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6 (Non-Political) Lessons for Church Leaders from the Trump Campaign

6 (Non-Political) Lessons for Church Leaders from the Trump Campaign

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Is it safe to talk about this yet?

It’s been 3 weeks since Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in one of the most hotly contested elections in modern history.

Political scientists and historians will talk about this election for years to come … but what about church leaders? What difference does this election make to your church? What lessons could we pull from what happened? As we consider how we lead, what can we extract from what happened during the months leading up to the election and the final results?

This is not a political post. unSeminary’s goal is always to find lessons that we can all apply to our churches. In fact, some of our most popular posts include:

We’re asking: What difference does this most recent Presidential campaign make to our churches? What does it tell us about the culture we’re serving? How do we leverage these lessons to help us have more impact? What can you do to reach more people based on what we saw in the U.S. election? Here are a few reflections …

1) Social Change Happens Quickly

Look closely at this chart. For people like you and me in the “community change” business, it should be encouraging.

screenshot-2016-11-14-at-5-18-30-pm

Social change happens quickly. This chart tracks a number of legislative matters that moved through the courts and what you can see is that once adoption of such change starts to happen, it dominoes quickly. [ref] Almost overnight, issues that seemed taboo become norms. It wasn’t that long ago that even the most liberal politicians were against same-sex marriage. Now it has swept across the globe as a social norm. We are on the front end of a similar issue with the legalization of recreational marijuana … it’s just a matter of few years before it’s widespread. Social change happens quickly. Whether these changes are “positive” or “negative” from your perspective they happened undeniably quickly. The path for quick social change is already worn in our broader culture and our prayer is that our culture that is used to fast change will turn back to God quickly.

The Trump victory points to what appears to be a quick social turnaround. All the polls and pundits pointed to a different result but things turned in a short time period. The seeds of change are built into culture. Things can change quickly and this election cycle is proof of that.

When was the last time you prayed about a huge change in your community? What “big dreams” do you have that God could do in our midst? That change is possible. Your church could be at the center of something amazing that transforms your community, county, state, country and world! Change is possible.

As a culture, we overestimate the pace of technological change but underestimate the pace of social change. Where were the same-sex couples in the Jetsons? Our culture is pliable and we have to believe that change can happen on a profound level. We live in shifting times … the gospel spreads in times like that!

2) Social Networks Beat Broadcast Networks

Clinton spent over twice as much as Trump on television advertising during the campaign. [ref] Trump effectively used Twitter to appeal directly to his constituents. In a very real way, this campaign could be seen as the first one that was won on social networks rather than broadcast networks. Trump’s strategy was based largely around what he said on social media and the attention it generated online and offline.

Social networks are built to spread ideas. Churches are “idea factories” that should take advantage of free distribution networks to spread ideas. Trump’s candidacy was birthed on Twitter and spread to other networks as it gained momentum. Content is the flame and social networks are the gasoline. Sticky and spreadable ideas are shared quickly online. Craft your ideas to spread and then release them regularly.

Here are 3 resources to help your church with its social media strategy:

If you still need convincing, here are 5 social media facts:

3) Sticky Statements and Burning Platforms Work

The Trump campaign was fashioned around a series of statements that spread quickly and gained traction. Clinton spent a lot of time during the campaign trying to find messaging that would connect. In fact, Hillary often took 60-90 seconds to explain her position whereas Donald kept coming back to the incredibly sticky statements that defined his position:

  • We’re going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.
  • Make America great again!
  • Drain the swamp!
  • Repeal Obamacare.

These ideas transmit quickly because they are short, to the point and pack emotion. They were crafted to spread from one person to another and the Trump campaign found a way to share these messages constantly. These messages were also teamed with the idea that now was the time to act … there was no opportunity to delay. In fact, much of what Trump talked about referred to the fact that he was going to act within the first 100 days in office. It’s impossible for any President to get the list of items that Donald Trump would like to get done so quickly; however, he leveraged a powerful idea that the time to act was upon us.

Leaders need to answer 2 questions before they attempt to move people toward a desired future:

  • Why this?
  • Why now?

When you articulate the vision for what God is calling your church to do, you need to reduce the message to help spread ideas with time-bound deadlines. People are busy and preoccupied. It’s up to us to raise the level of importance of what we’re calling them to. Just explaining God’s calling to you isn’t enough, though. We need to articulate the tangible urgency behind it.

This is one of the core dynamics behind why capital campaigns and church-wide projects work so well. They are focused messages with a tangible outcome that is typically time-bound. Which outcomes could you package up in the coming months that could have this sort of feel? How can you reduce the “why” of the campaign down to a rallying cry to motivate people? Can you find a sticky statement that is both short and drives to an outcome?

There are examples in the marketplace that show shorter taglines or sticky statements are better. In fact, you can track the influence of a company by the length of the “core statement” that is associated with it. Here are a few examples that illustrate technology companies with larger market capitalization have shorter sticky statements associated with them:

  • Akamai Technologies (11 Billion): In a faster forward world, innovation doesn’t wait for technology
  • Nvidia Corporation (56 Billion): The Way It’s Meant to be Played
  • Cisco Systems (159 Billion): Welcome To The Human Network
  • Microsoft (454 Billion): Your Potential. Our Passion.
  • Apple (564 Billion): Think Different.

Of course, we’re not saying that organizations with shorter taglines are worth more. Larger organizations must work harder to make their core identity more succinct. Church leaders are known for using lots of words, but increasingly our culture demands that we focus our messaging on a few core ideas that drive deep. What do you need to clarify in your church’s vision? Is it sticky enough? Does it define the burning platform?

4) Recall Strategy Is Important

It appears that at the end of the day the Republican “get out the vote” efforts just worked better. [ref] In politics, it is often more about motivating your base of support toward the cause than actually working to draw people from the “other side” to your positions. In an increasingly polarized climate, the campaigns that successfully motivate their people to show up and engage do well.

Engagement is critical for churches as well. Ensuring that you stay connected to people who have loose connections with your church is an important part of your growth strategy. Often those people on the fringes of your community have the most social connections outside the church; therefore, they are more likely to have family and friends that you could connect to the church. While it’s important to have a strategy for reaching beyond your community, it’s also important to have a strategy for moving people from the fringe to the core of the community. A recall strategy that actively reconnects with those people is part of that.

Big days like Christmas or Easter are important times to reach out to your contacts and remind them to come back to your church. In the midst of planning your “invest and invite” strategy, ensure that you’re doing something to encourage people with weaker connections to your church to attend.

3 recall strategies for your next big day:

  • Targeted Direct Mail // Send a letter with an invite to people who attended the last big day for the first time. Ask them to attend the next one. Let them know you were so glad they attended last time and that you would love to have them and their friends at the next one.
  • Send More Email // Make sure you email everyone you have contact with a few times before your next big day and ask them to attend! Most email service providers can tell you which people haven’t opened up any emails in a while … send that group a targeted email that asks them directly to attend.
  • Phone Calling // Line up the small group leaders in your kids ministry to call families who haven’t been attending in the last month or so to let them know about the special stuff planned for kids on the next big day!

5) Embrace Normal People Problems and Solutions

“The political class (on the coasts) did not listen to or care enough for Middle America. Trump did. So he won,” said radio host John Cardillo.

Call it what you want but the Trump campaign was a pedestrian campaign. They styled their messaging to land in Middle America and it did. [ref] It’s a fascinating turn of events because Bill Clinton was known for his uncanny populist instincts as he campaigned and connected with people. Hillary Clinton seemed to be increasingly isolated from the issues of “normal” people in the country. The “shock and awe” of the media pundits is evidence that there is an echo chamber surrounding politics where people talking about the country are increasingly out of touch with the people of the country.

Pastors easily become isolated from the issues and realities facing people if they aren’t careful and strategic about getting outside of the church world “bubble.” If you’re not careful, you can start answering questions that no one is asking. Here are 5 ways to ensure that you keep connecting with your community:

  • Stop Trying to Impress Seminary Friends // People don’t care what it means in the original language. They can look it up on Google now. Instead, they need help connecting the text to everyday life … focus on application.
  • Drop the Pretense // There used to be a school of thought that said people wanted their spiritual leaders to be “above” them … an example for everyone to aspire to. That doesn’t exist anymore. Transparency trumps aloofness.
  • Locker Room Test // What are you doing at your church that people who attend might reasonably talk about in the locker room? Can you (honestly) hear anyone finishing the following sentence: “You should check out my church … I think you’d like this thing we’re doing about … “
  • Get Some Friends // Church leaders need friends who love them but aren’t overly impressed with them. Friends from the community who aren’t interested in your church are a gift … cultivate those friendships.
  • Help the Poor // Unchurched people expect your church to help the poor in your community. If you’re not doing it, they are scratching their heads about your church.

One of the weirdest dynamics in pastoral leadership is that we train people how to make an impact in the world but it’s incredibly easy to be totally isolated from the world if we’re not careful. Work strategically to stay in touch with your community.

6) People (Still) Want Change They Can Believe In

One of the most fascinating aspects of the results of this election is that millions of people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted for Trump in this election. [ref] On the surface, this seems like a contradiction … these candidates styled themselves so differently. But at their core they had a very similar message … the system is broken and people want change. 

This CNN video captures some of the more nuanced election results that point to the fact that people are still looking for change:

Whatever signal you get from the Trump victory, it’s clear that huge swaths of the electorate want change. They believe the system is broken and want something to be different. The gospel has always thrived in this sort of climate. Change and upheaval create a culture that is receptive to the amazing message that we have to proclaim. We serve in a culture looking for change and it’s our responsibility to point toward the ultimate change agent.

My prayer for church leaders is that we would have the spirit of the sons of Issachar from 1 Chronicles 12:32 “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” We need to see this time as a great opportunity and not shrink away from it.

How is your church leaning into the challenge of reaching this culture? What could you do to understand the times better and let that guide your leadership in your church?


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2 Comments

  1. This is a great insight. Very good points, and no I don’t think it’s too soon to talk about this!

  2. I kept noticing the fluctuation in the polls. Things do change pretty rapidly. After the convention, each candidate would rise. Then some story would break and they’d plummet. It was quite a roller coaster. Good points!

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