleship community, following Jesus.  Walking your immediate neighborhood, getting to know them, their needs, dreams and desires.

Here I am linking a long article that tells you two major things.  1) Advertising isn't a complete waste of money but 2) word of mouth from those who have "bought in" is the best.  You need to somehow generate "buzz" about your congregation to create a "ripple effect" in the community to justify that advertising dollar.  Congregations with big money to spend can do that, create buzz through advertising, but many of us don't have that kind of money.  Facebook is a nice alternative to connecting, but again, you are mostly connecting to your already convinced, the good news is, they can invite others to see.

I would love to have a $30,000 advertising budget for my congregation.  But I know that most of you and we probably won't see that happen anytime soon.  Until we reach a size where that $30,000 isn't justifiably turned into a staff position, generating that one-on-one relationship buzz that is most cost effective, we won't compete in that world.  But we have to generate buzz and visitors.  So now we turn to those who do visit, who are they?  Why are they coming to your church?  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Evangelism Series Blog 1

This is the first in a blog series on Evangelism and the topic of “Who is visiting your church?”  In this first post, I have challenged myself to write a statement on what I believe (currently, subject to change) Evangelism is (and isn’t).  As always, these are my thoughts, relevant to my context, you can certainly add or subtract, but this is what I think.  Initially I challenged myself to do so in less than 750 words, but that was too wordy.  So I lowered it a bit, and even at that, it is too wordy, but here we go…

Evangelism’s root word Evangel means “Good News.”  So Evangelism is simply doing “Good News Work.”  Yet the Evangelical in ELCA not withstanding, Lutheran reticence to identify with such labels is well documented.  Although centered theologically on the Cross and Empty Tomb, the Good News, we aren’t sure about accepting such a label.

Much of this reticence is produced by a culture in which Evangelism/Evangelicalism are fraught with negative meaning and images.  Think crazy street preachers, abortion clinic sign holders, gay funeral protesters, clergy sex/financial scandals, hard sell altar calls, get rich quick theology, etc…   Despite the spectacular size of some “mega-churches”, the overall percentage of American’s attending worship continues to decline.  These mega-parishes preach to the choir and many more are sneaking out the back door.

But it is also well documented that these folks sneak out the back door not because they don’t believe in Jesus or that his teachings aren’t relevant.  Many want to be Christian, the Good News sounds good to them but they struggle with where they belong.  Maybe they have slightly more nuanced views on those “hot button” issues or maybe they just don’t want to be so “loud” a Christian.

How can I and these folks claim the title Evangelical?  I suggest three do’s and don’ts...

Do…equip yourselves and others to live out the good news in word and service, especially in relation to Biblical principals of compassion, stewardship and tithing.  Remember God’s preference for the poor and forgotten, the widow and the alien. (see…the Prophets)

Don’t…equate worldly riches with God’s favor and poverty with God’s wrath.  If you have above average wealth and resources (i.e. above the median income in your county), give thanks and follow Biblical principals of stewardship and tithing.  If you are not, do the same.

Do…equip yourself and others to engage neighbors about faith, but only after asking them about their lives, actually listening and learning their joys and sorrows. (see…Woman at the Well)

Don’t…try to hard sell your neighbors on their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, guilt them into church attendance or threaten them or those they love with hellfire, they will stop talking to you.

Do...worship authentically and excellently.  Preach the Law AND the Gospel.  Connect Sunday to Monday. Sing and dance.  Welcome visitors genuinely and follow up with them!  Have multi-generational education to equip disciples of Jesus.  And DO IT WELL!

Don’t…assume worship style and programs will grow your church.  The folks looking for flashy programs and high performance worship can find it and you probably don’t have the resources to do it or even the calling. 

Obviously these are relevant to some and not to others, but they are guidelines I use in evaluating how “Evangelical” we are being in my context.  Basically they are simply principals of Good News living, of discipleship, and because of that they are hard.  Being Authentic to who you are, your context and choosing to be Excellent in that will cause trouble because it isn’t easy and requires tough decisions, but it is Evangelical. 

Next week… Do signs, advertising, mailers actually work in generating visitors?