“The church bulletin? You must be kidding!”
That statement may sound outrageous, but think about it. The church bulletin (or worship guide or whatever you choose to call it) is, for some people, the very first piece of Christian literature they see. It is certainly the very first information a visitor reads about your church. For many it is their first serious introduction to Jesus.
In our secularized society today many people grow up without reading the Bible or any kind of Christian material. At the same time:
- everyone has a spiritual vacuum inside;
- the Holy Spirit is active in our world convicting people of their need for God;
- tragedies happen personally and globally.
In response to all these promptings, people will come to your church looking for answers.
When they come to your church, they will read anything you put into their hands.
When that happens, what do you give to a person whose eternal destiny may be decided in the next hour?
You give them the bulletin. What does it say to them?
Sometimes a bulletin has:
*A warm welcome on the front
*An Order of Service that clearly explains what is going on
*An announcement section that is inclusive of visitors and has all the information needed to make a connection
*A clear explanation of how a person can become a Christian, what that means, what steps to take.
*Connections at the church, specific contact people (who will immediately respond), phone numbers and email, where a person can contact someone about the church and the Christian life.
*Website resources that answer questions about the Christian faith.
*A connection card that allows the visitor to reach back to the church with contact information, prayer requests and questions.
*Additional information, tiny stories, challenges, mission opportunities that show what the church is like in its involvement with the community and the world.
*An overall tone that is loving, welcoming, accepting and inviting.
If these ingredients are part of your church bulletin, the bulletin can literally redirect a life for time and eternity.
If only that was always what happens
I have worked with church communications for over three decades and it has been a joy to see bulletins with the material described above. The churches that have bulletins with these ingredients tend to be alive and growing. But sadly, the churches that have bulletins like this are in the minority.
Though churches don’t grow in numbers or their people in Christian maturity with bulletins that do less than the job they could do, their congregations are not the only ones harmed. George Barna tells us that 91 percent of unchurched people believe the church is not sensitive to their needs and because of that, they often don’t return after one visit. Where do they get that idea?
I think we tell them we don’t care by what we communicate with our church bulletins. We tell people we don’t care by giving them a bulletin that:
* Doesn’t bother to tell people what is happening at the start of the church service because they assume everybody who attends loves to stand up, praise God, and sing for 30-40 minutes.
*Is filled with insider jargon and terms that don’t make sense to anyone who doesn’t regularly attend church.
*Contains schedules that talk about events and meetings without explaining them with the assumption that everybody knows what the church are talking about.
* That tells visitors to contact a staff member with questions, but doesn’t have a phone number or email near that statement.
*That has a large graphic that asks, “Have you make your pledge yet?” and pitiful pleas for help in the nursery.
The unchurched person reads the bulletin and concludes that this is a place for insiders only and they don’t belong.
PASTORS: keep in mind that these impressions and conclusions all take place before you get up to deliver your message. You can pour your heart and soul into a Biblical, challenging message that strives to connect people to Jesus and inspires them to live lives of service and discipleship sacrifice, but your church bulletin can sabotage your message in the hearts of newcomers before you get up to speak.
Our intentions don’t change the results
Of course we don’t mean to do that, but try to take a look at the bulletin produced by your church office with the eyes of someone totally unfamiliar with how a church operates and see what sort of message you would get from it. If it isn’t the message you want to communicate, you may want to change it.
One tool that may help you see how our church is communicating to those who are unfamiliar with it, is a group of books from the Effective Church Communications Great Ideas and Sample Swap. There are four books in this collection that have over 100 pages of church bulletin samples in each one. These books can be useful in many ways—many people use them for ideas to improve their bulletins and this is a great use of them.
In addition, one educational use of them is to look at them and pretend that you are a visitor at the church that created the bulletin. Go a step further and try to see the bulletin as if you were totally unfamiliar with attending church, any church.
What would make sense to you? What would be confusing? Is there anywhere in the bulletin that tells you how to connect with God? Does it show you how to begin a personal relationship with Jesus? Does it tell you where to go if you have questions about the Christian faith? From looking at it, reading it over (as visitors tend to do, even if your regular attenders don’t) what is the church like, the people like from the bulletin? Do you want to spend more time with them?
