A fairly famous minister wrote a book a few years ago and said the following about church marketing, “The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick.”
I think that’s a fair statement. A lot of people feel that way. Readers on this very site have said similar things. But then I realized something shocking, I had bought his book at a bookstore that marketed the book to me. I had paid money for a product about the church, after said product was marketed to me, the very definition of what makes him sick.
I wanted to make sure he was aware that this was happening, so I went online to tell him. Only instead of his email address I found the most beautifully branded site in Christianity. He had a multimedia product he was selling. There were previews and prices and all the stuff that constitutes marketing. So I bought another of his products and was blown away when it arrived. I brought it into work so that our advertising team could study how perfectly marketed it was. Surely he was not aware of the machinary being used to sell his thoughts on church and God. I decided to tell him on his book tour. The idea of a tour for a product you sell felt a little like marketing, but you read what he said, this guy gets sick at the thought of marketing, there must have been a mistake. But I couldn’t get to them. His tour was so popular that there was no chance to talk with him. And he didn’t just name it, “John Doe on tour.” It had a really catchy, sensational title that attracted lots of folks. I was so confused.
OK, I wasn’t. The second I read that sentence in one of the most perfectly marketed church books of the last decade, I knew he was being silly. The sentence was fake. The words were miles and miles away from his actions, but I think they reflect a problem.
The problem is that as we squabble about whether church marketing is good or bad, the world is noticing. When we fail to creatively portray God and the church and faith, the world sees an opportunity. And they’re pretty open about it. Here’s a quote from Communication Arts, an advertising magazine, “As traditional institutions, such as government, the church and the schools, fail to provide meaning, consumers will increasingly turn to products and services to find meaning in their lives. Savvy companies that can align themselves with the core values their customers find meaningful, and do so authentically, will prosper in an economy that’s increasingly based on meaning.”
The translation of that thought is simple, “If the church fails, we’ll be able to fill the hole inside people with products.” Maybe that is only scary and frustrating to me. But it’s hard to shrug it off when I read things like this from the Harley Davidson brand handbook: “There are three essential elements to the Harley-Davidson experience, which riders feel for the first time they ride: the joy of individualism, the chance to be free, to make choices; the commitment to adventure, the opportunity to change, to discover new experiences and emotions; the reward of fulfillment, an intense, personal and consuming bond with the bike that means a richer fuller life.”
Want a fun game? Switch out Harley Davidson with the word “God” and it reads like a church mission statement. “A consuming bond with God that means a richer fuller life.”
This post is already longer than I intended but I think there are three things we need to remember:
1. The new definition of marketing.
I hate selling the church. I can’t stand when ministers promise money and health and all the trappings of life if you’ll only believe in Jesus. That’s bogus, but that’s not how I define the word marketing. Marketing to me isn’t about selling a product. I define it as “sharing something you care about with other people.” That’s it. When I tell my coworker about how much I like Andy Stanley’s sermons, that’s marketing. When I tell you about a song I like, that’s marketing. It’s just a form of sharing and it’s one that Paul and the other disciples did really well. It’s silly that we’ll throw rocks at marketing and then pretend that Paul didn’t go on a tour, with a clear objective, to share the message of a new way of life. Paul shared. Paul marketed.
2. Your church already markets.
Unless your church doesn’t have a sign, please don’t tell me you hate church marketing. Unless your church doesn’t print bulletins, please don’t tell me you hate church marketing. Unless your church doesn’t read announcements and tell you the time of tomorrow’s potluck, please don’t tell me you hate church marketing. Unless your church doesn’t pay an advertising fee to be listed in the yellow pages, please don’t tell me you hate church marketing. Unless you’ve never bought a Christian book and instead got your Bible for free, please don’t tell me you hate church marketing. Unless you’ve never invited a neighbor to church, please don’t tell me you hate church marketing. We are all engaged in church marketing. When we act like we’re not, we prevent ourselves from doing it really well. We don’t allow ourselves to focus on making it better because we pretend we’re not doing it.
3. God invented church marketing.
What’s your favorite story of God marketing? Mine is in Numbers 21. In that chapter, the Israelites are complaining and so God says, “You want something to complain about? How about some poisonous snakes?” (That is not a direct quote.) Everyone starts dying and when they repent, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake on a pole. If the people look at it they will be healed. Now there are some ties here to Christ on the cross, but there’s another idea here as well. Why did God make an idol? In previous chapters and chapters yet to come, the Israelites will be severely punished for interacting with idols. So why did God create one and heal them through it? I think it is because He understood His people. He knew they spoke “idol,” He knew they thought and acted that way. So instead of coming up with something crazy and complicated, He spoke their language. He marketed a solution to them that they would easily grasp. But maybe I’m reading that story incorrectly. Maybe you still think God hates marketing. We can agree to disagree, but you can’t argue that He doesn’t like creative communication. The donkey that spoke, the burning bush, the mysterious handwriting on the wall, God is by no means afraid to communicate in some creative ways.
Update: I don’t hate the pastor I mentioned above. I actually dedicated an entire post to him on this site and said people should check out one of his books. I really feel like there is no way to interpret his statement about getting sick from church marketing as anything other than how I have interpreted it. If I am missing some nuance, when he said “sick” he meant it as “love marketing” kind of like the kids say “bad” meaning good, please let me know. Honestly, I am no stranger to making mistakes.