Oh, Those Millennials

Millennials—everybody wants ‘em, no one seems to know how to get them.

That’s the major take-away from a newly-released study by Pew Research, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions; Networked with Friends.” So the question for congregations naturally becomes, “How do we reach them”?

Some like Keith Anderson, a Lutheran pastor and digital media maven, see in the report a reason for churches to become more engaged with online social media. He’s become a leading voice in this movement, and has some fascinating ideas on the topic. And I have come to believe that he is basically right. The days of churches hiding within walls that members wish to be epicenters of people’s lives are largely over for much of Protestant America.

But simply shifting to digital ministry, or outside the walls of ministry, isn’t a sure-fire path to restoring religious life in America. (A fact I suspect Keith would agree with.) Because the problem remains—what do you say in this space?


In this new space of communicating, authenticity is everything. People can sniff out individuals and organizations that are using social media becaumillennials unmooredse they want to reach “the younger crowd” in the time it takes to hit re-tweet with a modified comment.

How do you know if you aren’t being “authentic”? Here’s an easy way. Look at your past ten posts/tweets/etc. Read them. Are these 10 items pushing events, making announcements, delivering marketing pitches? If more than two are, your authenticity is in question.

It’s this type of thing that sends Millennials, and others who “get” social media, scurrying.

Hence the Pew Report subtitle, which could well become a working definition of social media: “Detached from Institutions; Networked with Friends.” Social media is all about meaningful networks. And yet, this remains the major criticism of the medium. A charge largely leveled by those who don’t use the tools.  The person who charges, for example, that “nothing meaningful can be said in 140 characters” fails to realize that good twitter communications are long series of 140 character statements among two or more users—i.e., conversations.

Almost by definition, institutions have a hard time interacting this way. Not that they don’t try—and largely fail (i.e., far too many are not authentic in their communications or spend all their time “pushing” information out and bragging about themselves).

Confused, or Clear-eyed?

Gone among the Millennials may well be the belief that institutions are the arbiters of what is right. Some see this as a sign of Millennial self-centeredness. But I have a different take. I see Millennials as bold people constructing meaning out of the world they live in—not the world filtered through an authority figure(s). This takes courage, as the world they discover is not clean and logical, but messy, full of injustice and right, pain and pleasure, faith and faithlessness.

And it’s a view that is growing. Looking at growth trends, older Americans are the fastest growing groups of people embracing Twitter and Facebook. They trail the Millennials in total adoption rates, to be sure, but the growth trends among those 40, 50, 60 and over adopting these tools is clear.

A story in The Atlantic describes Millennials as “Deeply confused about … politics, finances and culture.” As the story says, “They’re always connected but distrustful. They’re selfish yet accepting of minorities. They’re “independents” who mostly vote Democratic and love Obama while hating Obamacare.”

Confused? Or facing the world head-on? Social media has created a generation that must face the world head-on. There is no place to hide. And older adults, who learned this lesson the hard way, are coming to find the same value in the tools.

Savior Social Media

To take this information from Pew Research as ammunition to integrate social media into your church marketing efforts is to misread it entirely. Social media is no savior. It’s a social gathering place.

Forget marketing. Embrace the conversation.

That is the path to the Millennials. Not a path that will lead them to your door, necessarily, but a path that will pull you out of yours.

Sacred Language Communications specializes in helping faith communities improve their communications through social media. To learn more, contact us directly.


A New Way to Market Your Church

Perhaps the best line ever voiced about social media was never said of social media at all. It’s spoken by the no-nonsense Captain in the classic 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke.

There’s a grand failure to communicate when it comes to social media, because the vast majority of users in the church–and elsewhere–continue to think of social media tools as a way to market themselves to the world.

A Frontline piece last week will forever change your opinion about this.

Inverting the Funnel

Generation Like explores the inversion of marketing that social media has wrought. (If that sentence turns your theological ears on end, hang with me. It all comes back to you and your church.)

For as long as there’s been marketing, it’s been driven by the “funnel.” You caste as wide a net as possible, then filter prospective clients from non-prospective clients via a series for sieves, until you have people most likely to interact with you.

The classic marketing "Funnel." Caste the net, and narrow down.

The classic marketing “Funnel.” Caste the net, and narrow down.

Sound familiar? Canvassing, encouraging people to invite friends to church, community events, pancake breakfasts, mailing flyers. These are all examples of the classic marketing funnel.

Turn It Upside Down

Social media has turned this model upside down. No longer are you the marketer, but your clients become your marketers. To simplify greatly what the documentary describes, a clothing store’s best bet for selling is not the splashy ad in the New York Times, but the teenage girl who sings the praises of her new jeans to her 20,000 Facebook fans.

