- First think about yourself. To succeed you need to build a major corporation with a dedicated and loyal customer base. To do this you need to be professional, and powerful. They are your two watchwords. Being informal is akin to being random. Being weak is unattractive. Build a persona for yourself around these two words. It is fine to deliberately shift the focus from yourself (God is powerful, I am weak), as long as you don’t believe it yourself. It is up to you to do this thing. If you dress like a bum, then go and hire a personal shopper. You shouldn’t end up looking like a Mormon, but you want to exude power. Learn to shake hands firmly and look men in the eye as you talk to them (this is more threatening to women, but they matter less for your success, as we’ll see). Oh, and be male and able-bodied.
- Get up to date demographic information for your city. Find the up-and-coming area. Ideally it should be growing quickly, mainly through settlement by young adults. These people are attracted to areas with lower housing costs (because they don’t have large amounts of housing equity), yet have good disposable incomes. They bring in their middle class values into an area. And aspirational middle classes are your prime market. The same areas are historically not as middle class (or are not residential at all), meaning you have less competition. If you’re really serious about this, look for the same data for the whole country, or whole world. The biggest mega-church planters have been willing to move anywhere to maximize their success.
- Plan to run a commissioning service for three months down the track. Your first month goal is to recruit a small group of people to support you. You will find them particularly at smaller local churches just outside the area you are targeting. Go to churches, attend services. Seek out key people, ex-members of the leadership team (they often are disenchanted with their churches progress). Make it clear that you are planting a new church in an under-served area, and need prayer support. Ask them to pray. Take details. Contact them. Ask them if they’d be willing to join with a group of others in a short time of communal prayer for you as you “reach the next stage” of your outreach. You will, of course, expect these people to jump ship as soon as possible, but initially make it clear that you are just looking for prayer and moral support. Get 10 or 12 of these people together regularly to pray for you, if some drop out, find more. During those times spend the majority of your effort on enthusing them. Motivating them to believe in this great work. Talk lots about what this new church will look like and feel like and how it will reflect the desires and the plan of God. You need to capitalize on the fact that 99.9% of churches are staid, repetitive and have no desire to act on their ‘vision statement’.
- Hire a great graphic design company (or better yet a talented religious designer willing to work on the cheap). Get a great flyer, website, and logo going. This will be your major calling card for the next 3 months. You will use it in your ‘outreach’ (see below). Don’t ever settle for crappy communications, professionalism is your lifeblood. Most of your target market will be used to corporate style professionalism. Cooky and home-grown might be cute, but won’t take you far. If you can write, then write a small book on how it is time to really move forward, fulfil the promises of your creed, and win the world to God. Focus entirely on the what, not the how. Self-publish it through Lulu, or a similar service. Have a bunch of copies to give to folks who might become your supporters.
- Recognize that most of your churchgoers will be currently attending other churches (you’ll typically have less than 1/5 new converts). Your ideal recruit will be an existing churchgoer and male (because men still typically have more money, and have more say over their family finances, and if a man goes to a church it is much more likely that his whole family attends). Keep that in mind, and take your message door to door. Eventually this will be self sustaining. But initially you have to talk to people. This isn’t evangelism. You don’t need to worry about converting people. Ask if they are church people. If they are, make a joke about not targeting them (to put them at their ease), give them a flyer and enthuse to them about what new great work you are going to do with your church. How amazing it will be. And how much it is divinely endorsed. Ask them about their religious and work experience (keeping an ear out for potential supporters), and ask them to pray about your ministry moving forwards. If you find folks who aren’t already into church, it is fine to just introduce yourself and move on. The goal is to get your potential market excited about the church, and hearing about it. Your goal is to make them want to “come and see”.
- Make sure your first year of church is super-professional. Accept no amateurish compromises, even if you have to spend like crazy, or cut something out. Find some great musicians. If you can’t find them willing to do it for nothing, hire them. Music has to be top notch from day one. It is a main driver for visitors to feel ‘wowed’ and to feel that your church is better than theirs. Invest in a good PA and lighting. Find a venue that you can quickly outgrow, preferably in the first month. Plan an initial sermon series about what a great work God is doing in the area. Follow the basic rules of TV series: hint at what is to come but don’t tell them. Make sure they know that the “Really Big Thing that will change this corner of the World” will be revealed later. At this point your church hasn’t failed to live up to anything, so you can make your sermons unremittingly ambitious for what the Church could be. People love success, and love to be involved when success is easy. Give them this ground-floor opportunity. An opportunity to change their religious lives. Remember most of these folks are in other churches, so you need to tell them what you will be doing differently. How you will support them (they will feel under-supported in their local church), how you will empower them (they will feel week), how your church will show the real power of God (they will feel underwhelmed by their religious experience). Power language attracts men. Never explicitly try to recruit them, but make the grass way greener on your side.
- From the very first service you need to be thinking about revenue. Initially it isn’t a hard sell. If you’ve done your job right, you’ll have a bunch of people excited about what you’ll do. They realise it needs resources. Appeal for support after your big sermons about changing the world. Appeal to folks to become subscribers, partners in your ministry. Have the relevant documentation to hand, and ask your helpers to get the signatures there and then. Don’t talk about tithing or sacrificial giving, talk about how God is going to change the world, and they will be the people to make it happen. People don’t respond well to being begged for money, but they will put money into buying something, something like a major work of God. They will buy the idea that this church will put into practice what they’ve been told to believe, but have failed to see materialize in the past.
I’ve spent the last month or so researching how mega-churches (defined as churches with more than 2000 attendees) get started. Those that are started from scratch follow a remarkably similar model. This list is drawn from that reality. Almost no new mega-churches fail to head this. It is pretty basic marketing, really.
Edit – June 11, 2010: A small bibliography of stuff I’ve read on this:
Eiesland, Nancy L. 1997. “Contending with a giant: the impact of a megachurch on exurban religious institutions.” In Contemporary American Religion: An Ethnographic Reader., ed. Nancy L. Eiesland and Penny Edgell Becker, 191–220. Walnut Creek: Altamira.
Einstein, Mara. 2007. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. 1st ed. Routledge, September 18.
Hoover, Stewart M. 2006. Religion in the Media Age. Routledge.
Lynch, Gordon. 2007. Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture. I B Tauris & Co Ltd.
Thumma, Scott. 1996. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: The Megachurch in Modern American Society. Emory University, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (PhD dissertation).
Thumma, Scott and Dave Travis. 2007. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches. Jossey Bass.
Thumma, Scott. (ed.) 2010. Database of Megachurches in the US. Online at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/database.html.
Zook, Thomas. 1993. An Examination of Leadership Practices in Large, Protestant Congregations. Emory University, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (PhD dissertation).
These are all more or less credulous, but are quite reasonable in comparison with the huge literature on Church Growth which, by putting the emphasis on the actions of a God, miss the point of why big churches really happen. Also it is worth saying that these resources relate to the (mainly protestant, mainly US) Christian phenomenon of mega-churches. Please let me know of any resources for other religious groups.