Monday, September 12, 2011

"Dude, you should check this out," a model for real world evangelizing.

Over the weekend I was on my church's retreat. Yes, we're a large church and we have one. We rent a YMCA camp.

We do a lot of workshops there. I taught one on Bellydancing (which I'm a relative newbie at) and making weird stuff out of duct tape (which longtime Chalicesseurs will know I'm pretty good at.)

There was also a discussion group with a church committee, part of which became about
growing the church.*

As a group, we seemed collectively nervous about the idea of evangelism. And I get that, because I am too. I've lived in the South, where people coming up to you and inviting you to go to church is a common thing. At the same time, the discussion made me think about how I evangelize other things in my life that I like and appreciate.

Point of fact, sometime last year, my husband and I discovered a kickass Thai restaurant. If you're in the DC area, you probably want to know that this place is called "Elephant Jumps"** I learned about the place at my old job. The owner was my boss' brother-in-law. TheCSO and I first went just to give them some business, but we were blown away with how good it was. It was the best curry I'd ever had, and I love curry. It was cheap, it was delicious and they had some Thai-American fusion dishes so we could even take our friends who view Thai food as gastronomically adventurous. (The ChaliceDad is one of those people.)

It was, in short, everything we wanted in a Thai restaurant. As new restaurants have a something like 50 percent survival rate in a good economy, it was very important to us that this place survive. Like a church, a restaurant must essentially grow to survive, especially in the DC area where lots of people are always moving away.

I used this example, though with less detail, in the discussion at the retreat. I said that theCSO and I made a concerted effort to spread the word about Elephant Jumps. At the same time, we didn't, and at this point I turned to address the guy sitting next to me, an occaisional Chalicesseur (Hi Tom!), and said "We don't say 'I'd like to tell you about my journey of personal growth that has lead me to a really good restaurant."

Everyone laughed, and I did say it in a funny way, but my fundamental point about evangelism was serious. We get so scared of evangelizing, but we do it all the time.

The thing is, I don't know that the type of evangelism that we're afraid of is the kind of evangelism we should be doing in the first place. Elephant Jumps didn't have a "bring a friend" day and theCSO and I never talked to strangers about it directly. I didn't wear a button that, symbolically or literally, said "Ask me about Elephant JUmps."

The owner of Elephant Jumps told us proudly recently that he's thinking of opening up a larger or second location. And, again, they opened in a terrible economy.

Anyway, here are the elements of the model I'm proposing, let's call it the
"Elephant Jumps model of Evangelising."

1. A kickass product.
We have an amazing interim minister. I've always thought this, but I realized how deeply I believed it when someone on facebook was looking for a DC church to visit. I looked up what the service was about and I found myself responding "My minister is preaching about Canada. I know that doesn't SOUND promising, but every service she gives is good."
I've rarely felt comfortable saying that so confidently. Indeed, the last time I've had a minister who was consistently thoughtful and awesome in the pulpit every single Sunday was when I was in Katy-the-Wise's congregation.
Now, I don't kick ass at my job every single day, though goodness knows I try. I assume even our minister has off days, but even if she should have one, our music director is so tremendous that I still feel confident saying "Come to my church and Sunday morning will rock." I don't say that if it's a lay service because we've had some mediocre lay services in the past. Mine may or my not be among their number.
But anyway, our church manages to have consistently awesome preaching, much like Elephant Jumps does consistently amazing things with tilapia.

I couldn't have evangelized about Elephant Jumps if they didn't have amazing food in the first place.

2. Get the word out to your friends.
This should not be an awkward discussion. IMHO, if it is awkward you're doing it wrong. If you had a fabulous meal at Elephant Jumps and someone were talking about good noodle dishes, you'd bring it up, right? Evangelism for church should work the same way. Saying something like "(My minister/this lady at my church/a religious education class I took) made the most fabulous point about that..." at a relevant point in a conversation about spirituality/life/etc is my favorite way to evangelize to friends. Don't make recruitment your goal. Make modeling how a person can be relgious without being a pain about it your goal. Don't go recruiting, but don't hide how much you like your church and how much it enriches your life.

You can invite people to church, of course, but I only do that when I'm pretty sure there's something the person I'm inviting would be specifically interested in and include a social thing with you afterwards. (E.g. "I know religion and homosexuality is something you're interested in. My church is doing a thing on that this Sunday. If you show up, I'll take you to brunch afterwards" or "Doing anything on Friday? I wrote a mystery story and I'm reading it at my church cabaret. Show up and we can go for dirnks afterwards.")

