5 Ways Social Media is Changing How People Join Congregations

With approximately seven-in-ten Americans now using at least one social media site (Pew Internet), faith leaders can’t afford to ignore the impacts of digital culture.

Here are five ways social media is changing the process of connecting with and joining congregations.

 1. Visitors do extensive research online

People research congregations and their faith traditions extensively online.

In our digitally oriented culture, if you are going to buy or choose something, or make an important life decision,  you do your homework.

You do a Google or other search. You watch videos, read reviews, and do everything you can to educate yourself so you can make a well-informed decision. People interested in a congregation default to a similar process.

 2. Before visiting, people participate remotely

After their initial research, many people choose to follow the congregation for a time on social media.

Observing and participating remotely through Facebook, Twitter, audio podcasts, and other channels helps to determine if the congregation is a match for them.

Whether it takes weeks, months, or a year, at some point (hopefully) they will learn and experience enough to say, “YES! This is the congregation for me. I belong here.”

3. A higher degree of certainty is required to initiate an onsite visit

This calls us to use social media for more than an outreach.  We need to use it to meet people where they are — online — and to proactively help them with their process.

If we want people to visit,  they need access to information, have questions answered, and receive some affirmation that they are going to fit in.

Once someone is confident that the congregation is likely to be a great match,  then they’ll visit.

4.  High-stakes visits verify the match

After weeks, months, or a year of interacting with a congregation online, it is a big deal to visit onsite and see if people like them.  Will they?  Won’t they?

This isn’t a regular “let me check this place out” visit.  This is the moment of transition from ONLINE participation to ONSITE participation with very high hopes and expectations.

This sort of visitor needs affirmation and to connect with others almost immediately.

5. Visitors need immediate affirmation and connection

How long do you think a visitor will hang around waiting to be affirmed and connect with the community before they give up and leave?

In my trainings, I tell congregational leaders to assume they need to offer this affirmation during the first visit.   Because if you don’t, it may very well be the only visit.

Now everyone’s different and you may have more time, but not much more.  It is essential to affirm visitors quickly and offer clear next steps for connecting with your community.

There are many ways we can use social media and online communications to offer this affirmation and start the connecting process before the visit.  We can start the process online.

These changes create a wide range of challenges and opportunities for congregations.

One of the first things we can do to respond to this cultural shift is to bring more of our core educational content online instead of waiting to educate people after they visit onsite.

Read more in my post Don’t let ANXIETY and UNCERTAINTY keep people from visiting your congregation.

Interested in using social media more effectively to grow your congregation? Enroll in new my online course Church Social Media and Membership Growth.  This is based on my day-long Unitarian Universalist training of the same name. 

Why you aren’t reaching young adults and families with children

The following guest post is by Kelly Mahler, a former 3D artist, SAHM (stay-at-home mother), Unitarian Universalist since 2007, and member of the UU Growth Lab on Facebook.  Thanks for sharing your experience and suggestions, Kelly!   I totally relate as a parent of a young child.  11am? Uh, that’s lunch time!  ~ Peter

While reading the UU Growth lab on Facebook, I came across a post that caught my attention. The question asked was, “How can we more effectively reach out to and involve young adults and families with children as fully participating congregants?”

I don’t often participate in these online discussions, but this topic was something near and dear to me, considering I’m one of those young parents many UU churches refer to. Having been a former board member in my twenties, and now quickly closing in on my thirties (with a toddler in tow), I wanted to share my experience and perspective regarding how my involvement with my own UU church has changed over time and why those changes have happened.

I used to be quite busy at my UU church before my baby came along (even serving on the board for a time). Now I am a stay at home mom to a 19 month old. My attendance and involvement have changed drastically. What are some of the reasons that hold me back from being more involved? Sometimes it can be the little things (like a church not having changing tables in the bathrooms or nursery), but there are other issues as well that sometimes hold me (and other parents) back from being more involved.

1) Service time – our service is 11-12am, with coffee hour right after the service. Back when I had just graduated from college, I loved this time slot. Now with a kid, however, that is a tough time to make. It’s lunch time for many children, and it’s not easy making a kid wait to eat until 1pm (tantrums, anyone?), especially when their nap is usually around noon or 1pm. If the service time were earlier, we could get in and get home for lunch and nap without major headaches. Likewise, we usually don’t attend anything too late in the evenings due to conflicts with bedtime.

2) Lack of confidence in childcare providers. Ours are very nice, but they are a bit young and sometimes the judgment calls they make seem questionable to me (like letting my kid cry the entire hour of service and never coming to retrieve me to settle her down). Perhaps we need more training for our providers on handling issues such as these.

3) Activities, groups, events that I can’t relate to or that are not kid friendly. I don’t want every meeting or event I attend to require that I use the church childcare service. I would much rather have my child be a part of it, and have her see adults modeling good behavior. I realize this is not possible a lot of the time, but perhaps we should be thinking specifically on what kinds of events could be scheduled that would create opportunities for our children to participate.

