Religion is as competitive as any other business, if not more so. The difference is that instead of dollars being the measurement of success, it's souls--although, in many cases, one follows the other.

Aimee Semple McPherson was well aware of this reality. While many of her contemporaries were working hard to rise through the clerical ranks, McPherson was traveling across the country trying to make her mark as a preacher. Living as she did in the 1920's, she faced plenty of challenges to her ambition, not the least of which was that she was a woman. But then again, she had an asset that many of her contemporaries did not. Before her mother put the kibosh on the idea, McPherson had wanted to be an actress.

McPherson's theatrical inclinations would end up serving her better than any other advantage her seemingly better positioned competitors might have had.

I discovered McPherson's story in an awesome out-of-print book called Love Cults and Faith Healers that I happened upon while browsing a flea market. (I'm always on the lookout for rare and unusual books like this to learn more about how to help my clients grow their businesses. If you'd like me to send you some recommendations, just drop me a line.) 

In describing how she built a following for a church she decided to found in Lake Forest, Illinois, its author Arthur Orrmont gives an operating model for attracting attention in any field.

"Rather than wait for the people to come to her," Orrmont writes, "she went to the people, mounting a chair on a street corner and standing there rigidly until a crowd had collected around her. Then rousing out of what many thought was a cataleptic trace, she cried, 'Quick, follow me!' and, tucking up her skirts, ran to the mission hall. The crowd trotted after her...Aimee had her crowd and she kept it for the rest of her stay in Lake Forest."

Aimee Semple McPherson would go on to be the most successful preacher of her day, at least if you define success by the number of people paying attention of her and the dollars she brought in. She is still the template for the televangelists and celebrity megachurch pastors who dominate the airwaves and headlines today, such as Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, and Rick Warren.

Regardless of how you feel about McPherson, there is no denying that she knew how to generate massive amounts of attention and transform it into tangible returns. With that in mind, let's study her example to find lessons we can apply to our own businesses.

Expertise Is Only One Part of Success

It has become gospel that the best way to build a following is to establish yourself as a recognized expert in your field. This is certainly true...but it's only one part of the equation. It doesn't matter much expertise you have--if you can't get people to pay attention to you in the first place, you'll never get a chance to share what you know with them. 

To break through everything else competing for people's attention at any given time, you need to make people's heads snap in your direction. You need to make them say to themselves, "What in the hell is going on over there?"

That's what Aimee Semple McPherson did.

Embrace the Power of Contrast and Mystery

In her day, there was no shortage of fiery preachers standing on street corners railing loudly about heaven and damnation. Following their lead would have been like putting up another flashing sign in Times Square. 

McPherson instinctively understood that if she tried to pitch her desired flock on the superior features of her mission, most of them would pass right by her--or would at least have no real reason to pick her version of the gospel over the scads of others hocking their spiritual wares nearby.

So where her contemporaries shouted, she remained silent. Where her competitors flailed about, she stayed still. As a result, her soon-to-be-followers were compelled to pay attention to her. Because she had discipline to hold back, they couldn't help but thinking she had something important to say.

Follow her example. If you're in an industry where everyone is promising a recipe for building a "six figure business," build your message around why money doesn't matter (at least at first). If the norm in your industry is to be sober and serious, try humor. And if everyone in your space is barking bro-speak into the camera like Gary Vaynerchuk, try crafting an image closer to a distinguished gentleman.

The details of your approach don't matter all that much, as long as it has two attributes. It must stand out from your crowd. And you must hold back enough that people feel compelled to know more. If you can manage this, you'll have people running down the street chasing you thinking no time.