3. Get the word out in an even wider way. \
My first step in getting the word out about Elephant Jumps wasn't even verbal, though I told lots of people about it in the ensuing week or two and have done so in small doses since. My first shoutout about Elephant Jumps was on on Yelp. As I've mentioned here before, I found my first UU church, Katy-the-Wise's, from their website. My latest bit of online evangelism is to tweet about awesome stuff I hear about in church using a hashtag for my church.
The spiffy thing about this is, I have some friends who do things like that too. We've formed what feels to me like the beginnings of an online religious community as we just tweet stuff that is meaningful to us. I love this because honestly having church be somewhere I can "check in" whenever I'm low on spiritual fuel is more important to me than having it as a place to go Sunday morning.***
More importantly, it sends the message "You think I'm cool enough to follow on Twitter, well, here's something I think is cool enough to write about."

Anyway, that's my plan for evangelizing a church. It's what I'm comfortable with, and honestly, it's what I feel would work for me. If I were looking for a church, I'd check it out online**** and when my friend was jazzed about how great his/her church, was, I'd listen.

It's not going on on street corners, but I really do think it could work.


*there were also discussions about stuff like the Middle East, with guys who would be in a position to know. I personally couldn't deal with that at a retreat because my perception is that I start smelling like a horse within minutes of arrival, but I'm delighted that we have these things. One of the badass things about going to a large church is that we've got members who do all sorts of cool stuff for a living. If my church could figure out a way to use its human capital more efficiently, we would be in great shape to actually do awesome things in this world.

**If you know Northern VA and want to get specific, you know that place "Grevey's" in Meriffield near INOVA Fairfax? Same shopping center.

*** I know you may not agree. I do see the value of brick and morter churches, I just find words and ideas churches as valuable if not more so personally.

****Negative reviews online aren't inherently all that offputting to me. That someone would have a bad experience is going to happen. But positive reviews mean a lot to me. I don't yelp about every restaurant, I yelp about the ones that make the experience memorable.


TheCSO said...

This is also known as "Apple evangelism"..

Robin Edgar said...

Problem is CC that, as a religious "product" as it were, your typical Unitarian*Universalist church just isn't all that "kick-ass", far from it in many cases. . .

The "Get the word out to your friends" bit aka word-of-mouth advertising can have a very negative effect if your "product", whatever it may be, kinda sucks and God *does* know that I have seen numerous people getting the word out to their friends and families about how such and such Unitarian Universalist Church sucks ass more than it kicks ass. . .

To paraphrase The CSO's comment this *could* be known as "Lemon Evangelism".

Chalicechick said...

Again, Robin, I don't say "Show up to my church, it will be great" if I don't think that's the case. Right now, I have no bones about saying it because I think it is true of my specific church.

I don't think you've ever seen me go around saying that UUism is for everyone and every Sunday is an amazing and perfect experience at every church. Would that it were, but we're human beings in an imperfect world.

At the same time, I don't think my friends assume that any church where I have a good experience will be fabulous in every way. Similarly, when someone tells me they've had a bad experience somewhere, I don't assume it is awful in every way.

Part of word of mouth is knowing what the source likes and what you like and making your judgment accordingly.


Robin Edgar said...

My main point was that word-of-mouth advertising is a two-edged sword and that negative experiences at U*U churches can, and definitely do, result in "less than flattering" free publicity for the U*U churches in question and The U*U Movement more generally. This negative word-of-mouth advertising can often negate other more positive advertising including expensive advertising campaigns. As I recall the UUA spent millions of dollars on regional and national advertising campaigns while Rev. Bill Sinkford was UUA President yet growth at the national level is not only stagnant but declining. It would be interesting to see if the advertising campaigns were more successful at the local and regional level but I suspect that they were not. If they had been the UUA would most likely not have abandoned its advertising campaigns. . .

Chalicechick said...

Obviously, people who've had bad experiences are going to talk about them, that's nothing new for any faith. My point was just that we should talk about our good experiences as well.

As for the advertising, it doesn't bother me especially when recruitment efforts don't work. I'd rather screw up and learn from it than sit still. I've mentioned before that I've only ever seen one religion commercial that really worked for me and I've probably seen hundreds of relgion commercials.

I'm open to the UUA trying stuff and making mistakes.

And keep in mind, I was raised liberal Presbyterian. The liberal Presbyterians would LOVE to be at stagnant membership or only losing a tiny percentage.


Robin Edgar said...

Apparently you are responding to a follow-up comment that I submitted that you have not published for some reason. Possibly a simple oversight.

It doesn't bother you that the UUA spent several millions of dollars on advertising with little or nothing to show for it? Couldn't those millions of dollars have been better spent on much more useful and productive things that might have indirectly attracted people to U*U churches? What about the existing programs that have been cut back due to the UUA's current financial woes? How many UUA support staff employees have been cut in the last several years?

Most ironically the millions that the UUA spent on advertising over the last decade or so may well have had an overall negative effect if those people who visited U*U churches as a direct result of the advertising campaigns decided that the religious "product" being advertised was something of a lemon and went on to tell their friends and families about their experiences arising from the UUA's misleading advertising. . . It seem to me that those millions of dollars *should* have been spent to improve the product itself rather than publicizing it.

