Joshua Ott Grace Free Church

Joshua is the Lead Pastor at Grace Free Church in Pennsylvania, and nearly walked away from ministry on Christmas Eve 2016. Since then, he has become an advocate for the use of social media and marketing in ministry and has seen his church experience tremendou... read more

My journey in church marketing had an interesting start.  First, I don’t have any background in communications or marketing.  I am a lead pastor.  Second, I almost walked away from ministry right before implementing a social media strategy that would grow our church by 300% in a year and a half, because I thought I didn’t have what it takes to grow a church.

I almost walked away from ministry on Christmas Eve 2016.  If I’m being honest, I had been wrestling with a realization for months and it had worn me out. Our church wasn’t growing. A few years ago we had turned a dying church around making drastic changes, but now, we seemed stuck.  We were healthy but stuck in a gradual cycle of low rolling peaks and low lying valleys.  We weren’t reaching new people and as the Lead Pastor I couldn’t figure out why.  So, as the unavoidable reality of our lack of growth creeped into my heart, I was left with only one answer.  I was the problem.

My wife swung open the door to our bedroom.  Everyone was ready to head off to our church’s Christmas Eve service.  Everyone, except me. I was laying on our bed watching TV in a worn out t-shirt (not the cool kind we wear to preach) and ripped jeans (also not the cool kind we wear to preach). 

With a surprised look on her face, my wife said, “Hey you better get ready, it is time to leave for church.” 

I replied, “I’m not going.” 

And then for the first time, I voiced the inner turmoil that was crushing my heart and spirit, “Maybe I made a mistake, maybe this isn’t my calling, I don’t have what it takes and I can’t grow a church.”

Her reply was wise, but not comforting…”Get out of bed and get ready. We’re going to church. You can quit tomorrow.”

I went to church but I didn’t care how it went.  It didn’t matter.  It wouldn’t change anything.  All I wanted to do was get home so that I could celebrate Christmas with our family and escape church for a while. Over the next couple of days I put my heavy heart and my big questions on hold to enjoy all things Christmas with my kids.  It was a much needed break.  I returned to a leadership meeting the first Tuesday in 2017 and at the end of the meeting I informed everyone that I was worn out and needed the next Sunday off.

My team was gracious and concerned and gave me the Sunday off. I planned on going to a church that appeared to have it all together.  I wanted to know what they had, that I was missing so I could type it in a resignation letter and walk away from ministry with clarity. 

So when Sunday came, my wife and I took our kids to a different church.  It was a good church but as I sat there, God was renewing His call on my life.  We were, as a church, who were were supposed to be.  We were doing the things God wanted us to do.  We had the culture we needed to reach the unchurched and disconnected in our community.  The people we were trying to reach simply didn’t know we existed and if they knew we existed they didn’t know what we were like.  That was a problem I could try to solve.  I left refreshed, renewed and committed to let our county know that our church existed.

On February 15th I shot a video on an iPad that I had propped up with bibles.  I read a verse and shared an encouraging word, while sitting on a blue leather couch in my office. I called it “From the Blue Couch” and I posted it on Facebook.  I didn’t boost the post.  I didn’t even know what a boost was. Looking back at the video is a bit embarrassing, but it was a valiant effort from someone who didn’t know any better.  It worked, 75 likes, 17 comments and 35 shares, over 3k in views and the encouragement kept pouring in on messenger. Everything was about to change.  We were going to use social media to make two statements to everyone within our reach.  The two statements are: “We exist. This is what we are like.”  With zero marketing budget, an old DSLR camera and using free software and apps I started leveraging social media to grow our church and it worked.  It worked well.   I developed a simple strategy. Started creating and collecting more content and watched as God used these tools and my willingness to steward them to reach people. 

The chart below shows our twelve week moving average.

I approach church marketing on social media as a practitioner, figuring out how to increase my effectiveness by working content and strategies.  I have learned a lot of lessons over the past year and a half.  Lessons finding Church Marketing University earlier would have helped me learn a lot earlier.

Here are 5 social media lessons from a lead pastor’s perspective that can help grow your church.

1.  Approach social media as a ministry, not as a trendy thing you do.  If you know your audience and are reaching them your influence with them will grow over time.  Use that influence to add value to their lives and to minister to them. Don’t focus on building attendance at an event or even on a Sunday morning.  Focus on encouraging the people who are seeing your posts and the growth will happen automatically.  Shift your focus and you will see so much more than numerical growth, you will see spiritual growth.

2.  If you are a top tier leader, take social media marketing seriously.  A lot of lead pastors or top tier leaders in churches I work with pass off social media to a team, give them autonomy and let them go.  They stop providing leadership and even worse they stop championing social media and marketing strategies as a way to reach new people.  On the other hand leaders who cast vision, actively support content creation and help the communications team focus on and add value to the audience they’re trying to reach end up developing really effective strategies that actually reach people.  Their teams are energized, focused and supported.  As a result, these teams and their strategies are much more effective.

3.  Regularly talk about your social media target audience as a team.  I love thinking about the individuals who will be scrolling through their phones when one of our boosted value posts pops into their news feed.  It is important to spend time thinking about what your audience is thinking about.  What are they struggling with?  What are they hoping for this week?  What scares them?  What do they want from life, from work, from relationships?  Thinking through questions like these empowers your leaders to reach people.  Discussing your target audience regularly creates a narrow and sharp focus for your team that will keep your content focused and effective.

4.  Social media is a tool to steward.  The church has always used new techniques to reach people.  At one point in church history, people would go door to door or do church prayer walks in their communities as a way of reaching out to new people.  Mailers were extremely popular at one time. Community days are still an effective strategy to meet and serve new people. The tools available to us now, through social media,  offer us a better opportunity to reach more people. Just like all new tools, social media needs to be stewarded.  This takes investment financially and with personnel.   Stewarding the social media tool means giving it the proper attention and thought so that you can navigate grey areas well as they pop up.

5.  Create clarity for communication tools.  Creating clarity for communication is best done from the top down.  One of the greatest gifts you can give your communication teams is to create clarity for them with ministry leaders and congregants.  If your social page isn’t going to be used for announcements (it shouldn’t be) explain to everyone why it isn’t the place to post the pot luck dinner announcement.  Communicate how you are going to use communication tools to reach new people.  Let people know what tools they can use to communicate their ministry needs and make announcements.

I love the fluid landscape of social media.  Learning how to leverage this tool and other online strategies as a lead pastor has led to incredible growth at our church.  What would you like to see form lead pastors that would help you reach new people through social media and online strategies?

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