“But wait,” you say, “that’s no different from wearing branded clothing.” True, except it’s more complicated.

With branded clothing, you’ve convinced people to shell out large dollars for a product that improves their image with their friends.

With social media, big organizations are trying to convince individuals with the largest followings to pay attention to you.

In short, now, PepsiCo fears Tyler Oakley (watch the documentary).

From PBS documentary "Generation Like."

From PBS documentary “Generation Like.”

Bringing It Back Round to Church

So how does this apply to the church?

Hands down, the greatest concern of congregations is bringing young people and their families into the church. And everything, it seems, has failed–consistently, for 30 years.

Churches blame increasing secularization, travel sports, and a range of other issues for their failure to bring the young in.

Complaining about things you can’t control, however, will never advance your work. Worrying about the things you can control can make things better.

And your outreach (let’s call it what it is–marketing) to the young is something that you can definitely control.

Begin with the young people and families in your church who carry iPhones and tablets, and work with them to create content that they can place in the body of their photos and videos. Engage them in the process, and allow them to be your marketers extraordinaire.

Just One More Thing …

Be sure to watch ALL of the documentary. This marketing does not happen by accident. It is carefully orchestrated.

Every detail, every connection, everything.

“Viral” doesn’t happen magically.

With some love and attention, however, you may come to appreciate better how to find the solution to your communication failures.

Breaking the Communications Logjam: Content, Content, Content

Part II of IV

Creating content

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

The most important way to get a handle on your communications is to “get real” about how many communications you’re actually handling, and then break these publications into categories. Let’s return to the list of publications that most churches have that were listed in Part I.

  1. Church Bulletin
  2. Social Media
  3. Website
  4. Sermons
  5. Audio-visuals for services
  6. Miscellaneous posters/hand-outs related to classes
  7. Print newsletter
  8. Bulletin Inserts
  9. New Member materials
  10. Special publications for special services (Easter, Christmas, funerals, etc)

These are the ten separate publications that SLC has found most churches produce throughout the year. To manage this much, we encouraged people to break the content into a more-manageable list of categories. In the case above, we reduced the material down to three:

  • Educational (teaching information for new members, theological information for sermons, spiritually uplifting materials for newsletters and special events)
  • Audio visual (graphics for Sunday service, photos to place in newsletters [print and electronic], designs for signs)
  • Pragmatic (Details of events, special days [birthdays, anniversaries, etc], and assorted events happening in and around your congregation.

And now that this has been done, the magic can happen.

Write to the Categories

Instead of writing to 10 separate publications, target your writings to your, in this case, three categories. How do you do this? There are many approaches. But the two best in my experience are the following.

  • Create a Blog. It’s the modern-day answer to the diary. Only better. Get a free blog at WordPress.com, and start writing. It’s a great way to organize your educational materials, for example. Thoughts on books you’re reading; drafts of sermons your writing; notes on conferences you are attending; and on and on. It all can go in there. It can be public or private. And it allows you to easily tag your articles for easy re-discovery, and categorize each piece. You can integrate graphics, video, links, whatever you need. When writing, keep your short-term goals in front of you, but a blog gives you the opportunity to write more long-term, as well, knowing that you can return and use the material later.
  • Keep a REALLY GOOD Calendar. Online calendars leave us no excuse for failing to keep track of everything going on in our lives. Find the one that works for you and use it. Every special date, every event, music used in worship, everything (with one exception–see below) should go in it. This “pragmatic” tool will provide a great deal of your content. For your bulletin, your newsletters, your members and newcomers. The work done to set it up and maintain it will more than pay for itself in the time you save search for it every time you need that information for a publication.

Think Like an Editor

If you’ve ever been around a newsroom, you know that editors are hard-nosed people. They have to be. With an abundance of material coming at them, and little time to prepare content for publication, they can hardly afford time to write thought pieces, or deal with pieces not directly related to what’s immediately happening in the world around them.

And you need to bring the same discipline to your church publications. Here’s how.

  • Get Organized. Before you write one more word this week, identify and implement an editorial calendar. It is good to keep this separate from the master calendar discussed above. There are many good ones out there. For a list of 14 free ones, visit this post at The Daily Egg which provides an overview of each. You’ll want to play around with these to find one that suits your needs, but find one and use it.
  • Every Word Counts. As a writer myself, I’m often asked by people, “How do I become a writer?” My answer is simple. First, write. And Second, make every word you write, count. With your editorial calendar in place, you can see all the material that needs to be filled in the weeks and months ahead. As you write, make every word count by addressing the issues coming up.
  • Re-use. Just because you’ve used material once doesn’t mean you can’t use it again. Use it, and abuse it. If you write a sermon on hunger, this material can be reused throughout the year in bulletins, educational pieces, and resource materials. You’ll need to edit it, of course, but better to spend 10 minutes editing something you’ve already written to make it fit another medium, then spend 60 minutes re-inventing the material from scratch.

