Data + Technology + Personal Touch = Church Growth

When making church growth decisions, remember that “You” are not “Them.” What annoys “you” might not annoy “them.” What doesn’t work for “you” may work for “them.” | by Don Corder

An old downtown church in a smaller city was one of the biggest in the area with over two thousand members as it entered the new millennium. Over the next ten years, however, attendance declined to between five and six hundred.

The leadership came to realize that people were switching to local churches whose worship services were more contemporary.

The five-member church board called on me to help figure out what to do. They explained, “We can’t stop the traditional worship service altogether. We can’t shut down the choir. Many of the people coming still want the traditional worship style.”

I suggested offering an alternative worship service. I also suggested sending out a survey, but the board said they didn’t want to upset people by asking questions — “someone might get mad,” in other words.

The remedy they came up with, hoping to have the best of both worlds, was to open a new campus on the other side of town. Most of the board members sang in the choir, and all the vocalists liked things the way they were, because they liked to sing.

So, instead of asking around, the church board acted on a hunch informed by its own preferences rather than seeking to gather feedback from surveys and studies. With no input of any kind, they invested a great deal of money in launching a new worship center across town, with a new pastor and a “contemporary service,” which was basically just another way of saying “without the choir.”

The first Sunday of the contemporary service across town, the new worship center was packed. About three hundred church members had chosen to attend the service there, above and beyond a significant number of first-time visitors. Meanwhile, at the traditional service, attendance was around 270 — and 70 of those people were in the choir.

The contemporary campus was an immediate success. It wasn’t long before it separated completely from the original church, where attendance was dwindling. Today, the original church, with its traditional service, is just a remnant of what was once a great community of faith.

You can trace the demise of this great house of worship to the belief held by a few that their preferences were shared by the majority.

The five members of the church board did not understand that they were not “everyone.” To gauge the stance of the majority, you must collect empirical data — a process that requires time, resources, commitment, and skill. Until you look at the empirical evidence, the risk of making a shortsighted decision soars, as does the cost of failure.

Numbers matter. Income matters. Facts matter.

I’ve heard well-meaning ministry leaders say, “Numbers don’t matter; dollars don’t matter; the mission matters.” I have had my faith questioned many times for asking them questions such as, “How do you plan on paying for that?” or, “What if it does not work out the way you think it will?”

Yes, the mission is the most important thing. Yes, we are a people of faith. But I have yet to find a vendor who will accept high ideals and unrelenting faith as payment instead of cash. If you don’t believe me, go ahead, and let an electric bill go unpaid; then see how much of the mission you can accomplish in the dark. Numbers matter. Income matters. Facts matter. And those are several key factors that contribute to the success of the mission.

Let me give you an example of an anecdotal opinion that isn’t supported by empirical evidence. A prevailing opinion shared by most people is that everybody hates telemarketing calls. You probably don’t like them. I know I rarely answer them. Nobody has ever prayed, “Please, God, let my child grow up to be a telemarketer.”

There are even laws to “protect” us from “evil” telemarketing firms. That must mean that our assumption is correct. Right?

Well, let’s examine the empirical evidence. In the United States alone, telemarketing is a $20 billion industry that employs almost 500,000 people. Millions of telemarketing calls are made each day. If “everyone” hates telemarketing calls, then why do companies bother hiring telemarketers? Because people answer their phone and buy whatever it is that’s being sold. Companies hire telemarketing firms because telemarketing works.

The only thing you can be sure of when someone says “no one,” “never,” “everyone,” and other absolutes is that the person speaking is convinced of the truth of what he believes, even if it’s invalid. The church needs leaders who know how to embrace people and their opinions without ignoring the truth. We need to seek empirical evidence.

Communication matters.

A minister in his early twenties named Zach convinced a large church in his town to let him hold a Christian concert in their enormous worship center. I had a desire to help kids in that part of the city, so I decided to help Zach. I called a colleague of mine who owned a telemarketing firm and convinced him to donate five thousand robocalls. Elated, I called Zach.

I gave him what I thought was good news.

“Don, no one listens to robocalls,” he replied. “Every time I get one, I hang up.”

I said, “Zach, I’m trying to help you. These calls, and the list of young Christian concertgoers in the area, are free.”

“Don, you are going to have to get it through your head that the days of growing a church with slick marketing and advertising are over,” Zach told me. “Those old ways just don’t work anymore.”

“How many robocalls did you contract last year?” I asked him. “The reason I ask is because, if the voice on the phone is someone the call recipient recognizes, 50 to 70 percent of recipients will listen to the whole message. If no one listens to robocalls, then who are the 50 to 70 percent who are taking these calls?”

“Hey, I gotta go,” Zach said. “I’ll call you later.”

Guess how well the concert went. He thought that since “everyone” he’d talked to was planning on attending, then it meant a lot of people would attend. He thought that “everyone” was just like him. After a pitiful turnout at the concert, he got discouraged and eventually left town. I never heard from him again.

Communication matters.

The difference isn’t the medium. It’s understanding the people in the pews.

I had great success helping a medium-sized church with a month-long canned food drive to benefit the poor. The team started off pretty adamant that their parishioners would balk if we tried calling and e-mailing them. So, I suggested they try their method for the first three weeks of the food drive and allow me to use mine for the final week.

For three weeks, they did what they always did: put an announcement in the weekly bulletin and had someone mention the food drive from behind the pulpit at every service.

In preparation for the fourth week, I asked the pastor to give me half an hour of his time, during which I recorded a one-minute video and then a one-minute audio of him saying, “This is Pastor Joe. On this last Sunday of the food drive, it would be a big help if you could go to your pantry right now and put a few cans of food next to your front door, so you don’t forget to bring them to church on Sunday.”

I sent an e-mail of the video, as well as a robocall of the audio recording, to the entire congregation the day before the final day of the drive. That Sunday, thirty cans of food were brought for every single can raised in the three previous weeks combined. And, church attendance was up that day, to boot!

The difference was not just in the medium; the difference was in understanding that the people in the pews, for the most part, are never anywhere near as informed or connected as the people on the platform and behind the pulpit, who are usually responsible for conveying the information multiple times and therefore become very familiar with it.

Now, when the average person in the pews heard the message about the food drive during a worship service, he probably approved of the idea of a food drive and even intended to bring some food. The disconnect happened for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Some people didn’t hear the message at all.
  2. Only a few people heard the message more than once.
  3. Many people who intended to bring canned food simply forgot.

Thus, the last-minute robocall and e-mail with a message from the pastor reminding people to “act now” prompted a much more positive response.

We delivered a message to “them” that was much different from the one we would have delivered if we were informing only ourselves. It’s the most basic rule of direct marketing: You are not them.

Never assume “they” think what you think.

We have to recognize the realities outside our own paradigms. Acting on our own opinions and feelings alone is novice behavior, at best; at worst, quite frankly, it’s sheer laziness.

Sometimes, common sense is the most uncommon thing around. No one person, uniquely and individually crafted by God, is “average.” It takes a bunch of people added together to come up with an average.

If you want to succeed, remember this key principle: You are not “them.” Never assume “they” think what you think.

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