In April 2003, my friend Pastor Dan Grider and I made an observation together that changed the way we lead our churches. Both of us were in the midst of Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose campaign. Most of the programs I’ve tried over the years have been good; few have exceeded my hopes. This one did. Our observation? When a church focuses on one theme for a short period of time, the power of that theme and its effects on people are multiplied.
Dan and I had met over lunch every month for seven years. We got together to sharpen each other and share best practices. Discovering the power behind church-wide campaigns was by far the best best practice we ever shared. We were so fired up about what we saw happening at our respective churches during the 40 Days campaign that we determined to do many, many more of them.
Since that day, I have become an expert in church-wide campaigns. Over the last five years, literally all of New Song’s growth has come from the church-wide campaigns we’ve held. In honesty, I confess that not all of our campaigns have gone well; some have been good, some have been great, and some have been disappointing. In my journey to master this God-given tool for the 21st century, I’ve discovered seven keys to a great campaign.
Seven Keys to a Great Campaign:
1. Offer a Broadly-Appealing Topic.
The most important factor in a great campaign is the topic. For a topic to have broad appeal, it must trigger compelling interest in every segment of your audience. Dan and I discovered we had “bottled lightning” when we released The God Questions for use in other churches, because everyone has questions about God: men, women, students, believers and spiritual seekers alike. And their questions go beyond the curiosity level; they matter deeply to us and to our friends and neighbors. This leads to the second factor that determines the success or failure of a campaign.
2. Ensure Invitability.
During our God Questions campaign, folks felt comfortable and eager to invite their friends. Families in our church took copies of the book to their neighbors with confidence they would want to hear answers to their questions about God. One of my associate pastors deliberately brought extra copies of The God Questions to his tennis matches. While taking his racquet out of the bag, he’d make sure the books fell out so he could start a conversation about them. A lady in our church conspicuously laid her copy of The God Questions on the front of her desk every morning so she could show it to everyone who came by during the day. No one was embarrassed or worried that people wouldn’t be interested in the subject. This “invitability” builds confidence and momentum. During New Song’s campaigns, we’ve seen attendance surge between 15 and 20 percent because so many people invited newcomers.
3. Use a Well-Written Book with Daily Readings.
Another important factor that makes church-wide campaigns effective is focus. While the sun can warm you, a laser cuts through steel. Growth is accelerated when everyone hears the same sermon, discusses the same materials in their small group or Sunday School class, and reads the same chapter at home each day. Campaigns that have a daily reading component not only keep people focused; they also build or reinforce the habit of a daily time with God. Once this habit is built, it tends to continue long after the campaign is completed.
I’ve discovered that asking people to read seven days a week is too much. No one hits seven out of seven, and when people fall behind, they tend to get discouraged or lose interest. By assigning five or six readings per week, you give people a chance to miss a day or two and still stay with the pack.
But this daily-reading component is critical. Chapters of the book have to be self-contained and short enough that people can easily invest five to ten minutes a day to read them. Maturity is gained inch by inch. Thirty or forty small doses of growth-oriented reading can add up to more spiritual progress than a longer weekly time of listening to sermons.
A year ago, our church did a campaign on the book of Jonah. I’m learning that book-of-the-Bible campaigns can be even more valuable than topical campaigns, because they lead people into the Scriptures every day. Jonah is a novelette about people and creatures who respond to God, and all of them react to Him differently. So I wrote a devotional book on Jonah in which each chapter focuses on different ways to respond to God. While the book taught people about God and Jonah through the daily readings, from the pulpit I showed them different ways to worship, serve, honor and grow in Christ on a daily basis. This winter, I’ll be taking our congregation through a campaign on the book of Ruth, which is all about Ruth’s faithfulness and God’s provision. As we’re learning a book of the Bible, we’ll also be learning lessons on faithfulness, both ours and God’s. In this way, book-of-the-Bible campaigns do double-duty.
4. Include Weekly Bible Discussions.
Invitability draws newcomers to the church, but relationships keep them coming. Every great campaign must have a Bible study or small group discussion component to it. As you ramp up to each new campaign, you announce, “This is the time to join a Small Group.” The positive peer-pressure of hundreds of others signing up for a group causes fence-sitters to say, “We’ve thought about this for a while; now’s the time to do it.” I used to do an annual series on why people ought to join a small group, but I don’t anymore, because regular church-wide campaigns keep 85% of our adults and teens in small groups. Newcomers naturally join small groups when they join a campaign, because it’s just part of the package.