4) Limited opportunities for staying in the loop when you can’t attend. Even with a newsletter and website, not enough information is communicated outside of the church walls to keep you in the loop – especially if you frequently can’t attend. It’s a compounding problem. The more you miss out, the “further behind” you feel. I wish our services were recorded and available on our website. I wish more info was provided in various communications.

5) No one has asked. It’s not that you are forgotten as a parent in church… but it does sometimes feel like people assume that you won’t be interested or that you are too busy due to having a child. Even if we say that life is busy with our children, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that we aren’t wanting to be asked to help on occasion. ESPECIALLY, if it could be a good fit – something that aligns well with that congregant’s interests or skills.

6) Outdated forms of communication. Email, phone, snail mail… I hardly ever respond to theses kinds of communications – not on purpose, mind you, but it just seems to happen. I wish my church utilized texting more, or could send out texts about things going on (kind of like how businesses do text advertising). This would help keep me in the loop better. I also would prefer if church members/leaders contacted me via Facebook or texts when they want to communicate with me directly. Email is not my preferred method of communication anymore. It seems antiquated.

7) Expecting attendance for planning purposes. I don’t understand why people want to meet in person just to plan things. In most cases, all of the planning can be handled via text, Facebook, Google+, shared Google documents, online chatting, Skype, or Google hangouts. This is so much easier than packing the kids up and all that that entails (or having to arrange for childcare).

8) Finally, there are other “groups” or “communities” doing it better. Namely, a lot of the moms groups out there are doing a better job. The Moms group I’m involved in provides many more opportunities that my child and I can relate to; the kinds of events that my church does not provide. Think playdates, mommy breaks, baby gyms, Funflatables, miniature golf, zoo, etc, as well as community outreach- outreach that doesn’t require us to be separate from our kids. Examples include bake sales, knitting for charity, 5Ks that allow strollers, craft sales, and more. All of it is managed and planned digitally. We don’t meet in person for planning purposes, we do it via text, Facebook, Meetup, and the like.

I have already addressed some of the above issues with my church. Other issues, I regret to say, I have not brought up much, if at all, with fellow congregants or lay leaders. Maybe it’s due to being busy. Maybe it’s due to the inability to make it to many meetings and services. Perhaps it’s the fact that I can so quickly and easily find other support systems and outlets out there via the internet, social networking, and Meetup. Either way, upon writing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that a congregation can’t grow if we don’t speak up about our concerns, and our lay leaders certainly can’t read our minds. We Millenials need to speak up if we want to see changes happening. We can’t expect our churches to always anticipate our needs, our communication styles, or our differences from generation to generation.

I have decided that rather than leave this discussion to the boundaries of the UU Growth Lab and online blogging, it would be worthwhile to send my thoughts onward to the board at my church. I hope they see it as something encouraging – an opportunity for discussion and growth – rather than a critique of “everything that is wrong.” I encourage you to do the same with your own congregation.

It’s your church, too – don’t passively wait for your lay leaders or fellow congregants to anticipate your needs. Rise to the occasion and shape it into the loving, supportive community you envision.

Kelly Mahler

“Young Adults” image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Church Growth Conference – Taunton, MA, October 26-27, 2012

First Parish, Taunton, MA - Exterior

Next month our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Taunton, MA is hosting a growth conference which I hope you will consider sending a team to.

It is Friday, October 26 – Saturday, October 27, 2012.

See Full Details and Online Registration.

Paul Nickerson

Presenting will be my colleague, Paul Nickerson, a senior associate with Griffith Coaching, the leading new church Start and Turnaround Company in the country.  Paul has more than 30 years of experience as a local pastor, judicatory leader and church consultant.

I met Paul in May of 2011 at a New Church Start Boot Camp  he was leading with Jim Griffith, author of Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts.  That training was the best I’ve attended in years!  Now I’m excited to hear Paul’s take on growth, membership and turning congregations around.

Is this a Unitarian Universalist event?

This event is being organized by our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Taunton, MA, will have mostly UU participants, and is being coordinated by the very Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Christana Wille-Mcknight.

Presenting will be Paul Nickerson, who is NOT Unitarian Universalist, which is exactly why I’m going to this event.

Paul has also been kind enough to invite me to speak briefly on congregational social media.  That’s right, can’t have a complete growth conference without a healthy (and fun) dose of social media!


Online registration is now open at http://growthconference.eventbrite.com.  Want to share news of this event with others?  There are sharing buttons at the end of this post. Below you may also find the original event announcement from the Ballou Channing District of the UUA.

I look forward to seeing you in Taunton!
Peter Bowden

Church Turnaround and Growth Conference in Taunton

The First Parish Church in Taunton is sponsoring a growth conference for churches who want to do something new to turn their church around on Friday, October 26 and Saturday October 27.

The conference is being lead by church development consultant, Paul Nickerson. It will introduce new ways of thinking about conducting and employing  new techniques for doing growth work differently. For more information contact Rev. Christana Willey McKnight, minister@firstparishtaunton.org. Register at http://growthconference.eventbrite.com/ Registration fee: $350 group/$125 individual. First Parish Church in Taunton, MA, is located on Church Green (on Route 44).