Chalicechick said...

Your comment is up now. sorry about that.

We've had this conversation before, but if you'd like to hear it again, I can tell you again.

No, it doesn't bother me when the UUA does something in an effort to grow the church and it fails, for the reasons I just outlined. To say them again:

1. I'd rather they try things and fail than do nothing.


2. A lot of churches are showing lower numbers. The UUA's are pretty much even. For all we know our comparitive lack of attrition is due to the advertising.

Now, my guess is that "2" is not the case or the UUA would still be advertising, but that 2 cannot be ruled out as a possibility indicates what an inexact science advertising and growth can be.

The UUA hasn't cut much that I especially think we need. The biggest cuts were to the Washington office and I never thought that was a good use of our money.

As far as people going to a church and then telling their friends they wouldn't like it, if someone says "My sister saw an ad and tried out a UU church and didn't like it, so that's all I need to know about that church and that religion" they doesn't sound like someone I'd enjoy having conversations about God and life and the role of humanity with. I like to worship with people who are more spiritually adventurous than that.

Someone unwilling to show up at the church door and make their own decision probably doesn't take religion seriously enough. You will note my suggested evangelism technique isn't about convincing people UUism is for them, it is about getting them there in the first place so they can make that call for themselves.


Robin Edgar said...

:Your comment is up now. sorry about that.

No worries I thought that it was probably just an oversight. Your unsolicited public apology is hereby officially accepted.

:1. I'd rather they try things and fail than do nothing.

That is a false dichotomy as there were other productive things that UUA *could* have done with the money that was spent on seemingly useless advertising.

:For all we know our comparitive lack of attrition is due to the advertising.

As per your guess. This is unlikely. If the campaigns had resulted in real and tangible growth they would not have been abandoned.

:The UUA hasn't cut much that I especially think we need. The biggest cuts were to the Washington office and I never thought that was a good use of our money.

Do you know what 25 Beacon Street staff the UUA has cut CC?

As far as your hypothetical negative word-of-mouth advertising scenarios go I could present some much more realistic ones. . .

"I visited a UU church after seeing one of their ads in TIME magazine and was given the cold shoulder. Even when I said hello to church members they totally ignored me."

"The ads said that UUism is a loving, spiritual community where you can be inspired and encouraged as you search for your own truth and meaning but when I tried to talk openly about my belief in God these cranky atheists attacked my beliefs."

"The ads said 'Nurture Your Spirit. Help Heal Our World' but the UU church I went for a year or so couldn't even heal the wounds that its own leaders and long-time members inflicted on newcomers."

And so on. . .

Chalicechick said...

I have no clue who was cut in Boston and whoever was cut has had pretty much no impact on my worship experience. The only change I have noticed is a lot less of the UUA Washington Office stuff that I thought was a waste anyway.

As far as people making up their minds due to something else, I've decided I didn't like individual UU churches for any number of reasons. I took over a year to pick the UU church in my area that was right for me and the nature of picking one was deciding that I preferred it to the other dozen or so UU churches within reasonable driving distance of me.

The important thing to me is that people know the faith exists and give it a try, even if they don't like the first church they visit. And agian, if they are so little invested in the faith that they don't come back because they weren't greeted at the door of the first church they visited, I don't view them as a great loss.

I realize the ideal is to do everything we can to make UUism welcoming, but the truth of the matter is that liberal religion isn't for chickens. If people not saying "hello," scares you off, are you really up to the spiritual challenges of a religious life lived fully?

I already wrote that I think a person should be having a good experience in a church to evangelize the church. If not, duh, try to fix what's wrong with your church. One advantage that churches have over Thai restaurants is that one can work to improve them from within. One thing churches and Thai restaurants have in common is that there's usually another one down the road, and if there isn't you can always start your own.


Robin Edgar said...

"One thing churches and Thai restaurants have in common is that there's usually another one down the road, and if there isn't you can always start your own."

That applies to churches in general but regrettably it does not apply very well to the "few and far between" churches of The Tiny Declining Fringe Religion™ does it CC? There may well be a "dozen or so UU churches within reasonable driving distance" of you and other people living in major East Coast cities but, elsewhere in the U*U World, churches of the Uncommon Denomination are well. . . rather uncommon. ;-)

Chalicechick said...

Again, if you don't have a church (or Thai restaurant) in your neighborhood that suits your needs, you can start one. It isn't easy, but churches and restaurants are started every year.

If you're right and your old church really has huge problems, people who see the same issue will join you at your new church. A great many UU churches have been started that way, including the first UU church I ever attended.


kimc said...

I had to laugh -- we have left the UU church I have been attending for about 20 years. I think it was a fair trial. We are attending another one in the area, and find it much more friendly.
the attendees are not the religion, in any case.