RESEARCH & VISION
understanding yourself & your community
rose colored glasses...
It can be easy to have a highly optimistic view about community perceptions of your church.
To be fair, many churches are already seen in the most positive light by their communities. Yours is probably among them. For the CMPT, we want to speak more to perceptions that are simply unknown (and even to those impressions that are less than stellar). This will fuel your understanding of the community — which in turn gives the church the opportunity to become a more integral part of your area.
A person’s perception about your church will be based on what s/he sees, hears and knows in combination with her/his background and experiences. In other words, influences beyond your control. These opinions are valuable to your marketing plan as a source of information you can’t get through the online or paper surveys previously mentioned.
As a church leader, you know the kind of impact you want your church to make. Yet that may or may not match the perception held by your congregation and the community. Understanding what your community feels and thinks about your church will help you build a marketing plan that reflects the church's Vision and Core Values in ways that connect with people.
To put a fine point on it, strategy goes toward mobilizing your congregation to meet your goals if your congregation’s perception aligns with your Vision. If the church’s perception does not match the Vision, then strategy goes toward either inspiring your church to own the Vision or even modifying your Vision toward what already excites your congregation.
Discussions in the Community
Though hearing from within the church can yield insights, everyday conversations with people in your community can be eye-openers. More to the point, a brief talk with a local acquaintance could reveal a key perception about your church that members and attenders may be too polite to offer.
Perhaps that quick-yet-incisive chat occurs at the grocery store, at a restaurant, or as you’re shopping for a new pair of khakis. The goal is to learn from voices that are not heard in your church. Furthermore, your church speaks through your people, your building, your communications and any outside groups you partner with. In so many ways, the impressions given by your church coalesce into the perceptions held by your community. Understanding these opinions helps you to identify your church’s strengths and areas for improvement — the sum of which impacts your marketing plan.
This element of the CMPT isn’t meant to make your team members anxious. Understandably, some members will feel more comfortable than others with asking neighbors, friends or even strangers about your church. That’s why this conversational exchange is intended to be brief.
A reasonable goal may be three such conversations for each Marketing Team member in one week. To simplify this, each team member would ask the same three questions in each discussion about perceptions of your church:
- Have you heard about (insert the name of your church)?
- Do you have any impressions about the church?
- Have you heard of any ways in which it serves the community?
Equipped with those short questions, your team can collect useful quotes from a diversity of local residents. These responses may be an interesting contrast to the interviews from your church.
Gaining insights from people who live nearby can give you a perspective you couldn’t get otherwise. Now let’s fuse those conversations with some data to paint a more complete picture.
The first step toward recognizing the services that are lacking for individuals, groups or the entire community is found in your demographics report. With this information, you profit from a wider view on topics such as age, ethnicity, incomes, education, housing and more. This report provides knowledge you’re unlikely to get with the naked eye — and establishes a baseline for understanding where needs are still to be met.
These community needs are opportunities for your congregation to connect people to the hope of Christ while addressing basic human needs or developmental needs. Understanding these needs helps churches to meet people where they are as opposed to creating offerings and messages that we think they would connect with.
Community needs may include:
- Physical needs: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, pregnancy care; perhaps people or groups have a need for meeting or facilities space (gym, library, kids’ areas), after-school care.
- Relational needs: friendship, life purpose/direction, a way to use their time and talents.
- Socioeconomic needs: abuse protection or healing, freedom from addiction, financial advice, marital or parental counseling.
- Circumstantial needs: widowed, divorced, job training, language training, demanding job situation.
Below are examples of how two churches learned of and addressed community needs.
A church in an area with a high number of retired people may assume they should provide medical services or social events for senior adults. A thorough community-needs assessment reveals that the primary need for these senior adults is to feel useful. So the church’s marketing plan features ideas to connect people with local volunteer opportunities and ways to provide support to global efforts.
A church located in a hurricane-prone area has a beautiful building with a long history. Through discussions with community leaders, they learn there is a need for emergency shelter facilities. The church offers their building to be that shelter and hosts hurricane preparation clinics, conducted by the local emergency services.
Note the effect of needs assessments and discussions in both examples. These learning opportunities led to important and effective changes made by these churches to better serve their communities.
As part of your research process, it’s vital to appreciate the role of prayer. When you and the members of the Marketing Team shop, eat at a restaurant, attend community events, etc., pray for God to open your eyes so you may view your community from a new angle.
Gathering of Community Leaders
NOTE: If timing and feasibility become issues, this step is not mandatory. Each Marketing Team should determine the need for meeting with community leaders about perceptions of the church.
What could a local doctor or nurse tell you about your church? What advice would the principal of the elementary school offer about your children’s department? Could the TV news reporter give ideas for publicity?
These are all useful questions. To push this idea further, imagine a gathering of community leaders to discuss perceptions of your church and how you can meet local needs. Perhaps you would come together for one weekday breakfast social (or other meal) at your church. A meeting of community leaders would generate a variety of opinions about your church based on the jobs and life experiences of those who attend the event.
Intrigued? Good. Now, how do you make it happen? We suggest you consider two key elements: 1) hosting the event and 2) who to invite.
Host the Gathering
During the event, the Marketing Team may wish to give a brief overview about the gathering, then ask questions and facilitate the conversation. A member of the Marketing Team should take notes. General questions to ask may include:
- What are the key strengths of our community?
- What are the biggest challenges our community is facing right now?
- What do your invitees know about your church?
- What are ways our church can meet our community's needs?
- If you have an impression about our church, please share your thoughts.
A member of the Marketing Team will prepare a report summarizing key thoughts from the event to distribute to team members in advance of your one-day marketing experience.
Who to Invite
Marketing Team members may wish to divide the guest list into categories such social services and business. The social services group may include government leaders (such as the mayor, city planner, commissioners, head of school board, etc.), members of the educational community, the Chamber of Commerce and local nonprofits. The business group may include owners/managers of firms in health care, retail, food service/restaurants and more. This truly is a case of “the more, the merrier.”
After your team has established the guest list, be sure to craft an email or voicemail invitation that explains the event, requests a response and provides your contact information. Then divide the guest/contact list equally among your Marketing Team members.