April Fools Day isn’t engaging. I quickly discovered this lesson as a gullible kid who always got April Fooled. No matter how many times the class clown would set up the prank, I fell for some elaborate hoax or outrageous fictional claims. It even took me five years to realize that Stan Lee was not my best friend’s brother! I chalk up being an April Fool to my active child-like imagination that connected with comic books and cartoons. I was the perfect patsy to be set up on April Fools Day because I believed that anything was possible.
Whether we live the April Fool experience through television shows such as Candid Camera, TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, Punk’d, or Disney’s Walk the Prank (the kid's version of Punk’d) being a practical jokester provides hidden twists, surprises, laughter, and often an overall embarrassment of pranking a person. Besides looking for Ashton Kutcher when you’ve been “punk’d,” have you ever wonder where all this prankster stuff began?
There are just as many outrageous origin stories of April Fools Day as the jokes that occur on the day. The story that makes the most sense to me, though like all theories, has its problems, dates back to 1582 when France switched from the Julian calendar, named for Julius Caeser to the Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII, or the modern calendar that we use today.
The beginning of the New Year in the Julian calendar began near springtime or April 1. People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the New Year had moved to January 1 and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became April Fool: the butt of jokes and hoaxes.
In my role as District Superintendent for 55 churches in the East Metro Atlanta area called the Atlanta Decatur Oxford District, I've witnessed the frustration of church members trying to attract new people into the church. Like trying to push a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down, trying to draw new people to attend church is a repetitive and exhausting exercise that goes nowhere. As I think more about it, their defeat feels a lot like April Fools and the pranked people who've appeared on an episode of Punk’d.
Here's the familiar scene: Well-intended members of a local congregation create community outreach events like Easter Egg Hunts and fall festivals in hopes of attracting new people to worship with them on Sunday mornings. People pour a lot of hard work and physical energy into the events, and on first glance, they are successful as non-church folks widely attend the Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday. The members feel the April Fools moment when no one shows up for Sunday worship the next day.
But what if we could change this all too familiar April Fool's experience? The good news is that we can, but the methods that we use, our strategy, has to change. And one of the most significant changes is that if we want to see our churches grow, we have to stop trying to attract people and start working to engage people.
Like the folks in France who followed the Julian calendar, we must adopt a new way. The old way goes something like this: do whatever we can afford to get people in the door, and then hopefully at some point, those people will engage in the life of the church.
And while the attractional model worked for a season in the church’s life, I’ve discovered, and perhaps you have too, that people become most passionate about the things with which they’re most involved. Just talk to a cyclist, an Atlanta Falcons’ fan, an Atlanta United fan, or a "foodie" that lives on discovering new recipes and always telling you about them or making you a guinea pig who tastes their new concoctions.
So just how does a church stopped being fooled and engage with the people in its community? How do we connect with the people? How do we build relationships with the people who are living right around the church campus? Here are five community engagement questions to help churches engage its community.
After engaging the community with the questions, the next step is to use the data to plan the church’s calendar using what I call “inviting” events, activities that focus on the hopes, dreams, and needs of people outside the church. Inviting events are different from what I call “connecting” or fellowship events that focus on the people already inside the church.
- How long have you lived in this community?
- What do you think is the greatest need in this community?
- What are the hopes and dreams for your family?
- What advice can you give our church on how to provide hope to help families deal with today’s pressures?
- How can we pray for you?
Every church, no matter its size, has on average at least 6 or more "connecting" events annually. Here are some examples: Homecoming, Church Anniversary, Revivals, Men’s Day, Women’s Day, Fundraisers like Church Picnic/BBQ or a Fish Fry.
Connecting events like these that focus on the needs of people inside the church are not substitutes for inviting events to engage people outside. It's not an either invite or connect proposition. Instead, it's finding creative ways to do both/and. For example, if a church hosts a Saturday Fish Fry, a "connecting" event, the chances of community people who purchased fish showing up the next day for worship is slim-to-none. The people came for fish, and NOT to participate in the church! And in their minds, since they've already given you one day of their time on Saturday, they're less likely to show up for an encore.
A church has to have a strategy to create the same amount of inviting events as connecting event scheduled on its calendar. Take a look at your calendar from April-June. What are the fellowship events, the ones that focus on people already attending the church?
Using the data gathered from the community engagement questions, are there invitation events that you can schedule alongside the connecting events? For instance, Easter can be both a "connecting" or an "inviting" event, depending on your strategy. It’s a connecting event where family members return come to participate in the service.
If your church has an Easter Egg Hunt scheduled, it can serve as an excellent opportunity to ask participants the five community engagement questions to get data on the dreams, hopes, needs, and passions of the community. The gathered data can assist your church in planning additional inviting events to address community hopes and needs.
Here’s the process: Once a church asks a person to attend an "inviting" event, the next step is to encourage the person to a "connecting" function. Both events, give congregations a chance to form new relationships to engage people before they attend worship. It might take several more inviting and connecting events before a person shows up on Sunday morning. And even if no one shows up for worship, the congregation has begun to get outside of its walls and into the community.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can attract new people to church without engaging with them first. April Fools Day isn’t engaging.
On the Journey,