People want intimacy, and your church is ready to start small groups. A natural fit! But how do you connect the yearning of the public with the opportunity of your ministry?
Let's imagine you have a mission to connect with seekers and mature disciples. You have appointed a great small-group leadership trainer, and you have trained some terrific small-group leaders. Some of the groups may be based on a curriculum, some may be based on a common interest—but none of the groups have attracted much attention. How do you get the word out?
The very nature of small-groups ministry means that traditional church advertising won't work. The last things you want to do are:
- Put a sign-up sheet on the back wall of the sanctuary
- Build an information booth in the center of the refreshment hall
- Offer a phone number in the newsletter
- Advertise in the newspaper
- Attach flyers to car windows in the mall parking lot
You can't communicate intimacy through mass media distribution, and you can't arouse interest with generic lists of intriguing topics.
Wise churches are getting the attention of marginal members and community seekers in three basic ways. These all require some serious research into the lifestyle segments that dominate your primary mission field (based on the average distance people drive to work and shop). This research will tell you media preferences, recreation venues, topics of special interest, and even the kind of retail shopping and restaurants various publics frequent.
Once you've done the research, do the following three things.
The most effective personal invitation happens between people of similar lifestyles. Don't expect an affluent, married empty-nester with a passion for golf and a taste for Starbucks to get very far inviting a struggling, single 20-something with a passion for extreme sports and a taste for beer to a small group. Even if the affinity is on target, the trust gap will rarely be bridged. Men invite men; women invite women; teens invite teens; and keep going with almost any imaginable demographic.
Maybe your church does not reflect the demographic diversity of your zip code, and maybe you're wondering how anyone in your church can make a personal invitation to people who are so different. Fortunately, personal invitation is like the game of dominoes. Every piece has two numbers, and every person has at least two sides to their identity. Match one side of your identity to that of a seeker, who has yet another side to their identity, and they match that to another seeker, and so on. If you have ever played the game of dominoes, you know that the chain of connections wiggles all over the table, configures in strange shapes, and follows unexpected directions.
That's what happens when small groups grow through personal invitation. Let the personal invitations direct the flow of small-group multiplication. Don't expect small groups to conform to prearranged plans.
Every lifestyle segment (and all the micro-cultures that explode like popcorn in your mission field) has particular places where they gather. These gathering places may be in cyberspace—and you can certainly take advantage of advertising your small groups in the websites, chat rooms, forums, and facebooks that they frequent. Or you can just twitter.
However, most lifestyle segments still have physical places where they tend to gather: certain kinds of restaurants, entertainment centers, sports venues, continuing education opportunities, fitness and health care centers, and elsewhere. That is where you post flyers, hand out brochures, and especially station real live people who can hang out and talk with peers.
Notice that smart advertisers for consumer produces similarly identify these micro-targets for posters, billboards, videos, and freebies in order to sell products that are considered "trendy" by that particular lifestyle group. They may even spend money to co-sponsor events, lifting the profile of their company (church?) and its relevance.
When you deploy people to hang out, have them model the values and beliefs of your church, and engage people in conversation—but be sure they actually fit in and enjoy being there. It's not a chore. It's a blast! People are only attracted to other people when those people are enjoying themselves.
There is already an underground communication network in every neighborhood, town, or city. These are people who regularly connect with each other because they share particular hobbies or interests; or because they are committed to common service projects; or because they share specific health care concerns or are supporting each other to overcome addictions and disabilities. If you have topical small groups that intersect with these networks, then you need to contact clubs, social services, hospitals, and health care centers and ask them to pass along your small-group opportunities. Be sure to demonstrate your trustworthiness by revealing your core values and positive beliefs.
We have said it many times in small-groups ministry, but since we so often miss the point it bears repeating. Small groups are about relationships first, and topics second. It is less important for many people to attend a curriculum or affinity group for people in general, and more important for them to attend a group specifically for people like me. Topics are one thing, but being with the right group to talk about them is even more important.
Make It Quick
Once you know who, how, and where to communicate, perhaps the greatest challenge for churches seeking to spread the word about small group opportunities is what to say. Most churches overestimate the available time for communication. You don't have time for an explanation. You only have time for a data burst. The attention span may only be a byte measured in a few seconds.
So, what are the most important things to communicate?
- The Benefit. People need to know instantly why this opportunity is a blessing not to be missed. What's in it for them? What beneficial change will occur? How will it improve their lives tomorrow?
- The Environment. People need to know if the ambience of the conversation suits their lifestyle. Where will it happen? What kind of atmosphere will there be? How will it engage all five senses?
- The Timeline. People need to know when it will happen and how long it will take. Time is their most important possession, and you want some. Will it be at the right time and last just long enough?
- The Leader. People need to know if the leader is credible. It's not about name, title, office, or educational degrees. It's about experience, spirituality, and trustworthiness. Who is the leader?
These four things need to be delivered within seconds—and delivered clearly, concisely, and honestly. Don't waste a lot of time informing people about the sponsoring church, or the denominational affiliation, or the published curriculum, or extra perks. Just give them a hyperlink and they can look it up.
That's another thing to remember: Your website backs up the data burst. If people are intrigued enough to learn more, the first thing they want to read are endorsements from former users.
Borrow the strategy from Amazon.com. Whenever they list a book, they sort out all the reader responses to provide the "Most Helpful Favorable Review" and "Most Helpful Critical Review." Do the same for your small groups using exit interviews or follow-up evaluations. Whether they are favorable or critical, provide the most helpful comments on your website. More than anything else, that may be the clincher for anyone to commit to a small group.
—Tom Bandy is the founder of www.ThrivingChurch.com. Copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.
- What has been our most effective method of "advertising" so far? What has not worked?
- Do we have a strategy for making personal invitations more effective? How can it be improved?
- What can we do to improve the effectiveness of our website when it comes to promoting small groups?