Reaching New People with Bible Studies and Programs

September 4th, 2012

There was a time when people chose their churches based largely on denomination, location, beliefs, or family ties. But with the rise of the internet and the proliferation of church plants, churches are increasingly viewed as both providers of content and services and as communities of believers. These days, not only are families feeling the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, congregations must now keep pace with Jones Avenue Community Church.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, Christian churches aren’t truly competing against each other. The Kingdom of God is, after all, really only one kingdom and Christianity’s competitors are technically worldliness and belief systems that oppose the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, the reality of Christianity’s internal competition can’t be ignored. That’s because every church that wants to grow is targeting the unchurched, which includes both Christians and nonchristians.

But these kinds of churches also attract the already churched. It’s unavoidable. For all the talk of sheep stealing, poaching, and bad blood that exists between established churches and church plants, it’s practically impossible to create a marketing message that appeals to the unchurched but excludes the churched, especially the dissatisfied churched.

People choose churches for a number of reasons, but most of them probably pick one and remain there because it meets one or more of their perceived needs. In the West, it’s generally expected that churches provide a good number of activity and ministry offerings. But no church can be all things to all people, so increasingly churches are having to make tough choices about where to focus their resources. Where “broadcasting” no longer works work, congregations are “narrowcasting”. Specialization and niche are two marketing terms that have now come to the forefront of the church growth movement.

That’s where programs, classes, Bible studies and the like come into the picture. But I’m not talking about your parents’ or grandparents’ Bible studies. No, these programs and studies are more finite and focused. That means they don’t go on forever in the same form, and they usually stick with one topic or book of the Bible. The more practical, the better. People sign up, take the class or attend the program, then they move on to another one. It adds another layer of purpose and accomplishment to church involvement.

This isn't completely new. There was a time when Sunday school, not the main weekend worship service, was the main entry point into a congregation. But years ago, Sunday school was pronounced dead by some in the church growth movement. Small groups, we were told, were what the cool, growing churches were doing, not traditional Christian education. But that prediction may have been premature. What’s interesting is that small groups have some of the same weaknesses as traditional Sunday school. Both models lack defined entry and exit points for participants. The perceived default commitment is perpetual for both (or the other extreme, non-existent), and neither general classes nor groups can usually be marketed effectively because they don’t really change that often. Targeted classes and programs, on the other hand, can be marketed in a number of creative ways because they’re more like events.

Many churches are already successfully marketing their sermon series using ads, postcards, billboards, and doorhangers. These marketing methods can easily translate to programs, classes, and groups. Topical or specialty groups with a scheduled beginning and end are the easiest to market, because they have a finite commitment and give participants a sense of completion when they’re done. The Sunday school format and name may have fallen out of favor, but learning in a class setting has not. Many churches are rediscovering Sunday School, albeit with modifications. And the buzz now is that the church growth gurus are realizing that small groups don’t appeal to everyone. It turns out that some people don’t care to be intimate and share personal things with a group of people from church right away. Imagine that. Perhaps for some Christians, organic intimacy that starts in a class setting works better than the rushed intimacy of a small group. Smart churches will consider this and offer both classes and groups.

No matter what size a congregation is, niche Bible studies and programs can help increase the standing of a congregation in the eyes of those searching for a church home. Such programs can be points of entry for those in a community who aren’t necessarily looking for a church but want to improve their lives in some way. For example, churches that have robust recovery groups and 12 step programs provide a valuable experience for both the church community and those who live nearby. No doubt, many people have become more deeply involved in the life of a church after participating in a recovery group there first. The key is to offer choices, but to prioritize quality over quantity. Better two Bible studies or programs that are well executed than five that are thrown together for the sake of offering variety.


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