Anytime we set out to talk about ways to manage church members’ information, targeted advertising, or other efforts to use technology in outreach, we need to start from the right perspective. None of our cleverness, targeting, or planning can make the Gospel more effective—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not ours. What we’re seeking to do with communication, advertising, and technology is to remove barriers to people hearing the Gospel and to ensure that God’s Word is able to speak as clearly as possible to those who need to hear it. This month and for the next several months, we will be looking not at efficacy, but at clarity and removing noise from our communications.
Defining the Pipeline Stages
For purposes of this discussion, we’ll look at three stages of church membership. These are not the only stages, and they’re not universal experiences of all people everywhere. It’s a convenient framework for examining how steps along the way can benefit from different approaches and information flows. Your mileage will vary. This month, we’ll consider prospects.
Prospects are people who live in your neighborhood or are in some way connected to your church through friends or family. They might have attended a worship service or an event or two but generally don’t think of themselves as a part of your church. They sometimes go there, but they don’t belong there, at least in their own minds.
In future months, we’ll look at the new-member process and some effective ways to communicate with longer term members, particularly as we start to explore communication around development and fundraising campaigns.
Beginning at the Beginning …
There are several pieces of information that any church management software should help you store right out of the box. If yours doesn’t, then you’ve got bad software or (more likely) bad training. Take the time to learn to use your tools.
First, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to track how people first encounter your church. You could do the standard “Where did you hear about us?” survey, but most folks know what those are about and the response rates can vary. Instead, consider tracking this as best as you can organically. If you encounter them through a church presence at a community event, tag them based on that event. If they randomly show up to worship, track that as well. If they came because Bob invited them (Bob invites everyone, you know), then track that too. (And in the advanced class, we’ll note that Bob’s got a relationship with this person.) The point is to know where nonmembers are intersecting with the life of your church so that you can be intentional about how you communicate and engage those times and places. If you’re blessed to have a place where much of your Sunday morning attendance is visitors coming through organically (without being invited by someone who’s already affiliated), then you want to take some extra time on a Sunday morning to be clear on things like restroom locations, children’s programs, communion policies, and so forth. (Resist the temptation to do a “seeker sensitive” service. All these efforts generally do is tell seekers that you’re trying too hard to be relevant—which means you’re not relevant.)
Second, note what your prospects are interested in so that you communicate with them only about the things they need to hear. For example, the young couple with no kids probably doesn’t want the children’s ministry announcements or the seniors’ group schedule, but they might be interested in the choir or in other events. Take a look at your church culture and your communication groups, and determine how to filter your audiences down to target the people who are interested in each message. Then, give visitors and prospects the ability to receive the information that’s relevant to them, preferably by intentionally opting in to receive those communications. (See our blog on privacy for the reasoning here.)
Finally, consider flags for any special needs that the congregation should be aware of when caring for this person. Is she allergic to peanuts? gluten free? deathly afraid of clowns? Probably not the person to invite to the Bread and Circus Extravaganza you were thinking of planning. (Please don’t.) Remember to double check the security on those fields so that personal information is kept appropriately private, and be sure of any local or state laws governing the storage of health information before adding it to the system.
Small Touches Matter
Your CMS should allow pastors and other church staff to log contacts with prospects as well as members. If the vicar has a great conversation with someone about a mutual interest in the 1996–98 Detroit Red Wings (#WelcomeHomeSteve!), then there should be a place where those notes can be made, and—particularly in very large parishes—where those notes can be referenced before the next visit. (That’s a trivial example, of course, but knowing that a shut-in is unable to eat or drink safely makes a difference on a communion visit. Notes are a must!)
These small notes and touches help reveal opportunities to increase your church’s presence in your prospects’ lives, but be careful about making things too artificial. For example, if you know that a member’s son is competing in a local hockey tournament, it’s awesome to keep an eye out for them if you’re going to be there anyway. If you’re the terrible sort of person who doesn’t like hockey though, showing up just to intentionally seek them out starts to push that limit into manipulation and artifice.
Look for Patterns, but Keep It Natural
That last example is a case in point for balancing these systems. Make the notes, be aware of the needs and interests, and track anything you can learn about people who are showing interest in becoming a part of your community, but don’t seek to manipulate the circumstances to create what isn’t there organically. You can’t manage that for everyone you’d like to, and even if you did, it’s ultimately artificial and ineffective. Be who you are, and let your congregational community be who it authentically is. In a healthy community, these connections will happen naturally, but the communication tools can help cut through the noise to see patterns and enable communication to be heard effectively.
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