The human brain is more active during sleep than when watching television. Think about that for a minute. Your brain has more activity while you’re unconscious than when you’re catching the latest episode of Honey Boo-Boo.
Why is this? The answer is simple: imagination. When the brain watches television (or, more precisely, when your eyes inform your brain that you’re watching television), your imagination doesn’t have to do any work. Everything is played out visually, nice and neat, right in front of you. The producers, directors, and actors tell your brain what to think. You have no active role. You are, quite literally, a couch potato.
Contrast this with reading a book. When you read, your imagination has to fill in the details. What does District 13 look like? Just how big is JAWS? How deep does the rabbit hole go? Your imagination gets to run amok, fantasizing about every last detail. (Sidenote: This is why most people say things like, “the book was way better!” after a novel makes the jump to the big screen. Of course it’s better–it’s the world they created!)
Contrast this with the way that most churches produce events. The promotional material makes it seem like you’ll win the lottery, have a great hair day, and get that great parking spot…if only you’ll attend!
“There’s going to be cake and balloons and puppies and unicorns! Oh, the unicorns! You’ve never seen such magical manes! All that, and more, at this month’s Women’s Ministry Monthly Monday Meetup for Mission Matters Course for Women!”
We over-promise and under-deliver nearly every time. Most church events have the appeal of a case of shingles on a 100-degree day. In other words, they stink.
When we see how Jesus communicated, we see a model that was heavily influenced by the power of narrative. He told stories that were easy to understand. His stories had an edge to them. After hearing Jesus speak, most folks walked away a with plenty of questions (“he’s going to do what?“).
The model looked like this:
1. Is is simple?
2. Is it absurd?
3. Does it get people to ask questions?
A woman lost a valuable coin. She looked all over to find it. When she finally found it, she was super happy and told people about it. You’re the coin. God is the lady. You matter to God. (That’s Luke 15:8-10, by the way.)
Sounds good, right? Jesus was simple. The Gospel is simple. But neither are simplistic.
I want to use this framework to lay out an approach you can take to capture interest for your next event. It works by giving the basic details and then enticing the imagination to fill in the gaps.
If people aren’t showing up to your events, they don’t need more rationale. It’s not details they’re after. The need to be enticed. Here’s how to do it.
Is the story you are telling simple?
Church events unnecessarily turn into elaborate labyrinths, fraught with complications around every turn. It’s like a game of hokey-pokey that never ends.
Invite 10 people.
Do a backflip.
Recite the pledge of allegiance.
Solve a Rubik’s cube.
Say 10 “Hail Marys”.
Park in the grass…the grass!
…then shake it all about.
If we don’t complicate it programmatically, we do it socially. Case-in-point: What would your church do if someone showed up on Sunday morning in full drag? Would that person be welcomed into the community? Encouraged to join a small group? I think we all know the answer.
My favorite events are simple. They clearly communicate how one can get involved while showing the benefit of someone’s participation. For instance:
Potluck/All-Church Picnic: We are going to have a party for two hours. It will be fun. You should come and invite other people.
Food Drive: Show up at this time, in this place. Bring food for people who need it. Don’t bring anything you wouldn’t want to eat yourself.
Bible Study: Read this chapter in this book. If you don’t have it, you can buy it here. We’ll discuss it for an hour. Then you can leave.
In each instance, I know what’s expected of me, how long I’ll need to be there, and when I get to leave. All of that in a few sentences.
Make your events dead simple. Make your communication surrounding the event even simpler. More people will show up.
Is the story you are telling absurd?
Jesus knew how to pick a side. Often in churches, our events are targeted to be “OAFAPs”: “Offend as Few as Possible.” While I’m not suggesting we intentionally go and pick fights, I think churches could stand to pick a side now and again. We could stand to be more absurd.
The Bible is rife with absurdity: A prophet (Ezekiel) forced to eat his own excrement? A talking donkey (Balaam’s, um, mule)? A man (Peter) finding money in a trout’s mouth? These things are absurd. Yet each one was terribly effective at conveying the message God intended for the situation.
God’s absurdity is purposeful. People gravitate towards extremes. The folks who stand tepidly in the middle tend to get overlooked and ignored. Jesus was neither. Put simply, “absurd” means let your convictions guide you and pick a freaking side.
One of my favorite examples comes from East Lake Church in Chula Visa, CA. After some nearby shark attacks (no one was seriously injured…I think), the good folks at East Lake put up signs in the local mall stating, “Sharks not welcome at East Lake Church.”
Hilarious. And absurd. And most likely offensive. The signs had service times and locations on them, inviting passersby to church. The jest was not appreciated by everyone, but it got people to check East Lake out. Awesome.
I imagine the hearers of Jesus’ message stomping away in anger, infuriated by what he said. Others were confused, elated, mystified, encouraged, or a mixture of all four. Jesus knew how to draw a crowd and we, as his followers, could stand to learn something from his model of absurdity.
Does the story you tell get people to ask questions?
Curiosity is one of the most powerful human motivators in existence. It’s what killed the cat, fueled George, and put a robot on Mars (MARS!). To steal a line from one of my favorite movies of all time, “It’s the question that drives us.”
Curiosity can be have its roots in evil. Trying drugs, eating a spoonful of cinnamon (don’t do it…trust me), and watching Jersey Shore all stem from the dark side of curiosity. We simply can’t take people at their word that what we’re about to do is a bad idea.
But curiosity can most definitely be used for good. I’d imagine the people of Jesus’ day were plenty curious after hearing him speak. For example:
Why did he relate the Kingdom of God to soil, of all things?
Why didn’t he speak longer? I’ve been waiting all day!
Where did this guy come from? Does anything good come from there?
Why do I always feel like something special is going to happen when he speaks?
How are those fishermen who follow him able to do such amazing things?
Set the stage for what will happen with your event or program. Paint a picture that others need to finish and you’ll have more people than you know what to do with. Get them thinking in a way that transcends details (time, date, location, etc.) and accesses the imagination.
The best events are the ones that are simple, absurd, and get people to ask questions. Create a communication strategy around the same criteria and engage the minds of the people you want to attract.