Twenty-first century church planters may want to imitate the pastor who launched his outreach with an electronic strategy that included a blog, Twitter and Facebook. He was so avid sending Facebook messages to prospective attendees that the network expelled him until he persuaded them that he wasn't selling anything.
Veteran church planter Ed Stetzer shared that story during the opening session of a recent church-planting conference in Louisville, Ky.
"He planned this all out and had 500 people come to his first service because of a Facebook and Twitter strategy," said Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research in Nashville. "I was kind of surprised. The church is doing well."
One reason the former seminary professor thinks the approach worked is people had been checking out the pastor's messages for three months prior to the inaugural service.
"High Touch" Still Alive
"High tech" methods don't necessarily eliminate "high touch," though. Stetzer spelled out numerous ways new churches seek to reach their communities, including forming partnerships with established congregations.
That may lead to a method he favors—hand-addressing envelopes, a task that can be handled by a large congregation. Hundreds of churches have relied on another's members to take a $44 mission trip, or the cost of 100 stamps to mail announcements about the first service.
Large churches can handle 10,000 envelopes at a time. One new congregation enlisted enough partners to send out 80,000 pieces of first-class (never bulk) mail.
Make sure volunteers follow the direction for hand-addressing, Stetzer said, recalling the time someone put the list onto his computer and ran labels. That defeats the purpose of hand-addressed envelopes, which most people are more likely to open.
The most common method of promotion is direct mail of a brochure or announcement. Advertising is another way new churches reach their communities, something that Stetzer said often draws frowns from missional advocates who see that as appealing to consumerism.
However, he said it doesn't have to, recalling the time he responded positively to a telemarketing call because it came at a time he was looking at doing home improvements.
"Ninety-nine people (out of 100) don't like telemarketers, but one guy turns to his wife and says, 'We ought to put siding on the house,'" Stetzer said. "It's the same thing with church plants (advertising). Some guy turns to his wife and says, 'Honey, we ought to get back in church.'"
Among other outreach possibilities he reviewed:
- Telemarketing, generally handled by an outside firm that asks a few questions. When it identifies interested persons, the church follows up with several mailings.
- Newspaper advertising, although he says that usually covers too broad an area, unless it's a community or ethnic newspaper.
- Billboards in a particular area.
Launch is a Big Deal
Promotion is important because the first service, typically called the launch, is a big deal. Stetzer compares it to a store's grand opening, saying it's much easier to get the public to attend the first of anything.
"Getting them to come to the first thing is a key thing and making a big deal about the first day is a big thing," he said.
The best time of year to start a church is the fall, generally between two weeks after Labor Day and mid-October. Stetzer likes it better than the spring. Not long after Easter attendance fades when people return to their "native" church for Mothers Day, followed by summer vacations, he said. While summer is generally a poor time to start a church, he said the exception is a resort area, where vacationers flocking to the area swell the potential attendance pool.