Let me begin by making a categorical statement, the church isn’t marketable. Programs, conferences, services even, may be – but the church itself is not. I understand that this a polemical statement. And there will be those who vehemently disagree. (The comment section is wide open.)
The church is a people who pick up their crosses and follow Jesus. It is a people who forget about themselves as they pour out their lives for others. It is the way of discipleship – becoming like Jesus – who laid down his life for his friends…and enemies. It is not about "living your best life now" or any other such silly talk.
Marketing presupposes a product or service to market. The church is neither. It is a living breathing organism that exists for those outside of it. We turn scriptural promises that, in context, are for those seeking God first and exclusively, into promises that can be offered "for sale." Just "buy Jesus." God wants you blessed, pressed and obsessed…with power.
How did we get here – a people who need to market what we believe is the church. Alan Hirsch in his book The Forgotten Ways says:
The problem for the church in this situation is that it is now forced to compete with all the other ideologies and -isms in the marketplace of religions and products for the allegiance of people, and it must do this in a way that mirrors the dynamics of the marketplace – because that is precisely the basis of how people make the countless daily choices in their lives. In the modern and post-modern situation, the church is forced into the role of being little more than a vendor of religious goods and services. And the end-users of the church’s services (namely us) easily slip into the role of discerning, individualistic consumers, devouring the religious goods and services offered by the latest and best vendor. Worship, rather than being entertaining through creatively engaging the hearts and minds of the hearers, now becomes mere entertainment that aims at giving the participants transcendent emotional highs, much like the role of "feelies" in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people go to the movies merely to get a buzz.
Church growth exponents have explicitly taught us how to market and tailor the product to suit target audiences. They told us to mimic the shopping mall, apply it to the church, and create a one-stop religious shopping experience catering to our every need. In this they were sincere and well intentioned, but they must have totally ignorant of the ramifications of their counsel – because in the end the medium has so easily overwhelmed the message. Christendom, operating as it does in attractional mode and run by professionals, was already susceptible to consumerism, but under the influence of contemporary church growth practice, consumerism has become the driving ideology of the church’s ministry. (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, Page 109 – 110)
Figuring out the best way to market your church, to "extend your reach", as one writer who disagrees with me put it – is an exercise in futility. The church is no more marketable than my family. (I dealt with this somewhat humourously in my post, Family Marketing Sucks™.) But, the attractional model demands a marketing mindset. If we can only get people through the doors of our buildings, with whatever it takes, then we can "build relationships." But what kind of relationships – the kind I have with the other big box stores in my city – where a couple of cashiers might actually know my name?
I quoted Sarah from Earl Crep’s book, Off-Road Disciplines in my first post in the series. She’s worth requoting:
We know you have tried to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success and that turns our collective stomach. ("Sarah, a gen X church visitor" Off-Road Disciplines, Page 151.)
The emerging generation is way too knowledgeable to fall for our "slick" marketing campaigns. And they’ve already discussed our pitches on MySpace, Facebook, in emails and text messages. Their comments aren’t reprintable on this blog.
The Cluetrain gentleman in 1999 stated succinctly that
…markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.
The Cluetrain was "the end of business as usual." It was also the end of marketing as usual. (Hirsch misses this in the quote above.) Smart marketers have seen that the best way to successfully attract long term customers is to enter into a real relationship with them – where there is an actual exchange of ideas. (Not an "I produce, you buy" relationship.) Word of Mouth marketing is based on the inter-relationship of human beings. This isn’t just a new way for me to get my stuff into your hands whilst getting your money into mine. It is a societal insistence that we are looking for relationship in all aspects of our lives – including one with those folk who produce goods and services. It’s about relationships.
Oddly enough, the church at its very core is about relationships. (Do I really need to unpack this?) And yet, for many of us, we insist on marketing it as the best big box store in the neighbourhood. "Simon says, come and get your needs met – Sundays at 8, 10:30 and 12:30."
I look forward to your comments.
UPDATE: From Ed Brenegar, in the comments:
Marketing is a transaction focused activity. It is measured by the exchange of goods and services. It assumes that transaction is the nature of human organizational activity. "I need something. You have it. We negotiate a transaction, and make the exchange." Churches and businesses that take this attitude are missing the point. (Read the rest of his comment here and his further commentary at his blog here.)