5. Keep it Affordable.
Our leadership team did some serious soul-searching before signing up for the 40 Days of Purpose. We had to weigh the cost. The campaign kit for a church our size exceeded $2,500. Then there were the costs for books and discussion guides for every member of the church. There’s also a psychological ceiling on what church members will pay for “church materials,” so we knew we would have to subsidize the cost of the books along with paying for the campaign kit. My ancestors are mostly Scots, which means I’ve got a thrifty streak in me. I don’t want the church to take out a second mortgage to pay for the sermons and tools that fuel a campaign, and I don’t like asking people to pay a ton for their take-home materials. Ideally, a campaign will have a simple kit, with sermons and supporting material for under $200, and the book and discussion guides will come packaged for $12 each or less. What really thrills me is when we can buy books for $10 and resell them for $12. Then we can channel the net difference into promoting the series.
6. Use Strategic Timing.
When it comes to a successful campaign, timing can be everything. We launched 40 Days on Easter Sunday. It helped capture our Easter visitors, but only for six weeks. The campaign ended in June, which meant that most of our small groups took a break, and newcomers dropped out. One time, we launched a campaign on the first weekend in January. Advertising for it got smothered by the Christmas rush. Another time we launched a campaign on the heels of a previous campaign; we believed that back-to-back campaigns would motivate newcomers to continue in their groups. It didn’t, and creating excitement for the second campaign was impossible while the first campaign was still going on.
Through all this trial and error, we found that September and mid-January are the optimal times to launch campaigns. People are ready to begin new things during those times of year. Promote and offer sign-ups three to six weeks in advance, and plan a relevant (but non-campaign-driven) series immediately following, so newcomers will stay with you. Some campaigns suggest holding a party at the conclusion; I don’t. Putting a formal conclusion to the campaign encourages newcomers to think, “Okay, we’re done, so I’m out of here.” Instead of pouring energy into a celebration of what’s concluding, pour it into anticipation of what’s coming.
7. Build Anticipation.
Successful campaigns all start in one place: the heart of the pastor. If he’s excited, the church will get excited. If he’s not chomping at the bit to get started, you can bet the experience will be average at best. Anticipation builds up like carbonation in a bottle; if you shake it up well, a lot of people will get soaked in it when you take the lid off.
The easiest way to build dynamic energy is to share the benefits of the campaign in concentric circles. Start with the pastor; he’ll want to effervesce all over the Board and staff. The Board and staff are asked to do three things: (1) Pick up a copy of the material as soon as possible. (2) Share their excitement with everyone they contact. (3) Invite five key leaders to an informational meeting held four to six weeks before the series. At that meeting, the pastor or campaign organizer shares the benefits of the campaign and asks everyone to consider leading a group or playing some other key role in making the campaign happen. Momentum should begin to build naturally from there. It can also be stimulated by well-placed posters, campaign t-shirts, and fliers in the weekly service program.
Key roles for a campaign can be the same as for other series: leading worship, decorating the stage and inviting friends. Campaigns are also excellent times to add new key roles to your church’s ministry, like parking lot greeters or hospitality, refreshments or information teams.
Four to six weeks before the campaign, recruit new small group leaders. Three to four weeks before the campaign, begin small group sign-ups, boosted by announcements from the platform. Hand out invitations, such as postcards or business card-sized notes, two to three weeks in advance. Strongly encourage members to invite their friends and neighbors.
Start selling books as soon as possible. Most people will wait until the last minute to buy them, but the highly opinionated and hard-to-convince will want to check out the material ahead of time. Their buy-in will add bubbles to your carbonation effect.
We have found that artwork is essential in building anticipation. For 40 Days we printed “Got Purpose?” buttons and had hundreds of people wearing them weeks in advance. For a series on one of the Narnia films, we built a life-sized wardrobe and placed it in the lobby; that got people talking! For Fireproof, we borrowed fire-fighting equipment and decorated several parts of our building. For Jonah and Future History, we designed free-standing banners. For a capital campaign, we printed wristbands.
One of the most effective ways to build excitement is with T-shirts. Not long ago, I was asked to speak for a church that was doing a God Questions campaign. When I walked in the door, every usher, greeter, technician, musician and Sunday school teacher was wearing a God Questions T-shirt. The sense of contagion was palpable. I preached one of my best sermons ever that morning, because people were so eager to learn!
Anticipation is what the military would call a “force multiplier.” When everyone in the room is either a guest who’s been invited or a member who’s gotten excited, greeters shake hands more enthusiastically, musicians play with more gusto, vocalists sing with more verve and the pastor preaches with greater zeal. If all goes well, you’ll have new visitors every week. More importantly, you’ll experience deeper learning and that often elusive momentum, which can carry you until the next campaign.
Last week I received calls from two pastors who just launched God Questions campaigns. One was from a long-standing conservative church in the Midwest; the other from a church planter in Texas. Both were sky-high, like a cork shooting out of a bottle, as they told me about what they experienced during Week One. I love that feeling. I’m even more passionate about the words I hear from my congregation throughout a campaign: “Please pray with me; I’ve invited some friends who really need this.” “I am learning so much from this series!” My favorite is when they say, “Thank you for what this church is doing. It’s changed our lives.” That’s the pay-off from a great campaign.