On Marketing the Church

If you talk to a lot of people, especially church people, you'll get a lot of mixed responses about marketing and its relation to the church. Many many people think of marketing as a negative word.  Many many other people think that marketing is a reality, whether good or bad. Rob Bell has a quotation in Velvet Elvis that speaks about how upset he was when someone from the church that he was starting put a sign up advertising the church. He said something like "the words marketing and church can't be in the same sentence."

I bought into this theory for awhile. People have to want to come to church. No amount of commercials or billboards are going to bring them in. Sounds like a righteous argument right? If our intentions are the best, then people will want to come to church.  They will just have to.  As far as getting them there, God will take care of that.

My issue here is that I just don't see it working.

I've had the blessing now to help start two churches. Both very different, in different parts of the country. One has been around quite awhile and has struggled with many issues. One is still pretty new but has not shown any signs of huge growth.  Both have moved buildings when the first wasn't working. Both are in communities that don't allow for signs to be placed on the street.  Both are in communities that have tons of houses that house people that work in the surrounding cities. Both are surrounded by many churches. One committed itself early on to being a "contemporary" modeled church.  The other considers itself "eclectic", merging hymns and praise songs with traditional liturgy.

The second church spends lots of money sending out mailers to the surrounding neighborhoods in hopes of inviting more people to church. My initial reaction to this process (besides knowing that your response will be anywhere below 0.5% of all of the mailings you do) was one of Bell's fancy. Marketing? Church? How can they mix?  Are we trying to sell something? (You can read my take on whether or not the church has products here)

The answer (for new churches at least, and I would imagine almost for all) is...yes. We are trying to sell something. Because the more people come in, the more offering is given.  The more offering is given, means the more work that can be done to advance the Kingdom. The more work that can be done to advance the Kingdom, the more the church can live out its role. Don't believe me or disagree on principle? Ask any pastor who has been faced with a snow day or hurricane day. The decision to "cancel" church for Sunday means one thing: loss of offering.  It is even worse for those years that Christmas or Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday. Some churches refer to it as "low Sunday" (along with the week after Easter) because the attendance will inevitably be down. A low attendance means a low offering. Churches are like clubs, dues are necessary to keep them rolling.

I can tell that many seminarians are grinding their teeth at this point, but it is a reality of ministry. If your church can't meet payroll, you are out of a job and the ministry will inevitably suffer.  I don't care how "just" your principle is.  New church starts struggle in America with the same struggles that new businesses have. You have to establish your product and name in order for people to be attracted to you. This is why restaurant chains are so successful, it is much easier to start in a new area.

So, living into this reality, the next obvious question to ask is about marketing. What role does quality marketing play in the renewal of a church body?

Everyone knows that the best form of marketing is word of mouth. People speak highly of you and people come.  IF what you have to offer is worth grabbing hold of (not meaning music and sermons...although those play a very real role in the attraction of new members) then people will come. It really isn't much more complicated than that.

I recently returned from Passion 2011.  Say what you want about Louie Giglio, in a world that appears like the Church is dying - Passion is still moving. Passion is known for marketing.  They put out albums, books, DVDs, etc. all with the intention of glorifying the name of God...and bringing people to their conferences. It seems to be working too (if you consider more attendees, "working"). Next year, they are going to combine the 22,000 students who meet every year in Atlanta with the other 10,000-15,000 that are meeting in Fort Worth with presumably many more who couldn't register and hold the event in the Georgia Dome. I think it houses somewhere around 70,000 people. We'll see if they get anywhere close to that.

Passion gets a lot of criticism about a lot of things. One of the biggest - money. They market and sell everything. I mean everything. And for awhile I bought into Bell's idea. This is ridiculous.  It is the church.  I don't need to see another video advertisement.

But then I saw this video: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJnPnXmXk5k]

And I compared it to this video: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQ91eFAoJAk]

Both are simple.  Both have issues with them. One is noticeably "better" than the other.

And it occurred to me: Both are marketing. Given in different ways, both are marketing. Many United Methodists would disagree that the Church doesn't need marketing. But this video was sent out by the UMC. To market the conference.  I mean, really.

The reason marketing is necessary for us is because this is the way that humans take in information. You can tell someone about something. Or, you can show them. This is the role of marketing in the church. We have to tell and show people who we are. You may disagree with it on principle, but it is what it is. This may be unfortunate, but unfortunate is the way we have to live our lives sometimes.

The question then comes down to quality. Quality marketing triggers an emotional response. I think you can figure out which video above triggers the bigger emotional response.

If we confuse the ways of the world's money making with the Church, we will be pursuing a goal that does not align itself with the heart of God. IF, though, we take the principles that the world teaches because it better understands how sinful human beings relate to things and one another and use these to progress the Church, then we may learn something about ourselves and who God wants the Church to be.

Small churches are great. Small churches with clear mission statements are even better.  Small churches that are using evangelism to grow are even better. Small churches that meet solely in small groups may grow in their discipleship, but if they don't tell anyone about who they are, what they stand for, and what they think God is doing inside of them, they will die. Because people die. And unfortunately, the Kingdom work that that church had been doing dies with it.

And it doesn't need to.



IN ADDITION - It is probably worth noting that the UM video is meant to encourage others to encourage young people.  Using word of mouth as well. Interesting use and direction.