Thursday, November 29, 2012

Take Your Church Up A Notch For Under $2,500!

Short and sweet: too often churches think they don't have the resources to professionalize aspects of their ministry.  Here are a few things you can do to improve your church for less than $2,500 total.

First, improve your Web site.  We were able to vastly improve our Web site in no time by using Clover (  Their preset designs are clean, image-driven, and appeal to younger eyes.  You edit your site from any browser - no special software needed.  They support Google Analytics, a free tool from Google that lets you get incredibly detailed reports (I can tell you that in the last 30 days my church's site at received 490 unique visitors who saw an average of 4.53 pages and stayed for 3 minutes and 51 seconds).  Even better, your site automatically maps to a version designed for mobile browsers (20% of our hits are now coming from iOS or Android devices).  The startup cost?  Only $1,000, plus $240/year.  So far we've spent $1,240.  (Here's a hint: ask a couple of your shutterbug members to start taking pictures.  Lots of pictures.  Of everything around and in your church - during worship, at social events, crowd shots, solo shots, artsy pictures of objects like chandeliers and stained glass - you'll need a lot of interesting pictures to create an interesting site.)

Second, add a pager system to your nursery.  Parents, especially visitors, are attracted to a secure nursery.  A pager system gives parents the comfort of knowing they can be reached if needed.  We opted for the SmartCall system from HME Wireless ( because it allows sending any one of eight preset text messages.  This way you can communicate with parents for a variety of reasons ("please come" or "diaper need") - the message that sold me was "Baby OK", so if a child is upset when the parents leave, you can inform them that their child has settled down.  The cost of a 12-pager system was just under $1,000.  To make the system work, order nursery labels from  These labels serve as an identifier and a "claim check" for the child.  A pack of sequentially numbered stickers/stubs is $30.  So that adds another $1,030 to what we spent before, bringing us to $2,270.

Third, add parking attendants on busy days.  Unless you have more parking than you ever need, you need to have a crew out there letting people know when the lot is full (so they can drop their passengers) and then directing them toward on-street parking.  This is especially important on Christmas Eve and Easter.  We use volunteer attendants of course, but they are equipped with safety vests (from, $7, Boston Industrial Safety Vest with Reflective Strips - Lime Green) and flashlights with signal cones (also from, $6, Dorcy 41-1482 2D Deluxe Krypton Flashlight with Safety Cone).  We have three sets for a total of $39.  Now we've spent $2,309.

Fourth, use press releases and invite local reporters to your events.  This one costs you nothing.  I participated in a podcast with Chris Walker of a couple of years ago on press releases (link here) - and the beauty is that these are free.  But another simple piece of follow-up is to invite local reporters to your events.  Here is a link to a great article that was just published in a local paper about our Thanksgiving celebration.  Why did the reporter and photographer come?  We asked.  It cost nothing so we're still at $2,309.

Fifth, set up tables and chairs at your coffee hour.  I've said it before and I can't stress it enough.  Provide seating at your coffee hour; don't make it a mostly-standing event.  When people sit, they talk.  When they talk, they connect.  When they connect, they return.  And use large tables, preferably the 60" rounds that seat 8.  Why?  Because people are hesitant to join strangers at a small table, but a large table implicitly invites people to take any empty seat.  So how am I going to spend that last $191 to get us to $2,500?  On a supply of tablecloths.  They can be disposable vinyl tablecloths; buy a stash at a dollar store, replace them frequently.  But a bare table is uninviting.

There you have it.  $2,500 and you have a professional-looking Web site, a more secure nursery that is attractive to young families, provide a better welcome on busy days, free publicity through press coverage, and a better environment for your guests to connect.  There's no reason not to do these things.  Now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Show Your Leaders The Next Level

I guess it's been a while since I had anything to say, but last week I led a trip where we took about 20 leaders and staff from my church, accompanied by several pastors and leaders from other churches, to the Catalyst One Day conference held at the main campus of LCBC Church in Manheim, PA.  The featured speakers were Andy Stanley and Craig Groeschel, leading us on the topic of "Creating a Healthy Church Culture."

In a few days I'll report on the debriefing of my church officers, but my main goal was not the content knowledge imparted by the conference; my main goal for the day was to expose my leaders to the setting of a highly successful church.  Let's face it: few, if any, Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches are top-notch.  My church is doing well by PCUSA standards; we're growing in attendance, giving, and church school.  We've gone from being the 7th-largest church in our presbytery (about 50 churches) to second.  I think we're the best church within a 20-minute drive.  And the problem is that my leaders believe this as well.

This is a problem because we're not competing against other churches.  In Andy Stanley's latest book, Deep and Wide, Andy tells the story of the creation of North Point Community Church.  He simply says this: "When we launched North Point, every other church in Atlanta was competing for the churched people market.  We decided to get into the unchurched people market."

That's the core of the issue: we have to understand that we are competing for the attention of the unchurched.  Yes, we have to strive for quality, but we also have to choose how we ascertain our level of quality.  If we only measure ourselves against churches, then being the best church just means that we can attract members of other churches.  As a church, our competition isn't other churches (hey, we're on the same team) - our competition is leisurely brunches, kids' soccer, a trip to the gym, a picnic in the park.  If you can't imagine why an unchurched person would choose your worship over those activities, then you won't be able to attract them.

But these wildly successful churches have figured it out.  They have worship bands that are rock concert-quality; coffee as good as Starbucks; parking as plentiful as the mall; preachers who could hold your attention if they were reading from the phone book.  Their nurseries make you feel that your child is as secure as a gold bar in Fort Knox.

I needed my leaders to experience the next level, because our target is the unchurched.  I needed my leaders to see that we have to raise our game.  Being a good church among churches is simply not good enough.  It's harder to compete against the best that the world has to offer.  But we have to do it.  We have to succeed at it.  Because attracting the unchurched is what grows the kingdom.

I think the conference accomplished the goal.  Several of my key leaders are expressing that they understand that we need to step it up.  Once we have the will, discerning the way will be easier.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Welcoming Guests: Everyone's Job

Last week I talked about the importance of making coffee hour more inviting by making it less intimate.  This makes it a more accessible space where visitors don't feel they are intruding.  Remember, worship is not a place where people can readily connect with other people.  Coffee hour is generally the first place a visitor has the opportunity to form relationships.

Now I want to address the question of helping people get to coffee hour.  Think of the path from the worship space to the coffee space as a driveway with a "speed bump." Getting people over the "speed bump" is a lot easier if your members are giving guests a helping hand.  Remember, coffee hour is not the be-all and end-all of fellowship, but it is the place where most people start.

We have to turn our people into inviters. I spent my first two years helping our members develop the habit of inviting visitors to coffee hour. How?  Simple.  I made this a part of every committee meeting.  There is no committee for whom this is not their job. At each meeting I spent a few minutes talking up this larger responsibility. I encouraged the "regulars" to change where they usually sit, so that they might meet more new people (newcomers usually sit near exits). I encouraged them to introduce themselves and personally invite visitors to join them for coffee. The point was making sure that every person in any sort of leadership position feels it is her/his job to welcome our guests.  This was not a one-time pitch; it was a sustained message delivered every month for many months.

In our worship space, as with many churches, some paths lead toward coffee hour while some lead toward the parking lot.  I jokingly refer to the latter as "escape routes", and I encourage my leaders to pay particular attention to guests leaving by those doors.  I told my leaders that it's their job to play "goalie" at those doors and keep the guests from getting past them!

Of course this isn't obnoxious.  It's just a simple matter of introducing themselves and inviting them to stay for coffee.  A lot of times the response is "not this week, but perhaps next time."  And that's okay.  It means the person didn't escape unnoticed.  A guest doesn't want to be hounded, but he/she generally would like to be noticed in a subtle way.

Some of my folks worried about possibly offending longtime members if they mistake them for visitors.  My suggestion is that you always put the onus on yourself, not the guest.  Do not ask: "Are you visiting?"  That puts pressure on them.  It is easier to put the implied blame on yourself by saying something like: "I don't believe we've met.  My name is Rich.  Will you join me for a cup of coffee?"  If the person is new, they  will probably then say so: "My name is Jane.  It's my first time here."  But either way, it's an inoffensive way of introducing yourself.

