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
Churches across the country use all kinds of back-to-church
lures: special events, comedy concerts, giveaways, fish frys, and
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
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
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.