Remember that the church bulletin is the one thing that people take home from church. They may forget the inspiring sermon and music. They most certainly won’t remember the PowerPoint slides flashed on the screen, past the service—but they have the bulletin to remind them about all the things the church wants them to remember. It is the one connection to your church and Jesus they have when they leave the church.
Ask that the Lord give you clear eyes to see what He wants you to see from this exercise, not to make you feel badly about any of your work, but to help you be more creative and clear as you communicate to broken and seeking hearts of visitors.
Consider doing this exercise as a communication team or staff to evaluate the effectiveness of your church bulletin.
One more thing about creating a service and bulletin for seekers
Many churches today are very concerned about being “seeker-sensitive.” In an effort to appeal to unchurched people that they use multimedia, contemporary music and sometimes produce a short skit or drama. All of these efforts can be very effective, but all the communications of your church must work together if you want to communicate a consistent, true message.
Look at your bulletin to see if it has the same tone, style and message of your service. If your stage presentation says “Welcome to the 21st century, all seekers” and your bulletin says “This is how we’ve done it since 1950 and if you don’t understand our terms too bad for you,” you may not get the results you are praying for.
Printed publications: weakest link or strong connection?
The printed pieces we put into people’s hands can either turn them away from our church or they can be the link that will bring them back next week and get them to attend a small group, social activity, or event for their children. They can either shut doors or welcome home .
With this reality in mind, those of you producing the church bulletin and other publications in the church office have tremendous power and responsibility that is often overlooked. As a reminder of what I said earlier, the greatest musical worship and the most powerful sermon can be drained of power by a bulletin that is offensive or insider-only oriented. For example, a bulletin (I won’t tell where it is from) that I came across, said in large letters across the front:
Bridge to the Future is Taking Place!
$530,000 has been given so far—
the debt is 3.5 million.
Have you made a pledge yet?
Imagine you are a first time visitor—you walk into the church and you are handed this piece with this message as the first one you see from the church. Are you going to come back? I doubt it. One of the largest complaints people have about churches is that all they want is our money. What does this bulletin say? All we want is your money.
It is a good thing to keep the congregation updated on finances, a listing of offerings and where the church stands in relationship to the budget is a good idea and can be tastefully taken care of in the bulletin. I’ve seen many examples of a small box without commentary that keeps members updated on the financial status of the church.
This kind of financial challenge is not right for the COVER of the church bulletin. The status of the fund-raising, along with a hard-hitting challenge might be given to the adult Sunday School classes, discipleship groups, or some other class of people committed to the church. It is inappropriate in the church bulletin given to all visitors. Visitors don’t make pledges after reading something like this other than one not to return to that church.
The essential parts of a good bulletin
A bulletin has to do a lot, but following are core contents that will help your bulletin be all it can be to explain your church, connect people with the church and Jesus and bring them back next week.
Following is an overview of the important parts of your bulletin.
It is amazing how few bulletins actually start out with a WELCOME! Put it up front or before the order of service. It can be long or short, but it should be genuine and reflect the tradition of your church. Putting the welcome on the second page or on the back (as I have seen in far too many bulletins) doesn’t make sense.
PLEASE give an order of service
I see so many bulletins in my seminars these days that do not contain an order of service. Without one, a visitor has no idea what to expect. As Mark Mittlenberg reminds us in his great book, Contagious Christianity, for the average unchurched person to come to your church it is just like it would be for you to attend a Buddhist Temple—we would have no idea what to expect. Be kind; explain things. An order of service is essential for visitors.
Following this overview of essential elements for the church bulletin I’ll share two examples of an order of service, one from an informal, charismatic church and the other from a more formal, liturgical Lutheran church. The style in which you create your order of service isn’t nearly as important as that you have enough concrete, clear information in it so a visitor understands what is going on. Style and looks mean nothing if a visitor is lost or confused with what is taking place.
Acknowledge both visitors and members in the announcement sections
Some of the best bulletins I’ve seen actually have sections that say “Welcome to Our Visitors” and then go on to give essential details such as the location of the bathrooms, nursery, information table, etc. They also often invite folks for coffee after the service where they can meet folks and ask questions.
