There’s a song we keep singing. It doesn’t rhyme and sounds a bit whiny. The chorus goes like this:
We put it in the newsletter and announced it from the pulpit.
We did a special skit and had it in the bulletin for weeks.
We went to all of that trouble
and only 5 people signed up.
There are variations, but you get the idea. The lyric is discouraging, but the verses are worse.
Maybe this is where we are as a congregation.
No one wants to do anything.
We should just close.
Lay Leader solo:
We were so excited about this, and no one responded.
Why do we even bother?
No one cares.
Yet there is a more helpful way to interpret the truth of the chorus. Our hope comes from (God – of course – and) the study of how innovations spread through society. When a new product is introduced into the market the producers understand that they will spend millions of dollars on advertising. They also know that less than 10% of the population will buy the product because of the advertising alone. The rest will decide to purchase it, or not, because of their relationship with someone who bought the product.
Research shows that mass communication informs, but rarely persuades.
What does this mean for the church? It means that bulletin blurbs, slides, e-newsletter articles, and even presentations from the front of the sanctuary all serve one purpose: they inform. A few people will be persuaded to sign up because of the information, but most will need something more. They need to be invited by someone they know.
And one more thing: the smaller the congregation, the more relevant this is. People can keep up with about 50 relationships. If the average attendance in worship is around 50, then folks believe that everyone knows everyone else. If that is true, and we want folks to come to an event or sign up for a thing, then we need to invite them like we know them. This doesn’t mean the pastor, or whoever is doing the announcing, needs to be the one to invite each member personally – but someone needs to. Every congregation has an internal relationship network. We need to learn to use it.
Here's what I mean. This is a true story. A youth director, we’ll call her Christine, makes a plea for helpers for the upcoming VBS. Her goal goes beyond informing people that she is recruiting leaders; she wants them to sign up. Christine does all the normal things: she puts an article in the newsletter, makes announcements, and keeps her blurb in the bulletin for weeks, but only a few of the old standbys respond. She is frustrated and feels undervalued. Then Christine decides to try a new tactic. She stands in the lobby after worship and talks to people she thinks would be great for VBS. She asks them to sign up, and many of them do! She also asks them if they know someone who would be a good VBS helper. If they name someone, Christine asks them to invite that person to help. Everyone knows that VBS takes a lot of volunteers, but the information alone was not persuasive until she made it personal.
Christine’s revised strategy worked! She got all the volunteers she need – with the bonus that the congregation was much more aware and supportive of VBS!
Now, let’s take this a bit further. If this is how it works when we want our folks to respond to an invitation, think how much more applicable it is when we invite our neighbors. The second verse to the song about how no one in the congregation signs up to help is how the neighbors don’t come when we advertise our programs in the community. It may be that folks don’t read community newspapers much anymore, but it could also be that no one from the church reached out to them personally. We rarely remember to use our relationship network in the neighborhood. Congregation members may not know very many neighbors, but hopefully, they do know a few and can get the relational word of mouth moving.
We show love for one another when we invite our fellow members like we not only know them but love them and want to do something with them. We show love for our neighbors when we invite them because we know and love them and want to do something with them as well. If we start to do this, we can learn a new song – less whiney and more upbeat.
If you are curious about the research, check out:
Mann, Alice. 1998. The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations. Bethesda, Md.? Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Rogers, Everett M. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th edition. New York: Free Press.