Cut and Stitch

While you will never get away from writing one-off pieces for your publications, following the steps above will decrease the amount of original writing you do.

Rather than creating content, you will spend your time cutting and stitching together the information that you have already pulled together.

And any writer will tell you, it’s easier to edit something for publication–even if it isn’t particularly good–then to create something from whole-cloth.

How Much Time?

I know what you’re thinking. This seems like a LOT of work.

To set it up, it is. But once things are up and running, you will easily find the time required to produce materials for you many publications cut in half, at least, if not more.

Your publications will have a more consistent feel, gathering information becomes much easier, and your creativity will flow more easily. Add to that the time you save, and most organizations find it to be a no-brainer.

SLC can work with you to establish a more-streamlined publication schedule. Drop us a note, and let us show you just how affordable it can really be.

Breaking the Communications Logjam: A Four-part Series

damn traffic jamPart I of IV

The Publications You Need

Before reading the next paragraph, take a minute and write down all the publications that your church produces.

[Sound of clock ticking]

Got it? Good. How many are on the list? Two? Four? Five?

Now think a bit harder. On average, I find that churches have no less than 10 distinct categories of publications they produce:

  1. Church Bulletin
  2. Social Media
  3. Website
  4. Sermons
  5. Audio-visuals for services
  6. Miscellaneous posters/hand-outs related to classes
  7. Print newsletter
  8. Bulletin Inserts
  9. New Member materials
  10. Special publications for special services (Easter, Christmas, funerals, etc)

And within these categories are subcategories. Broken out this way, even small churches can find themselves juggling 15, 20, 30 or more publications every month. That’s a tall order for anyone–it can break the backs of a congregation that depends on volunteers and a limited staff.

Making Choices

Despite how overwhelmed most congregations I visit are, I find it interesting that more times than not, I’m asked how they can add something to the mix–usually, social media.

The first step to getting control of your publications is to limit yourself to the ones that you absolutely must have. Two, three at most.

Of the list of ten given above, one could make the case that they’re all essential. So how do you choose?

Step One: Stop thinking about publications in terms of pieces you need to produce, and begin thinking in terms of the type of information you require. The difference is not semantics. Returning to the list above, we have listed 10 pieces that have to be filled with information. But the types of information required to fill them can be boiled down to three:

  • Educational (teaching information for new members, theological information for sermons, spiritually uplifting materials for newsletters and special events)
  • Audio visual (graphics for Sunday service, photos to place in newsletters [print and electronic], designs for signs)
  • Pragmatic (Details of events, special days [birthdays, anniversaries, etc], and assorted events happening in and around your congregation.

Step Two: Rethink the publications you require. Now that you’ve switched from thinking in terms of publication pieces to types of information required, look anew at what you publish. What two or three tools can capture the types? They may, or may not, be publications the church sees.

Looking at the three types above, a congregation could conceivably gather the majority of this information in a blog, a well-maintained calendar, and a Pinterest account.

Step Three: Start collecting. Writing and collecting, like sermon-writing and visitation, are habits. Begin carving out a set amount of time everyday to collect and write materials that fill the types of information you require. Again, these efforts may or may not lead to publications you put in front of parishoners.

So how does the work of filling the publications get done?

That’s Part II of the series. But this week, give it a try. See if you can name all your publications, and then reduce those communications down to types. Develop your own distinctive writing/collecting methods for gathering the information to fill the types and begin disciplining yourself to use them, daily.

In two weeks, we’ll show how this leads to more-effective publications that require less time, and increase accuracy.

Chasing Youth: Can You Win?

Face book declineChurch Mag recently released a story that is often imitated in church circles. This story, The Facebook Exodus: Where Are All the Teens Going rattles the cages of congregations desperate to attract young people and families by getting more engaged with their social media tools.”Again,” the writer concludes, “we see that the Church will need to look beyond Facebook to reach this generation of users online.”

Let me spoil it for you. This is an arms race you are not going to win.

Give the article credit for unearthing the newest trend of social networking tools making the rounds among the young. If you have children, most of the new tools will be no surprise to you–your kids are already using them, and you’ve probably seen the icons if you haven’t used them yourself. Certainly, it helps to stay on top of what’s new and developing in this world.

