8 ways to use technology to grow your church

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Any church can grow. It won’t happen just by opening the doors on Sunday and welcoming whoever shows up. Growth isn’t that easy or passive. But growth can happen if leaders are willing to work at it, to use best practices and best tools, and to change whatever gets in their way.

That’s a tall order, of course, because most established institutions struggle with change and resist doing more than the known and the minimum.

Communications technology is critical to growth these days. Leaders need to move beyond their magical-thinking approach to technology. You need more than an improved web site and nominal presence on Facebook. Those are easy, but not effective by themselves. It takes a comprehensive effort: using all available tools, using them in smart ways, and investing the resources to compete with other enterprises in a noisy marketplace. It also takes a “product” that people want. Simply using new tools to sell the same-old thing won’t change the same-old outcome.

Here are eight ways to use technology to grow your church. Use them all. Don’t cherry-pick the ones that sound easy or comfortable or inexpensive. The pieces fit together.

1. The first basic is a good email list. You grow a list one email address at a time. Anytime you do something – host a concert, hold a church fair, or sponsor a booth at a town event – gather email addresses. Give something away, like an iPad, in a raffle where entry is an email address. Always have a pad out for gathering addresses. Your goal is several thousand addresses, in addition to the few hundred on your membership list. Feed the addresses to a powerful mailing application like Mail Chimp. Segment your lists so that you can reach groups with appropriate messages. Manage the addresses and associated data using a powerful customer relationship management tool like Insightly or Salesforce. Flesh out your data as you go, adding name, phone number, postal address, how you connected with them, and tracking the process of your relationship with each person. This is work. Be prepared to invest in a capable person to manage it.

2. The second basic is a good writer. As the saying goes, “content is king.” That includes short pieces like blogs, longer pieces like essays, scripts for videos, captions with photos, and engaging e-letters. If the pastor is a good writer, let that become the “voice” of the congregation.

3. The writer needs to address three audiences: in-house (members), people who know you exist (have some connection), and the community at-large (people who yearn for God but don’t yet know your faith community exists.) The same message won’t work for all three audiences. For the at-large audience, where your future lies, you need to avoid churchy talk and focus on life issues. Create a unique voice or narrative. For people even to open your email, it needs to be about them, not about you. Speak to the issues in their lives as someone who knows and cares, not as the leader of a religious institution.

4. Use social media to create interest in your e-letter, not as an end in itself. Your list needs to grow constantly. A church of 300 members will want an email list of 10,000 names. Drive people to your church’s Facebook page, where they can subscribe to your writings by giving their email address. Don’t be content with “Likes.” You want email addresses. Also drive them to your church’s web site.

5. Your web site should be simple, just a few pages in total, with excellent photos of people, not of buildings, and a focus on “call to action buttons,” such as “See our writings” or “Ask about our mission work.” Each button opens a subscribe form and asks for an email address. If you build your site on SquareSpace or WordPress, you will have way to publish your blog. People rarely find their way to web sites looking for blogs, but you can drive them there by using e-letters and social media posts.

6. Produce videos and documents that members can post online and send to friends. Don’t just place them on your web site. That’s too passive. Push them out yourself, and ask members to do the same. Videos and documents shouldn’t be about the church, but about the issues that concern people, such as parenting and work-family balance. Establish your pastor as a “thought leader” and your congregation as a significant doer of good things.

7. Engage with people by inviting comments on your blogposts and replies to your e-letters. In each message, include a “call to action” button that opens an avenue to engagement, such as making a mission donation (“Buy socks for children!”) and asking a faith question (“What’s your question?”), as well as “What do you think?” Each engagement should get you an email address,
which you enter into your mailing app and CRM app.

8. Some pastors have found messaging effective, especially in reaching youth. Also, Instagram. The challenge remains: generate a response, so that you can reach them again. One-time contacts accomplish little.

By using all of these tools appropriately, you will keep a good “churn” going, bringing your congregation and your pastor’s voice to more and more people. Your main expense will be monthly fees for your mailing app (e.g. MailChimp), your CRM (e.g. Insightly), your web site app (e.g. Squarespace), and whatever “boosting” you do on Facebook (reaching more people by paying, say, $20 for each post you boost). Videos can be amateur efforts. Keep them brief and authentic. Documents won’t cost anything except time. Social media are free.

If you can afford it, I recommend hiring a communications professional to manage this process. You want someone who knows how the pieces fit together, is handy with video, can write effectively, and is diligent in sending and posting.
 

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.

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