We need to make sure that everyone, especially all of our leaders, sees it as their job to be welcomers.  And you know what?  It changed more than our welcome process; it changed the atmosphere of our church, because an attitude of welcome is contagious. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Is Intimacy the Enemy of Creating Community?

We all strive to have great worship: meaningful, God-honoring, worship with wonderful music and excellent preaching. Yet we also see congregations where this doesn't seem to be enough - congregations where solid worship doesn't translate to increased attendance and participation.

We also know that community formation is a large part of the answer. People don't just come to a church for worship; they come out of longing for both communion with God and with other people. But the problem is not that these churches are stone-cold, unfriendly places. They want to be warm and welcoming, and their church feels like family. Yet I am learning that the "warm, family atmosphere" may actually be detrimental. You see, too much intimacy too quickly can actually be a deterrent.

The first place visitors get to interact with your members is coffee hour.  But many visitors either don't attend or feel uncomfortable when they do.  How do you make your coffee hour more inviting?  There is a simple rule that many smaller congregations forget: when a space feels familiar and intimate to members, it can feel off-putting to visitors, giving them the feeling that they are intruding on a "family" gathering. Ironically, making your coffee hour space less intimate may make it more inviting.

Here are some simple tips:

 1. Use a larger room. A room that "just fits" sends a message that more aren't welcome. Use a room that is comfortably larger than the number of people who attend (without dwarfing them).

 2. Use larger tables. First, make sure you have tables and chairs. Once a person sits down, you're guaranteed a longer discussion and greater connection. But visitors may not sit at a small table with someone they don't know. A large table (seating 8 or more) always says "please join us."

3. Welcome kids without restriction. Nothing attracts families more than welcoming their kids. Yet I see churches where the kids are expected not to mingle in the same area as the adults. Or I see churches with separate (and lesser) snacks for children. Visiting parents want to stay in the same room as their children and they want their kids treated well. (In fact, just as we have "visitor bags" for adults, we have special "visitor bags" for children.)

I've heard the curmudgeonly complaint that kids running in coffee hour might knock over an adult. Well, in 30 years of active church involvement as an adult, I've had coffee knocked out of my hands twice - both by adults.

Making your coffee hour less intimate may actually increase the chances of getting a visitor to go there. And it is there, not in worship, that visitors can actually begin to form the relationships that will keep them coming back. Our coffee hour is now amazing. People come - and stay. And once they come to coffee, I'm pretty sure we'll see them again.

More next week on turning your members into inviters ... in the meantime, I invite your comments and/or questions. What do you do to make it easier for guests to get to your coffee hour?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Start with Wow

I am really enjoying a new book just released by Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers called "Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World."  While the book hasn't made me think "hey, I would never have thought of that," his presentation is clear, simple, and motivating.  It makes me want to redouble my efforts to position both me and my congregation for maximum effectiveness in the online world.

But his very first piece of advice is rooted very firmly in the physical world: "Start with Wow."  He makes a simple point: in order to make an impact we need to 'wow' people.  He then breaks it down very simply.  When someone has an experience of us, that experience can either meet expectations, exceed expectations, or fail to meet expectations.  His point is simple: both failing to meet expectations and meeting expectations are "not wow."  Only exceeding expectations is "wow."

He then gives a mundane example: the lobby experience of someone visiting his company, Thomas Nelson Publishers (Mr. Hyatt is the Chairman of the Board and formerly the CEO).  How can a lobby experience be a wow?  The visitor's name tag could be pre-printed and waiting.  The visitor is called a "guest."  The receptionist offers a choice of water, soda, or freshly-brewed Starbucks coffee.

It made me think: how can we provide "wow" experiences at the church?  How can the greeters create a "wow" experience for a person entering the church?  What would make our coffee hour a "wow" experience for those who stay?  What would give the children "wow" experiences in the Sunday school?

His methodology is so simple: envision it and make a list.  What would it look like to meet a visitor's expectations?  What would it look like to fail to meet expectations?  What would it look like to exceed expectations?  Take that third list and make it happen.

