I recently taught at Kenyon Institute’s writing seminar for religious professionals.
Most of the work was about writing well: effective essays, blogs, op-eds, social media posts. But the name of the seminar was “Beyond Walls,” and that shaped everything.
The work of the religious professional must look “beyond the walls” of the church, beyond the comfortable conversations we have with people we know, beyond in-house concerns, beyond the shared language of our years together. The same is true of all our ministries — from mission to worship to education to pastoral care.
To engage with the larger world beyond our walls, we can’t just send more people our latest in-house, inward-facing conversations. We need to address the needs, concerns, yearnings, questions and personalities of that larger world. Just announcing our worship schedule won’t do it. Nor will broadcasting our latest budget, fundraising needs, internal conflicts and changes in leadership.
We have two audiences beyond our walls. One is composed of people who know our church exists but aren’t actual constituents. They send their children to our preschool or athletic program. They attend concerts, rummage sales, Christmas fairs. If we could get their email addresses, we could send an email that they probably would open. But, not an email about Sunday worship. Rather, an email speaking to a need we know they have, such as choosing a preschool, balancing work and family time or navigating the many agencies that pertain to retirement years.
This message must come from the pastor, speaking personally and not as head of an institution. The pastor needs to establish him/herself as a thought leader, a wise guide whose words can be trusted. The message should include a “call to action,” such as downloading a new guide for parents or agreeing to bring 10 pairs of socks by the church for a mission project.
The second audience is composed of the vast majority who don’t know we exist. This audience is profoundly different from us: more racially diverse, younger, less affluent, probably less educated. They are hungry for God, but not for religion. If they have any impression of church, it is probably a negative one.
We can’t “talk church” to them. We can show an interest in their lives, invite their comments about issues of the day, give them information on community matters and, again, establish the pastor as a thought leader and trustworthy guide.
This awareness of “three audiences” — in-house, prospects, at-large — should carry over to everything we do. It starts in communications, because that is our way of reaching people we don’t know. But it shapes our mission work, our awareness of needs and our sense of ourselves.
The starting point is gathering thousands of email addresses outside our walls. That means having booths and raffles at community events, posting on social media in a way that leads people to give us their email address and giving things away in exchange for email addresses.
Lists must be built one name at a time. It takes work. But unless we do that work and thereby reach beyond our walls, we won’t have much of a future.
Tom Ehrich is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.