But to think that using these tools will attract youth to your church is akin to thinking that wearing a particular pair of shoes will make you a better athlete. (It’s gotta be the shoes).

Using KIK or SnapChat or Vine is not something you build an outreach program on.

Rather, you build an outreach program on being true to yourself, being clear with others about what you are, and living that essence out in the world around you.

This is not to say that you should be ignorant of new technologies–we’re all for it and encourage it. Nor or we saying don’t use them.

All we’re saying is, don’t confuse the tools for the message.

Something about this feels relevant …

… so began the email I received recently from Anna Belle Leiserson, the genius behind the best blog I know for churches about developing websites–FaithAndWeb.com.

“This” is an article in the New York Times titled “Faulty Websites Confront Needy in Search of Aid.” The bottom line of the article is this: if you think the new website for the ACA is a mess, spend some time poking around the websites for states’ unemployment compensation. In short, it’s a crap shoot.

To those who work with these systems, there is no surprise. Companies, government agencies, and, yes, even churches (large and small) have a long history of making poor decisions about websites at the very earliest stages. And never find their way out.

One fairly large nonprofit I advised in years gone by was dumping tens of thousands of dollars annually into a website that 1) couldn’t be updated by most people in the office, 2) regularly messed up online transactions, and 3) broke down more than a working website should.

And yet, they would never change, and kept throwing good money after bad. The reason? We’ve invested so much, why change now? It’s laughable in print. Not so much in reality.

A Heavy Price

Your church website–though certainly not as complex as that described in the New York Times piece, or even that used by many organizations and nonprofits–must work and work well. And when it doesn’t, you pay a heavy price. Including:

Communications Paralysis. Whether you use a website alone, or have Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and whatever happens to be all the rage in your community, your website probably plays a big role in anchoring the content. I have seen first-hand more churches whose websites are seriously constraining their ability to communicate well. They buy inexpensive programs that limit their number of pages, their ability to adapt their sites, and on and on. As a result, they end up creating a greater communications log jam with each online tool they add.

Lost Income. People love to give online. We pay for everything else online, so why not make our contributions online? But if you set it up poorly, or select poor software, or your software and website are constantly battling one another and keeping people from giving, they’ll quit. Quickly. Out of frustration, or out of security fears. Either way, you and your congregation lose.

Lost Visitors. People looking for a church to attend (or looking for anything else, for that matter) look first to the web. Your website is their primary window into your world. Select one that is cheap-looking, or acts like one that is cheap, and you are costing yourself visitors. And you can measure this. Google Analytics tracks new visitors who come to your site and then go away. See what those numbers are. If your site doesn’t support Google Analytics, you have bigger problems with your site.

No Excuses

There was a time not so long ago that there were legitimate reasons that churches skimped on websites. Hiring private developers was expensive (and no guarantee of success), and they required people who knew how to code.

Those days are long gone. Today, companies like iPage make launching a sophisticated, good-looking website easy and affordable. And you don’t need to be a coder (but you still need to be a tweaker).

Yes, it takes work. No, you shouldn’t try and do it alone. And yes, it’s a bit scary to go from what you have–no matter how flawed–to something new, no matter how much better.

But you must.

Why Don’t People Give?

Walking across the campus at Wesley Theological Seminary this fall, I received some sage advice from one of that campus’s distinguished leaders. “Can you help people raise more money?” The person continued, “That is something that most every church leader can use.”

Fundraising, like good communications, isn’t something that you can fix with a program.

The information didn’t exactly rattle my cage, as I know–firsthand, from any number of studies, and from years of talking with ministers–that financial issues are the ones that tend to keep leaders awake at night.

But I have delayed writing about it for one simple reason. Fundraising, like good communications, isn’t something that you can fix with a program. Fundraising is the outgrowth–most often–of how well your congregation functions on a variety of levels, perhaps the most important being communications.

So why write about it now? Because entering this New Year is a perfect time for you to think anew about fundraising and communications.

It Ain’t About Preaching (Probably)

If we’re connecting fundraising to communications, you’re probably expecting an essay on preaching about money. Let’s quell that right now. Preaching about money is probably the least effective thing you can do to improve giving in your church. If, that is, preaching is the main way that you communicate the importance of stewardship.

FundraisingWhy? A lesson from the world of marketing helps. Anyone worth their grit in the marketing world knows that there’s no magic commercial to turn people on to your product. It’s an array of commercials that hit you repeatedly in different ways. It’s why McDonald’s spends billions each year to air commercials, place magazine ads, and insert banners across webpages (as well as place their products in movies, TV shows, and on YouTube). People have remarkably short attention spans, and hitting them once or twice in the same place simply isn’t enough.

