Updated 8/23/2017: This piece has been updated to include more recent research.
According to the Pew Research Center, over 35% of Americans “say” they go to church weekly.
In reality, only about half of those people are actually going to church. Basically, more than 80% of Americans do not prioritize going to church on Sundays. Southern Baptist researcher Thom Rainer drove the point home even further in an article he wrote in 2013 when he predicted that between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will likely close within the year.
So what are some of the reasons for this church decline?
There are many—some attribute it to technology (churches not adapting to the technological advances to reach people), or competition (other things going on during the weekends that are chosen over church).
According to a Barna Group study, the two main reasons that people don’t attend church are because people say they find God elsewhere, or that church is not relevant to them. Millennials say that they opt out of church because of its irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders.
But one important cause for the decline that tends to be overlooked is bad advertising.
How can this be prevented?
Here are some ways that you can improve your church advertising:
1. Identify community groups based on their interests
If the people in your community aren’t thinking about going to church, then they’re probably thinking about doing something else, right? So what is it that they’re thinking about? What gets them excited and drives them to do it? Is it sports? Books? Exercise? Music?
Assemble a group of people at your church—either involved members or members of your staff. Try to get people across multiple demographics including age, gender, profession, personality, etc. Then, come up with different categories of people. Try to make a list of at least a dozen different market segments.
Think about how you want to portray the image of your church to the people you’re attracting—you may have to tweak it to make it resonate with the group you’re targeting, but you want to find a way to do that without compromising your message or your beliefs.
For example, The United Methodist Church launched a $20 million campaign aimed at 18- to 34-year olds with a message of “Rethink Church.” The church has done national advertising for years, but this particular campaign is not only aimed specifically at the younger generation, but also attempts to change the image of the church from passive to an active community of believers that “redefines the church as a 24/7 social interaction,” says Rev. Larry Hollon, the general secretary of United Methodist Communications.
2. Discover what people or groups your church can realistically reach
Let’s be honest. You’re not going to be able to reach all of these groups in the same way. Your church is uniquely equipped to reach some of these groups more effectively than others, and that has a lot to do with your church’s personality. Are you very charismatic? Very traditional? Somewhere in between? Pick several groups that you’re strongly interested in attracting, or groups that overlap with the people already attending your church, and then study them—which brings me to step three.
3. Learn what makes those groups tick
Identify what your target community is passionate about—what is it that motivates them to succeed and spend time on their various interests? What are the biggest pain points in their lives?
The problems and/or fears that they have will differ from group to group, and are typically related to what they care about. This will help you to speak to each group at an emotional level—it will help you to convince them that what you are trying to provide for them is what will truly make them happy.
4. Use emotional advertising
With businesses, advertising involves trying to persuade people—and it’s the same with your church. You’re trying to persuade people to attend your services, and to foster their faith. Ads are a way to make a connection with people, and to do that you need to reach them emotionally.
Writer Rae Ann Fera says, “It’s this idea of connecting with the heart over the head. Purchasing seems like a very rational kind of thing, but in fact we don’t make decisions rationally. We make decisions emotionally.”
So, design your advertising campaign around the appropriate emotions that you’ve discovered in your community. Make a promise about the practical benefits they’ll get for taking action. What will your campaign look like? What kind of media will you use? Will it be brochures? YouTube? Online advertising? TV? Facebook?
There are many ways you can go—and that will depend a lot on the type of group you’ve chosen to target. Once you’ve chosen how you want to advertise, study the ways that you’re going to do that. Learn about the advertising method you’ve chosen and how you’re going to start.
5. Target your advertising.
Advertising to the public at large is OK, but you should also think about more ways to really target your marketing. Think about the groups of people that you identified with specific passions and interests—how can you reach them directly?
Facebook lets you run targeted, local ads to connect your message to the passions of your community, and you are only charged when someone clicks.
Other social media websites that allow you to advertise are: LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Many church management software packages integrate with your social media accounts to make this even easier.
If you’re a small church with a tiny budget, you’re probably a bit intimidated by this idea, as you’re thinking about the fact that you’d be competing against national ad agencies to get the attention of local consumers—but don’t worry. What you’re “selling” is the true answer to people’s problems—and that is the real difference.
Want more info on how to up your advertising game?
Know of any other great ways to advertise your church? Add them in the comments below!
And if you’re looking for more tips on promoting your church, check out these other articles: