Austin American-Statesman, Ricardo B. Brazziell, AP Photo
ROUND ROCK, Texas — By the time the new North Hills Baptist Church opens, Pastor Jeremy Van Delinder will have enlisted dozens of volunteers and founding coaches from his former church in Florida to help get the word out.
Like most church starters, he has knocked on strangers' doors, sent emails and set up a website for the church in recent months. But he has also had volunteers run an old-fashioned phone bank, making about 23,000 calls to try to recruit members to the Round Rock church.
Church planting has changed as technology has improved and churches have sought to market themselves across generational lines, local church leaders say.
In an increasingly electronically connected culture, church planters have access to more targeted information about demographics and population statistics than ever before. For some church planters, that means behaving more like social marketers and entrepreneurs than pastors who are hoping to spread the gospel organically, local pastors say.
Van Delinder said he chose Round Rock for his new church after visiting the area in 2007 and 2008 and looking at demographic studies showing that there wasn't a large evangelical presence in Austin's five-county metro area. Pastors in the area also told him of the need for an evangelical church in Round Rock.
"Studies show the best way to communicate with a community is to plant a new church," he said.
Austin Baptist Association executive director David Smith, who works with about 180 local Baptist churches, said that among planters that he has worked with, "there's an understanding that in the day and time in which we live there's going to have to be multiple ways in which you make contact with people."
Jonathan Dodson, the lead pastor at Austin City Life, is also a co-founder of the Austin Plantr Network, a group of 60 pastors who meet monthly. He said that reaching out to church members online has become a crucial part of strategy for planters.
"Websites have become like fellowship halls of times past, except they're removed from people in a way that's probably good and bad," Dodson said. A virtual community can provide connection up to a point, but it's not a substitute for face-to-face contact, he added.
Micah Davidson, who recently moved to the Circle C Ranch community in Southwest Austin to plant a Real Life Fellowship, is trying to use the Web not only to reach out to potential church members but also to launch a multisite church that includes real-time services broadcast via satellite between Austin and Corpus Christi, where he started a church that now has 1,200 members.
He also uses an e-mail system called MailChimp, which allows him reach up to 1,000 people by posting the equivalent of a voice mail online because not everyone has a phone, he said.
"We keep our community informed," Davidson said. "But we're kind of going back in time in that people are looking for the personal connection where they want to get to know you and talk to you. It's old-fashioned word of mouth to advertise, but something unique when they come."
Van Delinder said North Hills will be a traditional evangelical Baptist church, with hymns instead of bands and a heavy emphasis on "preaching and teaching the Bible systematically to help people learn what the Bible says in its context."
Even with all of the multiplatform outreach, North Hills will have to beat the odds to succeed. Dodson and Smith said more than 80 percent of church plants fail within the first year.
"To be sure, it is a risky venture," Van Delinder said. "But it also has the potential of earning huge dividends in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com
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