How often have you heard a commercial while in the car, or during a football game, only to realize 30 seconds after it goes off that it’s gone from your consciousness.

Sermons have an important role to play in fundraising. But as with any medium, the likelihood that people will hear your sermon and be forever changed are pretty slim. It’s more likely that by the time they get to their car, much of what moved them 10 minutes earlier has already been forgotten.

It’s not you–it’s just the reality of how we as humans work.

It’s time to expand your approach. It’s time to layer up.


To significantly turn the corner on giving in your community, there are three important tasks you need to take on, each a form of communication. Teach your members about finances; integrate the influence of giving into your print and online communications; thank people for their gifts.

In short, layer the message much like you would spread frosting on a layer cake. Dump all the icing in one spot turns everyone off. Layer it evenly and thinly across the entire cake and between each layer creates a hard-to-reject treat.

Sounds easy–but it’s not. To do each of these effectively requires planning, staff time, and a commitment to doing it consistently.

Whether you have a communications strategy that is already doing some or most of this effectively, or want to begin one, it makes sense to take these changes in small steps.

Teach about Finances

There are few pressures in life greater than financial pressures. Financial difficulties lead to divorce, poor health, poor job performance, the list goes on and on. And as you know, more people than not in your community are probably facing some of these issues.

At the same time, people find asking for help with their finances difficult–and embarrassing. So help them out.

In 2014, offer a personal finance course to your members.

There are any number of very good courses designed to help churches help their members with their financial struggles. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have financial planners in your community who are willing to volunteer time to help others. If you don’t, many advisers will come in and offer basic financial planning courses.

layer the message much like you would spread frosting on a layer cake.

The reality is, until your own parishoners are financially stable, their ability to give to you will suffer. Just be careful to not make giving to the church your sole motivation for offering the help.

Integrate Financials into Your Communications

Over lunch several years ago with a minister of a mid-size church in Northern Virginia, I was stopped mid-sentence by my guest. He wanted to point out a man passing in front of the restaurant. “He’s made a fortune in real estate, and yet he gives virtually nothing to the church. Do you know why?”

I did not.

“He’s a businessman, and he wants to know where his money is going. In the church, he has no confidence that the money is being used well.”

Whether people have millions to donate, or hundreds, they want to make sure that their money has a significant impact. They want to know that it makes a difference.

In 2014, begin with your most-successful communication piece and integrate the impact that giving has on the church and your community.

This does not need to be loud, with screaming headlines. Rather, when your write your newsletter or e-newsletter, post on social media, or announce coming events, include a word or two about how this is possible.

Activities in your community run on money. When writing about the Christmas play, the blood drive, the parties throughout the year, the feeding programs you offer, etc., ask yourself, are people aware that their dollars pay for this, and that their money makes a difference?

How does this look? Consider this simple note in a church newsletter SLC helped with last year.

The original blurb described a program in which youngsters treated the senior adults to dinner and an evening of games.

The write-up was factual, human, and perfectly fine. We just added one tweak, mentioning that the money for the meal was raised by the children and benefited some for whom that was the only meal they had that day.

It was a modest adjustment, and it didn’t scream dollars and cents. Rather, it made clear where the money came from, that it didn’t require a great deal, and that it had a significant impact.

Such lines integrated subtly in your publications are a simple way to ensure that your members are getting the message–your giving matters.

Thank People

It’s so easy to do, and so easy to forget to do. But saying “thank you” goes a very long way toward making people feel appreciated and willing to give again. Ann Michel explained in an essay that saying thanks involves three “Ps”: Personal, Prompt, Planned. It’s that simple, and that complicated. Delivering personal thank yous promptly requires planning and staff time. Ensure that your community is able to do that in the New Year.

In 2014, make it a priority to create a method for thanking people promptly and personally for their gifts–no matter how small.

Plan to Communicate Better in 2014; Prepare to See Giving Increase

Each of these three steps are relatively easy to implement, but they do require follow-through and time. Done well, you will see results. But give yourself time. Changing the way you communicate will take time–for your members to hear the message, for you to become comfortable with the approach, and for your organization to build the systems to perpetuate the change and grow it.

If you can’t do all three this year, do one. Then add another the following year.

Just start doing it, and doing it effectively and consistently.

Happy New Year!

To learn more about how SLC can help your congregation more-effectively integrate the language of giving into your communications, please contact Martin Davis.