It may seem like a small thing and it may upset your schedule, but if you only have coffee BEFORE the church service, that basically says it is for members only or those who know enough to come early. Consider changing it so that people can have coffee and donuts or a snack after church. That makes so much more sense if you want to be available to interact with visitors and answer questions. Record attendance and response to see if it makes a difference with your connection with visitors.
In some of the same bulletins there is often a section entitled something like “Church News.” These sections can accommodate visitors and people who don’t know every detail of every event by saying something like: “Below are the various events hosted by our church in the coming weeks. Everyone is invited to these activities and we hope you’ll attend. If you need more information or have questions, please call the contact numbers listed with each activity.”
Don’t list events that are closed to newcomers.
I’ll never forget a bulletin that contained a lengthy list of groups that met in this particular church, but the list had no contact information. When I pointed out to the woman who put it together that the contact information was missing for new folks who might want to be part of the groups she replied, “Oh, we don’t do that—these are all closed groups and they don’t want new members.”
That isn’t nice. Don’t do that.
Include the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, why
I think it could revolutionize churches all across North America if folks would just be complete with information about events in their church bulletins.
Church staffs work so hard to put together programs and then if the bulletin leaves out who is putting on the program, what is going on, where is at, what time it starts and ends, what is the cost and if child care is provided, you will get a much smaller turnout than you want.
Often the reason people don’t show up for an event is not because they don’t want to or not because they don’t have any spiritual hunger or interest in the things of God. Nor do they not show up because you didn’t have a thrilling graphic design of your bulletin or cutting edge typography. People don’t show up if it’s too much trouble to hunt down the location of an event and if they can’t find out if child care is provided.
These facts are essential and you need to repeat them for several weeks for people to respond. Remember no one will see the bulletin as many times as you do. Because of work and school obligations, many members cannot attend every week.
Repetition is critical—marketing experts used to tell us people need to see something SIX times before they remember and respond, but the number of repetitions that people need to see or hear about an event to respond continues to go up. Think about how often you see a particular advertisement for a product on television. It’s difficult to keep track of, but the large number shows how important repetition is. If advertisers who spend thousands on marketing research find it important to have lots of repetitions, if we only tell people about something once or twice, it’s easy to see why we may not get a large response.
Later on in this book is information on the importance of including the little details that both explains and illustrates the importance of complete communication of connecting details.
Have a place for testimonies and always include information on how to become a Christian
I’ve been recommending for years that in every bulletin you put a short piece about how someone becomes a Christian, how that person can come to trust Jesus as their Savior. You can write up any sort of simple explanation of the gospel message. Here is one used by a church at Christmas, you can modify it and use it yourself at any time of the year:
In the midst of the gifts and goodies we are all enjoying at this time of year, remember the message of Christmas is that God came to earth in the form of a person—Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus grew up not only to become the greatest teacher and miracle worker the world had ever seen, but to die a unique death.
In His death, Jesus was not a victim of evil men. Jesus willingly gave up His life and died on the cross so that He could pay the penalty for our sins. His death was His choice and His story doesn’t end with His death. Jesus rose from the dead after three days and demonstrated by doing that He was God.
Continue with a clear challenge of how to respond to the message of salvation, where to find out more and a person, phone number, and email to contact if someone has questions.
You can also include bulletin inserts or tracts that explain the message of salvation. The way you express this will vary depending on your denomination or location, but however you explain it, somewhere in the bulletin itself or with a link to a website, be clear about what it means to be a believer in Jesus and how to become one.
I’ve put a short video about the importance of your church bulletin having a section that tells people How to Become a Christian that shows several bulletins with great examples in them, plus that gives a list you can use for website links about the Christian faith that you can put into your bulletin.
In addition, there is a short ebook that has the same material. Both are on http://www.effectivechurchcom.com
Include a challenge before commitment
As our society becomes more and more secularized and as more and more of the people who visit your church may know little about the Christian faith, it is important to give more than a gospel presentation alone. In booklet mentioned above section that has examples of gospel presentations, there is also a PDF of a sheet of additional resources about the Christian faith. Many people do not know the basics of the Jesus life and the websites listed offer well-researched and presented answers. In addition, the websites answer questions that seekers should be encouraged to ask. We want people to make decisions for the Lord based on firm knowledge, not simply emotion. We have a faith that is historical and evidential (that means it happened and we can prove it) and we should never shy away from honest questions. If we don’t know the answers, we can refer to websites that do.
