As a leader of the church, are you bringing the best you can into your initiatives to reach people? Church growth strategies are a difficult conversation. Often what prevents it from happening is discomfort with speaking of church ministry in marketplace terms.
Blue Van Dyke, executive pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley, used to work in the automobile industry. Using professional marketing strategies, he became quite accomplished in sales. He later asked: “How is it that we are leveraging these [practices and technologies] to put somebody in a luxury car they probably don’t need, but I’m not using these same tools to bring somebody to Christ?” And Christ is something people need infinitely more than luxury vehicles.
While church leaders rightly have misgivings about terming the Gospel as a product—to be bought or sold—many churches have found that corporate growth strategies can be effective at opening the door on Sunday to many people who would not have come otherwise. “Let’s be unashamed about looking at these best practices,” affirms Dyke. “Let’s just apply them to an industry that matters.”
1. The Marketing Funnel
The marketing funnel is a consumer-focused marketing model used by some of the fastest-growing corporations. It’s one of the most commonplace growth strategies. It illustrates the customer’s journey from a total stranger to an advocate. These are the four broad stages:
This is the moment the “customer” is made aware of the existence of a product. For you, this is your church and the gospel. What creates this awareness can be anything benign: A logo on someone’s laptop, a billboard, or a bumper sticker.
We can agree these little adverts do not accomplish much. Still, they are a critical first step. This stage should not be confused with real ministry. “We have no misconceptions,” says Dyke. “We don’t expect that when somebody sees our bumper sticker we’re bringing them to Christ.” The immediate goal here is not to convert or evangelize (though that is the ultimate goal). It is to let people know you are there.
In business terms, this is when a customer expresses interest in a product. In church terms, this is when people are entertaining (at varying levels of seriousness) the notion of checking you out. Reports show that the average person will click through over a dozen websites before deciding to visit. It is critical for this strategy that you establish an inviting presence online (remember to include your website address on all your paraphernalia).
This stage has numerous phases. In brief, it starts with the first visit. The temptation here is to think that because someone has expressed interest by visiting, then they are committed and ready to be pressed for membership. At least, that was the struggle for former-car-salesman-turned-executive-pastor Dyke. “We were treating their first-time visit like they’d just bought the car,” he says, reflectively. “They were just doing a test drive. We were trying to push them into group ministry and serving.” This is the time when real discipleship and ministry begins. Most visitors are advised to attend for six weeks before deciding to leave or stay. A “customer” has completed the conversion stage when they are baptized or have sworn in their membership.
In the marketplace, a customer at this stage would not only be a loyal buyer but also a social advocate for the brand. This may take the form of high reviews or referrals. Such a consumer base can be relied on for support, involvement, and repeat sales. This is the sort of customer every business wants, and it’s the sort of member every church wants. Your work doesn’t end after membership.
You can engage your congregants with a Relationship Management System.
2. The Relationship Management System
“Church is not a place that we just attend. It’s not a restaurant. It’s a community that we belong to,” says Ryan Cameron, executive director at Champions Centre.
To recap, a person has heard about your church, visited the website, attended (ideally) for six weeks, and then become a member. But membership only grafts an individual into the body of Christ. His faith journey is unfinished. There are still places to go and things to do. Participating deeply and actively in the congregation—in two words, engaged discipleship—is essential for a person’s continued spiritual development.
Corporations such as Amazon have methods for grooming a one-time purchaser into a loyal customer (i.e., someone who makes Amazon their first choice for purchases). In other words, corporations have structures in place that increase customer involvement. Similarly, every church has structures in place to deepen discipleship.
Christ’s Church identifies seven milestones following immediately after membership that increase engagement:
- Commit: This means attending services regularly, if not weekly.
- Worship: Be active in the Sunday service, if nothing else.
- Small group: Get involved in one of any number of community groups.
- Give: Start a consistent habit of tithing.
- Share: Invite someone to church.
- Serve: Volunteer your unique skillset to a program or ministry.
- Coach: Instruct and encourage other people who are at a lower stage of engagement.
These are just metrics. They don’t validate your ministry or prove you’re doing the right thing. However, the numbers do tell you how effectively you are doing whatever it is you are doing. “It’s not just a metric,” reminds Cameron. “The metric is here to serve connection with people connecting to Christ.”
3. The Targeted Customer Profile
The Targeted Customer Profile (TCP) is a simple idea that’s been in the marketplace for some time. It begins by creating a persona. This persona is the sort of individual you want in your church, and it is the particular type of individual around whom you will build your marketing campaign. With TCP, you aren’t just selling a product. You’re selling an image.
Christ’s Church of the Valley did their research. They found that when a child was won to Christ, there was a 7–10 percent chance that the rest of the family would follow suit. This jumped to a 20–25 percent chance if the mother was the first to convert. However, if it was the father, then the odds that the rest of the family would also convert skyrocketed to a whopping 85 percent. Christ’s Church decided the best thing to do was to create a ministry and church environment that would appeal the most to unchurched fathers. “We don’t want to minister to one type, we want to minister to everybody,” clarifies Dyke. “But we want to win the whole family.”
Their persona is named Mike Hoss. He is 39 years old, has two children, plays golf, wears PING, works in the business world, and drives an Infiniti. “Everybody on our staff, our key volunteers, they all know Mike Hoss,” Dyke explains. “What it does is it gives them permission to challenge how we’re doing something.” Mike Hoss creates a concrete standard against which every church decision can be judged.
If a section in the program suggests shaking hands or hugging, a staffer can say, “Mike Hoss won’t like that,” and the idea will be scrapped.
If the sanctuary needs to be repainted, and the suggested color is pink, someone can put in, “Mike Hoss doesn’t like pink,” and the team can work together to figure out what Mike will like. “It allows everybody within the organization to understand and be consistent with who it is we are trying to appeal,” says Dyke.“Our men like pink,” quips Lawrence Fudge, executive pastor at Mosaic Alliance.
The TCP is a natural extension of the admission that no church, no matter how traditional or innovative, will reach all groups. “Be honest about it and don’t be ashamed of it,” says Fudge. “We’re not all going to effectively reach the same people.”
Scott Thornton of Life Church tells a story about Erwin Raphael McManus, lead pastor of Mosaic Alliance. McManus asked a crowded room to raise their hands when he named their favorite color. “Blue!” he shouted. A few raised their hands. “Red!” A few others. “Yellow?” At that point, about 20 percent raised their hands—the largest percentage yet. “We are called to build a church full of ‘yellow’ people,” said McManus.
Every church will attract a certain sort of somebody. It might as well be Mike Hoss.
“You’ve got to find your distinctive,” says Thornton. “Find your lane, and run in it. Find your distinctive, and [commission] it for the kingdom.”
We also interviewed the pastors of some of America’s fastest-growing churches to see how they raised attendance and giving.