By Eddie Pipkin

I was at a race event at Daytona International Speedway last weekend, and I happened to have a pass that allowed me infield access.  Looking up from ground level from some distance away to the enormous grandstands that front the iconic 2.5-mile track, I was astonished to see how many people were in attendance.  Until I realized they really weren’t, at least not in the grandstands.  I was experiencing an intentional optical illusion: the one where they scatter different colored seats throughout the stands to trick the eye (and more importantly the television camera lens) into thinking that more people are in attendance than actually are.  It’s a way to artificially create an aura of excitement (or better stated, to avoid the aura of lethargy that would be implied by a sea of empty seats), and it’s one of many tricks of the trade that is useful to anyone who plans and promotes programs and events for the public.

Just to be clear, I am not advocating that ministry leaders pretend that more people are attending events than are actually attending events.  Post-event boosterism is a popular pastime in ministry circles.  We are all invested in giving an energetic after report, and I used to have a running joke when I was working in local churches that preachers had a math adjustment gene to automatically add 10% to any room count.  That’s human nature.  We want to tell a great story about the awesome outcomes that have resulted from the hard work we have invested in any event.  What I am writing about this week, however, are the signals we are sending before and during an event or program that communicate a sense of enthusiastic anticipation and participation.

Too often we sabotage ourselves unnecessarily by sending signals of doom, gloom, or participation panic.  The ‘panic button’ mode is communicated, for instance, when we are either publicly begging or chastising people to participate in an upcoming event.  Let’s say we are hosting a weekend community park picnic, and the lack of sign-ups for volunteers is stressing us out:

  • Begging: “C’mon guys, we really need your help, and if we don’t have enough of you signing up, we are going to look really bad in the community. Please sign up if you haven’t yet to keep us from being embarrassed.”
  • Chastising: “C’mon guys, you know it is part of your duty as a disciple to serve in the community, and clearly enough of you are not taking this seriously. God is going to be very disappointed if we are not willing to sacrifice our weekend to help support this project.”

Beyond the nuts and bolts of building a robust servant-volunteer culture throughout the local church, which is an essential, long-term project, what I’m writing about here is public “vibe setting.”  People in the pews – like animals in the wild – can sense our fear and panic.  They may react to our attempts to shame or guilt them into participation, but it is a far better path to create a spirit of enthusiasm and opportunity.  One of the drawbacks to recruiting participants through the strategies of shaming or guilting people into joining in is that this tactic usually works on the same pool of people, so it’s hard to grow a ministry in this manner.  If you take a look at ministries that are barely hanging on, it is a good bet that that the people keeping them on life support are being retained through these problematic strategies and a hard-wired sense of duty or obligation.

Building enthusiasm, however, entices new people to want to get involved.  So, during announcements in public settings, we should always be creating the sense that people are actively excited about the upcoming possibility to participate:

  • Use individuals telling their own stories to communicate their own enthusiasm: Let people tell why they are excited to be participating in the upcoming event. This can be a short, simple witness (being sure to rehearse whatever you plan to do) or a creative video extravaganza.  Choose your context.
  • Communicate the impact you expect the event to have: Tell why it will matter in the lives of those who are going to be participants.
  • Have someone who has participated in a previous version of the event (or a similar event) tell how it impacted them positively: Create a sense for people who haven’t participated before that they don’t want to miss out. FOMO (fear of missing out) is your friend.
  • Get people visibly involved who are popular leaders: Make sure you’ve recruited some participants whom other people are excited about being around.
  • Create a sense of “team spirit” around the event: Create a pep rally effect; have a great logo; use art, photos, banners, shirts, and more. Give people a chance to replicate these creative visual tools in their own social media feeds and with their own friends.
  • Publicly celebrate those who are choosing to participate: Stickers and t-shirts are great for this function. You can also make and share short video clips celebrating those who are answering the call.
  • Whatever you do, don’t be a Gloomy Gus when talking publicly about the upcoming event or program. I wish I had a dollar for every time a leader stood on a stage during worship and said, “Hey, I know you think this is going to be a boring event and a waste of your day and you really don’t want to do it, but you can trust me that it’s not going to be as bad as you think it is.”    I’m not saying make things up – that strategy has its own well-documented end result of unfortunate outcomes – I’m saying to stay laser-focused on the genuinely strong selling points of the event or program you are offering.

As long as I have been writing about these communication issues, I still regularly go to churches who treat announcement time as an uninspired list-reading of upcoming event bullet points.

Any public opportunity to speak and promote ministry interactions is a time to cast visions for future impact and celebrate the working of the Holy Spirit among those who have already embraced this dimension of their discipleship.  These public pronouncements should be a celebration of how lives are being changed and a way to project dreams of future potential.

The same considerations are also at work in our social media feeds and congregational communication.  A dry list of what’s-happening-when is useful if we’re trying to remember what day choir practice is, but it’s not likely to motivate someone to join the choir.  We need stories.  We need to celebrate the people who have made the leap to invest themselves in participation.

As always, more communication is better – a saturation of communication!  But also creatively communicated communications and authentically human-experience-based communications (people’s stories).

There are some other things we can do to boost the sense of enthusiasm of a program and event when it’s happening:

  • Don’t put a small event in a big event space. This unfortunate scheduling creates a sense that there aren’t many people in the room, and it automatically saps the energy level of the good souls who are there.  Put a small event in a cozy space, and people will tell you later how they loved the intimate vibe of the thing they were attending.  You can even make a big space seem like a smaller space if you are clever with writing and furniture arrangement.
  • Don’t pick the broom closet for your designated small space. Any space where you are hosting people should be welcoming, comfortable, and give the impression of a happy, hospitable home.  You have people in your congregation who love to decorate and to host things and do so in style.  Let them take a look at your small spaces and make them homey.
  • Whatever the size of your event, designate one person or a team of people to be Enthusiasm Impresarios. They are, in effect, “plants” who will be responsible for bringing some energy to the event or program space.  They will chat people up, engage the wallflowers, and fill the awkward spaces with introductory banter.  Do NOT assume that the person who is officially in charge of running the group will fill this role, particularly if that person is a staff member, because such leaders inevitably get called out into the hall to deal with some pressing issue for a couple of minutes, leaving the event or program in an awkward and off-putting dead space.
  • In the same sense that you can recruit one or more enthusiasm leaders for the room where the event is happening, you can recruit enthusiasm leaders for the run-up to the event, reminding influencers in your congregational community to talk up the thing you are wanting to prioritize and post up positive comments about it in their social media feeds and promote it in their small groups.
  • Think also about navigational corridors, the pathways by which people get from their parked cars to an event location. We tend not to pay much attention to these travel spaces because we see them all the time – they are part of the background noise to us.  But try to see them through fresh eyes.  Such corridors should, themselves, exude energy, positivity, and possibility.  Have a team help you think through ways that you could achieve this goal through visual and auditory stimuli.

After an event is over or a program is concluded, don’t forget to celebrate what happened as robustly as possible.  Every picture and story you post in celebration of what just happened is setting the groundwork for the FOMO that will propel people to participate in your next activity.  Plus it makes everyone who participated or led feel great about what they did.  Celebrating our stories is a big part of defining who we are as a community.  Let’s not forget to do that every chance we get.

What are some strategies you use with your teams to create a sense of enthusiasm around upcoming events and activities?  Were you ever surprised to try out a seemingly crazy idea that actually worked?  Likewise, did you ever have a moment when some enthusiasm building scheme backfired?  Share a story or idea in the comments section below and watch how I celebrate you as an awesome participant who is making possible the zesty dialogue of ministry folk (and just plain folk) who make this blog possible.