Is it brilliant?  I don't think so.  But it has certainly motivated me.  My next officer meeting will address this simple topic: doing our best to ensure that people who visit our church come away with positive experiences that exceed their expectations.  I'm motivated to start with wow.  And that's just the first section of the book.  I can't wait to get to the rest.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Last night I got into a mini-row after I received a flyer announcing the new Presbyterian Hymnal and I posted my opinion on Facebook that this is a rather antiquated and fruitless endeavor.  But what was more interesting is that my post mentioned the absence of an electronic edition (the flyer didn't mention it) and I received a rather defensive reply from a staffer telling me that indeed such an edition exists.  However, merely having an electronic version of a printed book is not what I mean by "electronic edition", and therein lies the lesson.

Adapting something for a new medium means more than just a straight conversion.  It means approaching the idea from the perspective of the new medium.  An electronic edition of a printed book that basically makes pages readable on your computer is not an advance.  It may be a convenience (just as I love my Kindle), but true eBooks (a few of which are only now beginning to appear) will have features such as dynamic illustrations, not scanned images.

A new hymnal could have been adapted for the technological age by taking advantage of on-demand printing.  You can cost-effectively print books on-demand in quantities of 50 or so.  What church would not order at least 50 copies of a hymnal?  This means that they could have secured the rights to 2000+ hymns, and allowed congregations to choose a manageable subset of them.  Automated cross-referencing would create the indexes, and each congregation could have a wonderfully tailored songbook.  Basic sets of hymns in various genres - traditional, gospel, praise songs, etc. - could have been suggested as starting points for congregations.

Custom print sets is something we already do.  We still use pre-printed offering envelopes.  Every year we send a list of the envelope numbers we use to the company that prints them.  They read the Excel spreadsheet and print those numbers.  An Excel sheet with a list of hymn numbers could easily be the basis for customized hymnals.  But the electronic edition could then have them all - with the capability of printing one-offs for those hymns not in a congregation's printed book.  This would be adapting to the new technological world.

Instead, the denomination remains mired in old thinking, and brought it forward into a new medium.  I've seen this movie before.  My first career - as a software consultant - started before Windows was even invented.  I lived through the era when customers wanted to see their favorite DOS programs ported to Windows.  Some people did just that - made the DOS program run under Windows.  They all died.  Others made true Windows versions of their software.  Those sold.

Where have we made similar mistakes?  What have we merely ported to new media instead of making a true adaptation?  An example that comes to mind is the church newsletter.  Many churches have resorted to emailing their newsletters via PDF in order to save money.  We don't.  Our newsletter PDF is available online, but we still mail hardcopy to everyone.  Why?  Because the newsletter is a low-priority read, and we feel that the odds of someone going back to read a low-priority email are zero.  For most people, an email that isn't answered right away gets lost.  A newsletter lying on a kitchen table has at least a chance of being read.

But beyond that the question is: why monthly?  A monthly newsletter makes sense for printing and mailing.  But for emailing?  Why send the newsletter monthly by email?  Why not chunk it up and send relevant parts of it weekly?  We reinforce our paper newsletter with weekly email blasts to our members reminding them of upcoming events.  Change the frequency and the format to the medium!  Don't slavishly preserve the format and frequency of print into a medium that doesn't demand it.

Worship presents similar challenges.  Too many churches have tried to offer "contemporary" worship that is merely a traditional service with different music.  Contemporary worship has a different ethos - it isn't just less formal, it's less linear in construct.  If you project everything and you aren't bound to a printed page - don't act as if you are. 

The new hymnal (which combines the worst of two worlds: new hymns and old praise songs) and many attempts at contemporary worship are two ways in which Presbyterians and other mainline denominations end up looking like DOS programs in a Windows world.

Don't make the same mistake.  For every new technology or environment, ask yourself a simple question: what would it look like if we designed it from scratch for this modality?  Then go and create that.  That's what it means to do a new thing.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Connected Pastor

I just wanted to mention here that I've started a new blog dedicated to the discussion of technological issues facing pastors and churches.  It can be found here: and I've just put up my opening post.  I hope to cover explicitly technical topics going forward - some of which I've touched on here.  Hope you'll check it out and spread the word.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Execution Is Everything

I've been on a cleaning/organizing kick recently. Going through old church files, I came across a document from 1979 entitled "Church Officers' Retreat: Evangelism." It recounted the tremendous dropoff in worship attendance my church experienced from 1963 to 1979 (from an average of 418 to 160, a drop of over 60%). The report then outlined a series of actions they needed to take to stem the tide.

