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Focus Christmas outreach on relationships, not gimmicks

By Eric Seiberling

When done incorrectly, church marketing feels misplaced at least and manipulative at worst. People see between 5,000 and 20,000 marketing messages per day. Their email, Facebook feed and mailbox are stuffed with people and advertisers trying to get attention.

Many church "marketing" companies are nothing more than "tactics" machines. They offer customized postcards, a kitschy logo or a pretty brochure. Don't get confused. That isn't marketing. It’s just a tactic.

Is there a better way to connect with people during the Christmas holidays?

Start by remembering that some (but not all) new people who walk through your church doors want to be invisible.

Going to a new church, with its own standards and rituals, is scary. One church leader said, "Every new person that walks in through your door is in crisis." A person coming to a church for the first time may be scared, perhaps in pain (missing something in their life, scared about raising a child for the first time, new to the community or remembering a problem at another church). This may be one reason large churches can do well during the holidays. Because visitors can slip in and out without anyone noticing them, such churches intentionally try to make first visits comfortable for the "non-churched" person.

Start by understanding the community around your church. How do people know you? What fears, uncertainties and doubts do they feel? Do they already know someone connected to the church? Start by understanding their needs during the Christmas season. Then focus on ways to offer something valuable to them or through people they already know.

Offer something of value

Ask a simple question, “During this Christmas season, what ways can we be of value to people not in our church community?” Many people outside the church (and even in it) feel a mixture of emotions during the Christmas season, and very few have to do with our Savior’s birth. Christmas can be exciting, hopeful and full of wonder. It also can inspire fear, dread and depression. Think about how your church can help those in your community to manage the expectations and pressure of the “most wonderful time of the year.”

Think about your outreach program as a series of “dates” leading up to Christmas Eve.

If you are married or are in a serious, committed relationship, you know that it did not happen overnight. You needed to be aware of one another, be introduced and get to know a little bit about one another before going out on a “serious date” or “meeting the family.”

The same is true for Christmas outreach. Think about the progression of a relationship and then consider having your Christmas outreach follow the same path.

Are you acquainted?

Every church has a reputation in a community. It is formed by the way the church building looks and is maintained, the messages on the church sign, the events and causes the congregation sponsors and how the church members act in the community. Do you know your church’s online reputation?

Take the time to understand your church’s reputation, both in the physical and the virtual world. Do people recognize the excellent preschool that shares your building? Are they familiar with the chicken barbecue held every year? Do people know that your congregation helps the poor? Is the church famous for its great music program? The key is to understand your church’s strengths and then to create a series of elements around it leading to Christmas.

Create a series of opportunities to connect during the season

Brainstorm a list of events and activities that are consistent with what your church is known for, offer value to those you are trying to reach and reflect the message of love, hope, joy and grace of Christmas.

For example, people know a church in Cincinnati for the quality of its traditional music. The church focuses on it with a Christmas cantata and caroling in the surrounding community, including shopping malls and downtown. If your church is known for its food, offer FREE dinners and cookie giveaways. Avoid the temptation of selling items, which runs counter to the idea of the gift of Jesus. If your church has people interested in drama, create a public Christmas pageant or walk-through Nativity. If it is prayer, place prayer boxes in local places of business, hold community prayer services for peace and other events to pray for others. Think about how to create a series of events that can lead up to Christmas to create a series of invitational moments.

Planning your outreach efforts around your current strengths and reputation makes it feel authentic and not a manipulation of people to get them to engage with your church. It also helps the people in your church feel comfortable because they are already good at what you plan to do.

Start with an invitation from people they know

While some people may just walk up to a stranger and ask them out, more often than not, someone introduced them. The same is true for church. About 70 to 75 percent of all people who start coming to church responded to a personal invitation. It may take three or four invitations, but it works.

Here are some ways to invite people to your Christmas outreach events:

  • Provide members with physical invitations. Create invitations members can hand to their friends. While the invitation can list all of the events, creating invitations for each event enables people to invite their neighbors and friends to multiple events without seeming pushy.
  • Use Facebook to spread the word. Enlist a social media team to replicate the invitations on Facebook and encourage people to “like” and “share” the event on their own Facebook pages.
  • Text message provides timely reminders. Create a set of text messages that individuals can use to invite their friends to the event. They can be especially effective during the week of the event.

Follow up with people who attend your events

At the events, tell people about other events at the church and invite them to the Christmas Eve service. Provide a response card for them to request more information about the church or get reminders about other church events. Create a way for them to respond at the event.

If you have contact information, send a handwritten thank-you note. Avoid overlooking people in need by letting them know that you appreciate their attendance and would love to pray for them and see them again. Remind them of the next event and provide a way for them to get more information by phone, email, text or Web.

Be patient and persistent

Outreach at any time of the year takes time, patience and persistence. It requires everyone at the church to be engaged and willing to invite others so the community can become acquainted with the church. It takes effort to execute events with excellence and to create a relationship with others. It requires sacrifice out of love. In the end, isn’t this what Christmas is all about?