It’s amazing the degree to which outreach strategies rest on a single, and deeply flawed, premise:
That people want what you have to offer.
More often than not, they don’t.
Think of it this way. In any daily paper, there are dozens of ads for new cars. But if you are not in the market for a car, you are not going to notice them. Why? It’s simple. You are not in the market for a car.
So it doesn't matter if one is having a sale, promises a rebate, has a radio on-site broadcast, hangs out balloons, says they’re better than everyone else, promises that they will be different and not harass you or make you bargain over the price, or sends you a brochure in the mail. If you’re not in the market for a car, you’re not in the market for a car.
Or as Seth Godin notes, “The portion of the population that haven’t bought from you … is not waiting for a better mousetrap. They’re not busy considering A, B and C and then waiting for D. No, they’re not in the market. … As a result, smart marketers don’t market to this audience by saying, ‘Hey, ours is better than theirs!’”
It's no different with a church. The vast majority of those who are unchurched are not actively seeking a church home. Further, they are divorced from seeing it as a need in their life, even when they are open to spiritual things and interested in spiritual things. They no longer tie their spiritual interest and longing to the need to find a particular faith, much less a particular church.
If anything, they are anti-church.
So direct mail efforts that offer casual dress and Starbucks coffee, contemporary music and practical messages, are offering cars to those who aren’t in the market for a car. They are simply positioning themselves as an alternative to other churches when the people in question are not interested in church at all.
(Going further, it’s a rather ridiculous pitch. If they want Starbucks coffee, they can just go to Starbucks – why go to a church for it? And casual dress? Contemporary music? These are selling points for a destination? I can stay home and listen to my iPod. Yes, they appreciate these things when they come, but they’re not, in themselves, driving forces to attend.)
Godin is spot-on when he writes, “No, they won’t respond to a better-than-them pitch. Instead, they’re much more likely to respond to a new statement of their problem and a new statement of the solution. Don’t ask them to announce that they were wrong when they decided that they didn’t need a tablet, a survival kit or an anti-impotence drug. Instead, make it easy for them to make a new decision based on new information.”
In other words, find a way to make church, and the message it proclaims, hold value for their life.
Which shouldn’t be hard.
It is the gospel, after all.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker).
“Selling to people who haven’t bought yet,” Seth Godin, April 20, 2012. Read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.