Marketing the Church: Part Fin – for now

kinnon —  January 25, 2007 — 7 Comments


The other posts in the series can be found here, here, here, here and here.

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.)

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

7 responses to Marketing the Church: Part Fin – for now

  1. Here’s the problem as I see it. 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.

    The purpose isn’t a transaction between economic/spiritual partners, but rather a transformation. James Magregor Burns made this point about leadership twenty plus years ago in his classic text, Leadership.

    Transformation begins with the recognition that change is necessary. The change required for human beings is the recognition that without the grace of God their lives are a mess. The grace of God changes motivations and disciplines, changes perceptions, and opens up possibilities. Transactions are simply exchanging the ownership of a product for a price.

    Now many churches sell the “experience” of transformation, but not the transformation itself. It is just like selling luxury brands to middle class people. It is intended to give them the “experience” of wealth without requiring them to be wealthy. I think this is the emotional appeal of contemporary pop Christian music.

    I’m not interested in being entertained. I’m interested in being transformed into the image of Christ in my daily living. The old ways of worship required reflection for transformation. The new ways provide emotion to avoid reflection, masking our need for transformation.

    How can the church be a place of transformation? This is the question that we should be asking.

  2. Oh, yes, one more thought. Transformation requires action. It requires us to make decisions and take action to validate what we believe. The emotions that follow are different as a result. They are not only uplifting, but also peaceful. Instead of being hyper, they are deep and rich because they are part of something larger, not isolated from who we individually are.
    Tuesday, I was in New Orleans at a church where a score of men and women were preparing to go out and hang sheet rock in some Katrina victim’s house. It wasn’t their first or their second trip, but fourth or fifth. They found deep emotions of satisfaction and joy in serving. That’s hard to market. But it is easy to communicate when our churches are personal and focused on transformation. My Rule of Thumb – you can quote me on this – is that people desire for the activities in their lives to be Personally Meaningful and Socially Fulfilling. They want their values to be affirmed and their activities to touch their relationships with others. That’s hard to market with authenticity when all you are doing is just conducting religious transactions.
    Now that I’ve said this, I’m going to say more about it over at my Presbyterian Polis blog – link to .
    Thanks Bill for a provocative topic.

  3. Thanks, Ed. Your lucid comments are always appreciated here. I’ll link to your Presbyterian Polis post when it’s up.

  4. Yup.

  5. Hi Bill,

    Linked over from Bro Maynard’s site. Recently read your Networked Conspiracy and thought it ended much to quickly. Looking forward to ‘part two’. I’m plodding my way through Singularity – we should dive into a discussion of that together some time. You’re one of the few who I think truly “gets” the potential impact of virtual inter-connectivity on the global church. What an amazing time to be alive.

    Peace and blessings

  6. John,
    Thanks! I don’t disagree about the book. It does need a Part Two. I look forward to the discussion regarding Singularity. (I just need to get around to finishing it after owning it for over a year.)


Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. The Presbyterian Polis - Connecting Churches to Churches - January 25, 2007

    Transaction or Transformation: Which is your church marketing?

    Bill Kinnon has been ranting about church marketing. His latest is up and is worth a read here. I offered a couple comments, see below, and want to expand on them a bit. First my comments. Here’s the problem as

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