Jesus continuously challenged would-be followers to count the cost. We must do the same if we want people to make a genuine decision to become a Christian. To become a Christian means to follow Jesus daily as Lord; we must not present it as a quick fire-insurance policy we grab and then are free to live however we want.
To share the good news about Jesus and to invite others into a relationship with Him is what the Christian faith is all about and this is ultimately why we create church bulletins. To paraphrase a Bible passage: What good does it profit a man to have directions to the potluck and yet lose his soul?
Links to your website and other digital resources
Creating a complete and challenging printed church bulletin does not mean we ignore digital technology. On the contrary, your website and bulletin can be great partners because many people who visit your church will not know about your website. The bulletin will tell them how to get to it and why they should bother.
Be sure there is material on your website worth the time and effort for people to take the trouble to read and respond to it. The web has given us a level of communication not possible in the past.
Here are a few ways your website can expand the information about your church that is in the bulletin:
• On our websites we can go into much more depth about who we are as a church. Staff bios, staff blogs, videos of ministries in action, calendars, there are so many things about ministries and vision that a website can illustrate in more detail.
Pray for staff attitudes to look at these tools as opportunities to connect with people and not as an extra chore in an already busy ministry schedule.
• We can link people to in-depth apologetic resources and websites.
• We can give spiritual growth opportunities, studies, sermons and talks to listen to. Because Sunday is no longer a sacred day, many people have to work on Sundays and cannot attend your regularly scheduled service. Providing website access to your messages and church information will help them keep connected.
• Though I strongly believe that your website cannot replace a printed bulletin (more on that in a later section in this book), it is a great idea to have a PDF of your printed bulletin available on the website for people who were not able to attend on Sunday to download and view.
• We can give social networking opportunities through the website. If your church uses Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social networking opportunities, make sure you give instructions on how to use them. Today some people might feel more at ease contacting an online social networking group than they would making a phone call.
If you use any of these tools be sure someone keeps them updated and responds to new people who get involved.
A token Facebook or Twitter account that no one from the staff ever uses will be quickly discovered as phony and will have a far more negative effect on guests than if you didn’t have one.
Consistent website oversight isn’t a small matter. If your website has schedules that aren’t up-to-date, or if a ministry section has last quarter’s events advertised as coming up, or staff pictures and information of staff no longer with the church, you not only miss opportunities to connect with people, but it communicates that your church is sloppy about information and doesn’t care.
A quality church website is NOT defined by how fancy it is or a beautifully designed home page. A quality website that visitors and members will use is one that can be trusted to give complete, current, useful information.
Make your website something your bulletin can refer to with confidence.
Whatever else you need to connect people with who you are as a part of the Body of Christ
This is the last essential part of your bulletin that only your church will have. Every church has things that make them unique. Think about what makes your church what it is. For example, one church in our area has an exceptional ministry to seniors, another has a great outreach to Single Adults, another has a fantastic drama and values ministry for kids and young families.
Though many churches have similar ministries, if your church has one that involves several hundred people and a large list of activities for them, this would be good to feature in the bulletin.
One other church in our area has a fantastic ministry to the homeless. This church has an enclosed courtyard, which they make open to homeless people and their pets during the day. They also serve hot meals and offer shower and laundry facilities. A commitment to the homeless is part of the DNA of this church and should be talked about in the bulletin.
Perhaps there are unique doctrinal or historical aspects to your denomination—people enjoy learning these things. You don’t need artificial “branding” schemes to make yourself unique. Be who you are, describe it, and ask the Lord to draw the people to your church who will grow best in the environment you give. True branding is about consistently and clearly being who you are.
When you are honest and complete in your church bulletin about who you are and what you are about, for a stranger, it’s like meeting people who are honest and open. No hidden agendas, this is who they are and what they are about. If what a church is about honestly appeals to the stranger, he might return. After a time of interaction, he begins to feel comfortable. A little more interaction and the stranger may decide he’s found a friend and a spiritual home.