It’s time to crank up the new season. As the new church year approaches, church leaders begin to roll out varied efforts to entice the unchurched to fill the pews.
Churches across the country use all kinds of back-to-church lures: special events, comedy concerts, giveaways, fish frys, and creative advertising.
But do these efforts work? Well, these techniques seem to tempt some people to check out a church. The trouble is, once they come, too many never return.
Organizers of a national back-to-church Sunday effort report that participating churches reported a 25 percent bump in the designated back-to-church Sunday attendance after last year’s marketing campaign.
But we know that most churches in North America continue to see flat or declining overall attendance.
Often, it’s a case of bait-and-switch. People are seduced with the candy of a special enticement, but when they come to the main course they’re fed the same old spinach they remember from their childhood. (Yes, I know you may say the spinach is good for them. But it doesn’t matter if they won’t eat it.)
There’s a back-to-church video circulating that utilizes a catchy rap featuring various cool pastor figures urging “everybody in the nation, find a location” for Back-to-Church Sunday.
This pastor rap is very well-written and performed. It’s funny, engaging, and makes today’s churches look friendly and inviting. And it may very well succeed in tempting some people to try out a church in their neighborhood. “If that’s what church is like, I’m in.”
The trouble is, the vibe in much of today’s advertising is too often a total disconnect with the “product” on Sunday morning. And, ultimately, the population develops a sour perception of an entity that advertises one thing and delivers another. To them, it’s one more example of church people’s hypocrisy.
I love the concept of using creative, fun, engaging, relational, and friendly methods to encourage people to consider participating in a church. But, if we wish to be truly effective, we can’t neglect the harder work of providing a truly meaningful experience that is worthy of the advertising.
The United Church of Canada invested in a five-year, $10.5 million campaign to change the public’s perceptions. Keith Howard, the executive director of the effort, said, “The ultimate goal was to try to alter the perception of church as a place that was all about telling, control, and exclusion.”
So, Howard and his team created an edgy national advertising campaign and an accompanying discussion-oriented website, WonderCafe.ca. The advertising and website generated a huge response. A leading nationally-circulated newspaper, The Globe and Mail, ran a front-page story on the campaign. The Wonder Cafe website crashed under the deluge of visitors. The population became enthralled with the lively discussion of intriguing spiritual issues.
As a result, some people did indeed visit their local United Church. But, the leaders and the members of these congregations were often unprepared for the young adults who came seeking the kind of engagement they found on the website and in the ads.
Howard explained that today’s cultural climate is all about relationship. The people who were hooked by Wonder Cafe came looking for authentic relationship at the church. But those in the church “simply didn’t know how to talk to these people,” he said. “There is a distinct difference between being friendly and being hospitable.” He explained that people may find a form of “friendliness” in the employees at 7-11 or McDonald’s–or the churches. But the true hospitality that people crave is lacking. So the young church visitors didn’t stick.
The Canadians commissioned in-depth research to determine why people are not returning to church. The study found that people viewed the church as arrogant, judgmental and unwilling to listen. “We are the reason people don’t come to church,” Howard said. Now he encourages his churches to build ministry through relationships, learn authentic hospitality, “tell” less and listen more, and provide prime time for people to share their own faith stories.
If we want people to come back to church–not just for “catch and release”–we need to work on what they’ll find inside.