In the last decade, the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled, rising to 75 million. No big surprise from this 2004 Barna Group survey. The big surprise is how embarrassing the response from the church has been.
Sadly, one of the church’s greatest shortcomings is failure to market itself authentically and effectively. You’ve read the bulletin bloopers. You’ve seen the typos, bad clip art, poor layouts, a sense of superiority. It’s easy to do marketing badly. But there’s also the tendency toward airbrushed perfection, pressed suits and coiffed hair and multicultural pictures that don’t match the Sunday morning reality. Seemingly professional marketing can be just as bad as the unprofessional type.
From the way your congregation tells others about your church to how the weekly bulletin communicates, marketing your church—telling your story well—is not an optional add-on when you can afford it; it’s a certainty begging for intention and attention.
We live in a climate in which many think marketing is the missing link between living little and living large. We learned this firsthand in the dot-com era when seemingly everybody with a domain name and a computer was poised for greatness, as venture capitalists swept the country looking to turn geek squads into green gods. “If we do a huge ad campaign and look really cool, we’ll be big time!” was a familiar line of thinking.
Working with as many churches as I (Brad) have in the last decade, I am still alarmed at how many pastors and leaders think marketing is what separates them from being the church on the corner to being the church on the cover. After all, megachurch bliss is achieved through really great marketing, right?
While marketing is usually not the key to turning a small church into a megachurch, a lack of marketing may explain why some churches never grow. Megachurches are often those churches that are most effective at communicating who they are, what they do and why they do it.
“I urge leaders who visit mega-scenes to look a little deeper than methodological quick fixes, clever contemporary procedures, slick marketing devices, updated communication skills or stunning program-event production,” writes Jack Hayford in the July/August 2002 issue of Ministries Today. “Within these there are worthwhile lessons to be learned, but the most valid answers will require deeper questions.”
Some of those “deeper questions,” I believe, need significant attention before you even think of telling others about your church:
Communicating who your church is begins with such fundamental questions. How can you tell people who you are until you know what you have to offer? Slapping a nice logo and clever tag line on a business card is pointless if it doesn’t reflect reality.
Marketing Is Not Advertising
Ask most people about marketing and they’ll talk about advertising. Why? Because advertising is the end result of a long marketing process. It’s what the masses see. Behind the scenes, though, there are hundreds of people and thousands of hours of marketing work involved in every major product or brand you see advertised.
In the business world a service or product is the what, and marketing is the how. For instance, most of the products one finds at Target are available elsewhere, but those who go to Target do so because the company has figured out how to tell their story, and customers have bought in to it. In other words, I go to Target because I connect with their message and method, and I need what they have—not because I can’t get what they sell anywhere else.
We as the church have the greatest story ever told, but the people who need to be hearing it are often not. We must learn to more effectively tell our story. Churches that understand what it means to communicate effectively, authentically and lovingly are those that are able to reach the greatest number of people with their message. This doesn’t mean every pre-Christian will immediately identify and come to your church, but it does mean that authenticity is beginning to break down the barriers so you can reach the lost.
Marketing is the process of communicating your message to the masses. It’s identifying who your church is and determining how to communicate that to the people who should become a part of it. Marketing involves formulating a plan and making sure it’s working. This means goals, objectives and some form of measurement for accountability.
A Dirty Word?
In many circles marketing is a dirty word. Suggesting the church do something as promotional and business-minded as marketing smacks of worldliness and a pact with the devil.
In their book, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing, authors Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street suggest that marketing and the church do not belong together. While the authors’ definition of marketing is significantly different than the one I have defined here, it is important to note that marketing does not always mean “selling” something; or as Kenneson and Street use throughout their book “the exchange process.”
When it comes to church marketing, a better word may be “communication.” However, the intentionality and breadth of the word “marketing” go further than the limits of what the word “communication” often suggests. In other words, you can have communication without marketing, but you can’t have marketing without communication.
Maybe you think the church shouldn’t market itself. If by that you mean the church shouldn’t use deceptive tactics or dishonest methods and shouldn’t misrepresent itself to get people in the door—then what you really mean is that the church shouldn’t use poor marketing efforts. I agree.
Marketing gets a bad rap with telemarketers, pushy sales people and lousy marketing tactics. But the concept itself isn’t the problem. The problem is the execution. Consider televangelism—it has a bad reputation thanks to folks who abuse their position, but that doesn’t mean that television can’t be used to evangelize (just ask Billy Graham).
“Any religion that believes in evangelism at its core believes in marketing,” notes the Rev. Dan Webster, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah (Desert Morning News, Sept. 25, 2004). Marketing isn’t a dirty word. It’s not something to be looked on with derision or scorn. It’s simply a tool you can use for the church’s benefit. Ignore it at your own risk. Marketing happens whether you intend it or not—but unintentional marketing is usually bad marketing by default.
The church is not perfect. We’re a broken people. Let’s be honest about that—after all, it is our central message. If our marketing reflects this dynamic, it should be both authentic and effective. Authentic marketing must be true to your church, representing its mission, demographics and doctrine.
Effective marketing needs to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Typographical errors and shoddy layouts are more off-putting than they are enticing. Take the time, and, yes, the money to make sure your marketing is done right. Otherwise you’re just wasting both. What does it say if the church of God can’t market itself with integrity and excellence?
But the question remains—how does my church use marketing? How do I communicate with conviction and grow a congregation full of Christ-followers? Whether you know it or not, you’re probably already doing it. You print bulletins; you have a sign out front; maybe you even have a welcome packet for visitors. The next step, then, is to recognize each of these elements as marketing, and see how together they can further your mission.
If your goal is to bring five new families from the surrounding community into your church and get them actively involved, your first step might be to look at your church and its programs, and determine if you’re meeting the needs of your community.
Are there cultural barriers that might make your goal hard to reach? Perhaps your community has a high concentration of a certain ethnic group and you need someone who speaks their language.
Maybe childcare and job training are important needs going unmet in your community. Perhaps a golf outing or a family movie night would be more appropriate.
Actively target the people you’re trying to reach. Consider a postcard mailing to the surrounding community. Organize a local block party, or set up a booth at the local farmer’s market. Whatever you do, remember to be honest and authentic. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Understand where people are at and respond accordingly.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle churches must overcome is false advertising—when our members are not seen by the world as authentically demonstrating the values and benefits that our churches profess in their marketing. Christians are too often the reason churches aren’t growing. We don’t live up to what we say, so why are we surprised when no one wants to join us? The best marketing plan in the world will fail if the people carrying the message don’t reflect it.
“Popular culture views Christianity today as self-righteous, critical, judgmental,” said Rick Marshall, the crusade director for Billy Graham’s 2001 Louisville Crusade. “If people think they are going to be preached at, they are not going to come” (Courier-Journal, June 22, 2001).
Church marketing can seem like an uphill battle, competing against major corporations of the world, trying to be heard in an increasingly crowded public square. They may have budgets in the millions, while we might be working with pennies. They have experts on hand, while you may have a few volunteers—if you’re lucky.
But take hope. Your church possesses something the corporate world isn’t offering: Jesus. You’re not hawking perfume or plasma televisions. We just need to learn how to tell the world—or at least the surrounding neighborhood—what that means.
Brad Abare is director of communications for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and founder of the Center for Church Communication. Kevin D. Hendricks runs his own freelance company, Monkey Outta Nowhere, has written for CCM, Charisma, passageway.org and others. Both contribute to www.churchmarketingstinks.com, a Weblog Brad launched in 2004.
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