Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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Getting Attention vs. Gaining Traction

  • Dr. James Emery White

    The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and…

  • Published Mar 17, 2011

One of the more common mistakes I see among church leaders, and particularly church planters, is confusing getting attention with gaining traction.

As marketer Seth Godin recently noted, that kid in school everyone cheers for who's vying for the award for class clown might appear popular, but it certainly could hurt his chances of being taken seriously enough to get into college.

Or think of the corporate world; you can make yourself stand out and be "over the top" enough to score a handshake or even a meeting with the big wigs, but the very thing that landed you the meeting might be exactly what costs you the deal.

Getting attention is relatively easy.  Gaining traction is not.

And it’s traction that you want.

Recently USA Today ran a story on a start-up Indiana church which used sex to sell its message.  Its marketing campaign featured the line, “What happens when God gets between the sheets?” – a question posed to promote a series on the link between sex and religion.

I’m sure it will be a good, biblically based series that will help those in attendance.  And it’s not a bad line to arrest some attention.  But that’s the point – will it only be that which gets attention or will it actually help the church attract new attenders and gain some traction?

(*It was a banner week for churches in Indiana; Fox News ran a story about another Indiana church using billboards to advertise the website myemptysexlife.com, which takes people to the church’s website and its new series on the positive aspects of a healthy sex life within marriage.)

An even larger question is whether we are increasingly succumbing to the idea that we have to use sensationalism to penetrate a post-Christian culture and draw crowds; the shock series title, the car giveaway, the celebrity interview.  Is it media attention we’re ultimately after?  Is that what grows a church?


Case in point:  Meck has received quite a bit of “attention” over the years.  We’ve been on the front page of our local newspaper (which has over 1,000,000 subscribers/viewers) on multiple occasions; all positive stories related to our growth or innovation.  We’ve been featured in national news stories, from USA Today to CBS News.  We’ve been cited in books and magazines.  We’ve even had our fair share of flirting with “sensationalism”, whether intended or not, with local media jumping on our “Porn Sunday” held with the xxxChurch ministry, holding Easter services at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, and more.

Result?  No major spikes in attendance following any of it.

Attention?  Most definitely.  But no appreciable increase in attraction.

Traction is gaining ground in your community.  It is taking over subdivisions and neighborhoods.  It is winning family after family.  It is when I go to a coffee shop and begin bantering with the barista, find an opening to invite her to attend, and she tells me that I’m the third person that day that’s invited her to Meck.  It is a reputation among the unchurched that you are generous and good and growing and alive.

So if not from attention, where does such traction come from?  From raging fans.  Our reputation, and growth, has come almost entirely through word of mouth.  Not the kind started with a billboard or mailing, but the kind generated by people’s experience

And this penetrates the culture like nothing else.  Based on our exit interviews, taken at every membership class for years, we currently experience over seventy-percent of our total growth from those who were previously unchurched.  And of those, the vast, vast majority came because they were invited by one of those raging fans.

Simply put, it’s all about being talked about like gossip over the backyard fence, which doesn’t come from spectacle.

It comes from those who believe you are spectacular.

James Emery White



“The thing that makes it popular…”, Seth Godin, posted on March 4, 2011. Read online.

“Start-up Indiana church uses sex to sell message,” Josh Duke, USA Today, February 13, 2011.  Read online.

“Indiana Church Behind Provocative Sex Billboard,” Fox News. Read online.

Meck:  Mecklenburg Community Church (www.mecklenburg.org). 

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