Bruce Reyes-Chow, our young, hip, and very distinguished Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, came into town for a meeting this week, and it was great to spend some time with him. He had a town hall meeting, where people could ask him questions. It was interesting that he began to talk about something that I hear and talk about often. In fact, it was the second time that week it had come up, and it came up again when we walked to lunch.

“Going to church is like being a part of a secret club,” a smart, interesting young church leader explained as we crossed the street for a bite after the gathering, “When you meet someone else who goes to church it’s really exciting. It just never comes up in regular conversation.”

The way most people find themselves in a particular church is by word of mouth. Right? A friend told them about the congregation. The Welcome Wagon greeted newcomers with a list of churches and some personal recommendations. A person asks her neighbors. Not any more.

No one is expected to go to church any longer, and no one talks about church any more. Especially people who are under forty. Even for church leaders, people who are really dedicated to their congregations, it just doesn’t come up.

I noticed the shift at my first congregation, University Presbyterian in Austin. A person about twenty years older than I was (I was 24) mentioned putting their role as an elder in the church on their resume. I was shocked, thinking, Why on earth would anyone do that? But I’m sure it was probably pretty common in Texas. Talking about church in general was pretty common ten years ago… in a different generation.

Now, talking about church is just not as socially acceptable. The mainline church used to be known as a place where one could make professional connections. Growing up Baptist, we would look at the mainlines and say, “People go their to bolster their social status. It’s like the country club.” The accusation was not fair then, and it’s not true now. Talking about where you worship in the workplace is pretty much frowned upon.

I sort of lose sight of the fact that people don’t talk about church. People usually ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I’m a pastor, and they go on for a good twenty minutes about their church, their former church, and the church they wish they were at. Around my friends outside of the congregation, I end up talking about church all the time, even when I don’t steer the conversation in that direction. Maybe it’s because they can’t talk to anyone else about it.

Western still gets most of our young members from word of mouth. The WOM just sounds different. From what I hear, it’s more like, “Check out our church. It’s not like that. It’s different. I promise.” And people do. Friends bring friends to church all the time at our place.

There is another shift going on in the larger culture that we can’t ignore in all of this. Part of a shift to Web 2.0 is the ability for people to rate, review, and comment. People rely less on professional advertising, and WOM has become more important than ever before. It just looks different.

That’s where Bruce comes in. He encourages his church to review the congregation on Yelp, an online service where you can review restaurants, shops, and entertainment spots, and religious organizations.

So, what do you do? How do you encourage people to spread the word in an environment where it’s unlikely that church will ever come up? Do people talk about church more in other parts of the country? How do people usually find out about your church? Are you on review sites? Do you encourage them? Are you afraid of them? What do you think?

photo by sleepydays


9 thoughts on “WOM

  1. Carol, I’m fascinated by the idea of reviewing churches on Yelp, what a great thought.
    Word of mouth is everything. If people already in the church don’t feel a call (both inner and outer) to include others, nothing we do in terms of advertising or events will make much of a difference. I learned this the hard way in a dear congregation of kind people with historically low self-esteem. Even when they got excited about what was going on at church and in their own lives, they felt shy to invite people, or most of them did. Maybe I should have been able to instill confidence in more of them, but when you’re working against both 100 years of church family temperament and the change in the neighborhood and the change in who goes to church anyway…I admit I ran out of ideas about the same time they were running out of money.

  2. People definately talk about church more in other parts of the country – at least in my experience… Here in the “bible belt” the topic comes up quite often…(I’ve done community musical theatre in two different states, and despite some of the stereotypes of theatre people (the stereotypes prosper in the Bible belt as much as anywhere) the vast majority of people go to church SOMEWHERE and it does come up in conversation…

    However – I’m not sure that it results in any better evangelism – I’ve seen lately where the vast majority of people joining our churches are joining from other churches or are returning to the faith – and I know they are out there – whether they are the majority around here or not… Sometimes I think evangelism would actually be EASIER outside of the Bible belt because you perhaps don’t have quite the problem of “since grandma and mamma were Christians, I am too”

  3. Almost all of the photos are from flickr. I spend about 4 minutes scoping them out. For this one, I searched for “mouth,” and this fabulous little girl showed up in the first page. You can use them online, as long as you put a link back to the photographer’s site.

  4. Though I’m not evangelical in background, prior to becoming a pastor I never had any trouble talking about church to non-churchy folks.

    My most active engagement with my congregation (the church I was born and raised in is New York Avenue in downtown DC) was with a fellowship ministry (the Seven-to-Nine Club) for the indigent mentally ill, folks who were either off the street, living in DC group homes, or from St. Elizabeth’s. These were human beings with fascinating life stories, and sharing life with them and caring for them as other children of God was worth talking about. I had no trouble inviting folks to join me there. If you care deeply and passionately about something, and it’s inherently and self-evidently good, it’s not hard to muster the gumption to talk about it.

    I’ve tried yelping about my congregation, but I honestly think it’s not afire in this area the way it is on the Left Coast. It’s also too passive. A better and more *cough* proactive *cough* approach, I think, is to actively utilize some of the tools availably through social utility sites. The FaceBook events page has worked well for us…although getting my membership to get all viral with it is more of a challenge than I’d thought.

  5. Interesting. When I tell people I’m a pastor, the LAST thing anyone does is talk for twenty minutes about church. Usually, people shift their feet awkwardly as they grasp for some kind of follow-up question. I joke that telling people I’m a pastor is comparable to saying I’m a blacksmith, it’s surprising cause people don’t know they still exist.

  6. You raise some really interesting points. I think you are right that is lots of places (at least not in the Deep South), it really is socially unacceptable to talk about religion. I think part of it is that there is just so much religious diversity in our culture that it can be an uncomfortable topic to broach in a lot of settings. Perhaps also Americans are becoming more European in their outlook towards religion, where it is something that they don’t like to admit publicly that they are interested in it. (The New York Times a year and a half ago quoted a researcher who found that Americans lied to researchers about being more religious than they are, and Europeans lied about being less religious than they are, because they thought it wasn’t cool to admit being religious. Maybe Americans are becoming more like that?)

    As for Yelp, I’ve run across Bruce’s reviews (I live in the same city he does). He is always very positive about the Presbyterian churches he comments on. I wrote a couple of reviews, but one of them was an agonizing process for me because it involved a church that wasn’t really right for me, even though I appreciated the progressiveness of the congregation and pastor; the problem is that people I know and like might read what I have to say, and I found myself struggling over being respectful at the same time that I had to explain why it wasn’t quite right for me. And then there is the problem of how many stars to give; even though it wasn’t right for me, I think it would have been a great church for others. So do I stand back and say, “Five stars because the people are good and other people besides me might love it? Or four stars, because I can’t honestly say that it is quite right for me?” So Yelp, in my view, is a complicated thing.

    In general, though, I would say that I have done almost a significant percentage of my research about potential churches to visit by looking on the web. The problem, unfortunately, is that not all web sites give me enough information that tell me what I need to know. I am one of those people who resides far out in the Christian orbit and who probably will never find an exact match, and who also has some serious issues about aspects of my religious upbringing which makes me skittish. Different churches provide different kinds of information on their web sites; that is where sending an email off to the pastor comes in.

  7. I echo a previous poster’s kudos on your photo selections. I liked the recent old phot of the pastor in clerical garb and I liked the empty pulpit one.

    I didn’t think twice about putting my role as elder in my resume – in the section on other activities or whatever. I’ve always lived in Texas so maybe that’s why it didn’t seem like an odd thing.

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