Different sized (and aged) churches require different approaches to advertising and publicity.
From the very beginning, we avoided advertising at evergreen... our thought was simply that if we didn't grow by the quality of our relationships (as opposed to the quality of our advertising), we didn't deserve to grow.
Now, that's a pretty hard line, and needs some nuancing. This stance meant that though we have never advertised in print media, doing the postcard route or taking out adds in places, I did go to lengths to have a decent presence on the internet. We also spend maybe $5 a month on google ad words. The thought was that if people are actively looking for us, they should be able to find us.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw some thoughts along a similar vein from Tim Keller's Redeemer Church in New York. Though their policy comes from a slightly different place (they are big enough, in their minds, and want to focus on planting churches rather than growing ever larger) there are similarities... and they say it much better than I do.
Their policy is:
We do not provide interviews or participate in stories; we do not desire publicity that will raise our profile. This policy exists for these reasons:
1) Anything that raises Redeemer's profile pulls Christians out of their own churches to visit or join us. This is a bad neighbor policy; the City needs many different churches, not one big mega-church, something we are going to great pains to avoid becoming.
2) If Redeemer becomes a “Christian tourist destination," our limited seating will be filled with those who already believe in Jesus, leaving no room for genuine seekers. We are already turning people away at one service, and seating is tight at others. Therefore, we do not want any publicity that would fill our seats with curious believers.
3) Redeemer would prefer that seekers come as the result of relationship (i.e., they are accompanying a friend who is then available to discuss things with them following the service.) To come into a church like Redeemer is not an easy thing, and although publicity might result in a few non-believer walk-ins, we would prefer there to be none at all.
4) Redeemer’s message is nuanced and non-political. We want to present the gospel and have people make up their minds about whether Jesus is God or not, rather than convincing them to espouse a point of view about this or that hot-button issue. Since this is somewhat different than the approach of some other evangelical churches, we don’t want to say or do anything that would give the impression that we fit into the storyline that the media currently has about evangelicals. This would tend to obscure and falsify our real message.
On number 1- this has been a tough one for us. It's been our hope that evergreen will be built as a community of unchurched and formerly churched folks. Of course, our core group was made up of Christians, though we tried to draw mainly people who were in some kind of transition, at the end of their rope with church as usual, perhaps even in danger of becoming "formerly churched." And recently, a big influx of growth has come from people moving into the area. Many find us on the web before they ever hit portland.
Now, I realize that this is somewhat different coming from an established church as opposed to a new church plant... I respect Redeemer's decision not to raise their profile in this way. But, I would urge new churches to think similarly. If you can't build a community because you and the people you are planting the church with are connecting with people, loving them, inviting them into community, well...
Advertising you do has a less than 1% effectiveness rate. Send out 1000 mailers and maybe 5-7 people might check out your community because of it. Considering the fact that less than 10% of your visitors are going to come back and be a part of your community, and when you consider the percentage of that small number that is likely to be either unchurched or formerly churched, well... It's seems as though you might be better off doing something besides the mailer thing. It's too expensive for the returns on the investment.
On number 2- This is starting to become an issue for us as well... each week we have anywhere from 8 to 12 visitors... this for a church that right now averages 85-95 people a week. A lot of people are just coming to see the pub church thing. Not quite sure what to do about that.
Occasionally, I get a little miffed when I'm talking to someone on a Sunday morning (being honest here...) and I realize they are a tourist, someone just seeing what we're about, but with no real intention of becoming a part of our community. I always think about the others I (and the rest of our welcoming community) could have spent my time with...
On number 3- I understand why Redeemer would say that they prefer to have no non-christians just "walk in." When you reach that large size where someone is more likely to go unnoticed than be welcomed, it makes sense. Of course, what makes even more sense to me is to avoid getting to that size in the first place through church planting :)
So while we don't advertise or do mailers, it's been cool to have been featured in Willamette Week twice so far- once in a story with Donald Miller and once as the "Best Church That Meets In A Bar." That's the kind of advertising I love (even though the second got my name wrong...). Since they don't exactly distribute Willamette Week (it's an "alternative" paper) in the foyers of local churches, it pretty much guaranteed that the people we would love to see come to evergreen, saw us.
As I said, "Different sized (and aged) churches require different approaches to advertising and publicity." For both us and Redeemer, advertising is not desired. For them, where they are at, even free publicity is avoided. We love it. I recently advised a new church planter to think about a targeted direct mail thing. Each community is individual, but I think by and large, paid advertising is unhelpful for the reasons above.
Just some thoughts... sorry if they didn't exactly cohere :)