The cartoon on my office wall says it all. The illustration shows a pastor in the pulpit of a church with just two people sitting in the almost empty pews. The caption appropriately reads: "My sermon this morning is 'Where Have I Failed?'"
You’ve done all the right things. You’ve prayed for God’s blessing, you’ve worked hard and planned a good event, you’ve printed plenty of posters and made announcements in church, but still those apathetic Laodicean members would rather attend lay activities than your program.
What happened to the good old days when people were hungry for truth and thirsty for knowledge, and if you put on an event, they’d be there on time and wide awake?
It’s a myth today to believe that because the planning committee spent hours creating a program, presented the idea, and got full approval and support from the board, that people will attend. The same is true for those who believe that because a donor agreed to back your initiative, everyone will jump on board.
You may, in fact, find a Biblical example that relates to your plight, an explanation for this trend in Christianity Today or Discipleship Journal, or there may even be something in prophecy identifying this phenomenon as a sign of Jesus’ soon return. Whatever it is, let us face the facts and find creative ways to fill your net, starting now.
Too Many Messages
One thing working against you as we enter the 21st century is that life isn't as simple as it used to be. People keep getting busier and busier. Most people have too many demands on their life, too many messages competing for their attention, and they are overwhelmed by the stress it all causes. You have good intentions, you feel called by God to minister, so you’ve planned a free cooking class to teach people how to eat and feed their families healthier meals. Problem is, they just don’t have time. Why do you think people in the United States spent billions of dollars on weight-loss products like Slim-fast shakes (which are supposed to save you time while providing all the nutrients you’d get from taking the time to eat a complete meal), and the number of overweight Americans is still on the rise?
In our minds, when an invitational message comes along (we receive hundreds of messages daily), we immediately weigh our interest against our priorities, and divide it by our time.
Strategies that Build Success
Step One - Create a Shared Vision. Before you plan your next event, whether for a local church, community, or conference, union, or division-level audience, take a survey to find out what the people want. Decide who your target audience is for the event or initiative, and categorize that group into sub-groups called "early adapters" (those who catch most visions immediately and commit without much detail), average consumers (the main group you wish to survey), and "johnny-come-latelys" (the late adapters you almost have to personally transport to your event to get them to attend).
The mistake we sometimes make when planning events is to talk with an early adapter who enthusiastically "endorses" the event or idea, giving a false sense of confidence that "it’s going to be a great success." Talk with more of the people who are slower to support, and even a few of the late adapters. That’s where you’ll really get the pulse of your target audience. Once you decide who you want to reach and learn what they really want, need, and are interested in making a priority, pull together a sample of that group, along with those skilled in planning, organizing, and promoting an event, and discuss ideas.
If you have a vision or idea you’d really like to sell, first encourage others to share their needs and concepts. Then present your idea in a way that fills the commonly identified needs, includes aspects of their ideas, and promotes it as a generally shared vision. When you have consensus from all the people who represent your larger target audience, it’s time to plan your event or move forward with your initiative. Even if you feel called by God to do this and you feel the need to move forward by faith, until you have this kind of support or "buy-in," your efforts are futile for long-term success.
Cases in point: In order to cast His plan of salvation, God began planning long before He acted, by sharing his plan with a man named Abram. Notice He gave Abram a reason to buy in – he identified a need (Abram was childless at the time), offered to make him the father of an entire nation (that way both ideas were included in the vision–Abram would have a legacy; God would have a special people), and planted the seed needed to set His initiative in motion (gave him a son which Abram had to then raise for God).
Thousands of years later when Jesus came to earth, he found a dozen or so early, average, and late adapters, and called each by tapping into their heartfelt needs. He worked to forge a trusting friendship with them, taught them the basics of ministry, and equipped them with the skills they would need to further market His message.
Step Two - Develop a standard image. Often this appears in the form of a logo, fonts, colors, diverse and personable faces and message (theme, motto, mission statement). Use your message in every method, medium, and mode you can find.
Recent NAD Youth Director, Jose Rojas gives a great example about the Walt Disney Company. "They have one message, Disney, and they disseminate it in and on everything you will like," Rojas explains.
Think about it: If you’re a watch person, they’ve got a Disney watch for you. If you’re a tee-shirt person, they’ve got that. Whatever your interest, they’ve printed the Disney message on it, so no matter what you get, you get the message. We must do the same.
When I was the marketing communication coordinator for the Adventist Communication Network, the satellite system of the Adventist Church, we developed colors (blue, gold, white), a logo, a motto ("Bringing the Church Together—One Uplink at a Time"), and a standard look. Then we put it on everything. We started by publishing a monthly newsletter where the logo would appear several times each issue. We put the logo in the bottom right hand corner of the television screen (like all major television networks) to brand our programs. For people who work in an office, we developed a logo-laden note pad.
For pastors and people in churches who scheduled the programs, we created a satellite cartoon calendar, where, you guessed it, every month featured the logo and motto. For those who use pens, we created it. For those who surf the Internet, we created a web site. We created wallet-size logo cards with our toll-free numbers so wherever our users were, they could reach us.
To stand out from exhibitors, and for office parties, we created logo balloons. And, believe it or not, for the rest of us, we ordered Andies mint chocolate candies with logo wrappers. For every show, we followed the same formula and tested it with satellite users and pastors who, because they shared our vision, were almost like adjunct staff members.
Step Three - Promote your event. This is the part most of us do well, but here are a few basics. Refer to your target audience list. Create a list of places where you can find all the people targeted to attend your event. For example, if you want to attract members of your community, you’ll find them patronizing community businesses (bank, grocery store, mall, home, school, etc.).
Next, create appropriate materials to be used in those locations. At the bank and grocery store, you might hang neon flyers. To reach homes, you might send a friendly direct mail letter or e-mail. To reach people at school, you might place an announcement in the faculty newsletter. At the mall, you might have Pathfinders place flyers on each windshield. For the general audience, you might submit calendar information or place an ad in the appropriate newspaper or magazine. To save money, keep a calendar on your web site, develop an e-mail list serve, and advertise on your public access community cable television bulletin board.
Case in point: The Potomac Adventist Book Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, has over time, developed a large mailing list of pastors and customers, and even children, in its vicinity. Now they send them colorful postcards and flyers with coupons and hold events to keep those people coming. They also regularly promote events in the community newspaper and on the major Christian radio stations.
Finally, one of the oldest, yet most effective methods of promotion is still word-of-mouth. Identify the people in your target audience who are "ring-leaders," or have a constituency of their own. If these "leaders" buy in to your vision and plan (sometimes giving them a part in your program helps), they’ll attract "followers" to attend.
Let’s be real. Marketing takes time, money, and energy. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, don’t expect to implement these steps two weeks before your event. Build a foundation for your ministry now and periodically use events to stoke the fire.
Celeste Ryan Blyden is Director of Communication for the Columbia Union Conference.