Most of the ideas were pretty obvious. "We must create a friendly, accepting church." "A way must be found to note visitors." "We need to investigate our relationship with blacks and Hispanics." "Minister to singles." "Explore possible service projects in the community."

Not enough of these things happened. Over the next 15-20 years the decline continued, though it slowed and eventually bottomed-out a few years before I arrived. Today we're still growing, and our average worship attendance is now the highest since about 1974. Why? When I looked at the this 1979 report, it seems that we've actually implemented almost everything on the list. We've achieved a significant level of racial-ethnic diversity. We have a singles group. We are definitely friendly and accepting. We have implemented a variety of community mission projects.

The 1979 report even identified some geographic opportunities, such as noting that there is no other Presbyterian presence to our east/southeast. And sure enough, a huge chunk of our growth is families attending who live southeast of us.

The interesting thing is that we didn't even have an officers' retreat to determine that we should do these things. We just started to do them. We consciously focused on how welcoming we were. We paid special attention to underrepresented populations of all kinds, from ethnic groups to singles. We noticed the lack of churches to our east/southeast and focused our marketing efforts in that direction. And it is working.

Lesson: diagnosis is easy, execution is everything.

I'm amazed at the amount of energy we expend (both in our local churches and in our denomination) creating "study groups" to study our situations, diagnose the problems, and propose solutions. It is an absolute waste of time.

You don't need a retreat to determine what's wrong. You simply need to start fixing what's wrong. You already know what needs to be done. Go and do it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Managing by Actual Data

Now that the holidays have passed, I was reflecting on some of the decisions we made to maximize our impact in Christmas season. This year was interesting, in that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday - something that happens every 5 or 6 years (depending on whether there are one or two intervening leap years), so this will happen again in December 2016. Remember, in the Presbyterian tradition we worship on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day (but we always worship on Sunday).

The previous time it happened was December 2005, and that year we made the erroneous judgment that there would be very sparse attendance on Christmas Day. We were wrong. We didn't exactly need crowd control officers on Christmas - it was actually a little below average for the bulk of the program year - but compared to say, summer attendance, it was really good. It was more than we had any Sunday in July of 2005. The crowd was also a lot of drop-ins, as well as people who decided to sleep early on Christmas Eve and come the next day.

So as we planned this year, we decided to trust the data from 2005, not our instincts. This meant that we asked the choir to come back on Sunday morning after a late evening on Christmas Eve (our late service ends just past midnight) and we had coffee fellowship afterwards, because we guessed that a number of the attendees would be newcomers. We wanted this (hoped for) surfeit of new visitors to have a full worship experience.

We were right. Or should I say, the data were right. We had an attendance experience similar to 2005 - good numbers on Sunday, including an unusual number of visitors. We gave them the best we had - full music, a fresh sermon (not a repeat of Christmas Eve) - and not a holiday skeleton crew.

The lesson is simple: make decisions based on actual data. Our instincts, and those of many in the congregation, continued to be that Christmas Day would be sparse. We were able to adjust our decisions to our reality for two simple reasons: we had acquired data and we acted on the data. How many churches fail to acquire data on every event? We count obsessively. We record what we count. We know how many pounds of corned beef were eaten at the St. Pats dinner; we know how many bagels are eaten at coffee hour.

Also important is that it is our data. Our context is not your context. Our data is not your data. For example, our conjecture is that one factor could be the predominance of Roman Catholicism in our area. So many of our members are former RCs it's amazing (mostly divorced RCs who feel rejected by their church). In Roman Catholicism, Christmas Day is when you worship - it is a holy day of obligation. (This is why Catholic midnight mass begins at midnight while our late service ends at midnight. Their worship is Christmas Day, ours is Christmas Eve.)

If you don't have data of your own, you may be able to learn from ours - but it may be totally off for your ministry context. We're grateful that we record as much data as we do, and in this age of everything being in electronic documents, it's easier than ever to find the records. They don't even have to be particularly well-organized - this is what "search" functions are for. My encouragement to you is to write it down. Save it in a Word document, or software such as Evernote, so you can find it. It may not seem useful at first, but it will.

Acquire the data, study it, trust it. Good decisions are easier to make when they're backed by facts.