Stop Trying to Get People To Pay Attention


I’m done with marketing! I’ve been going to my church since 2001, and it was only last fall did I attend my first Men’s Breakfast event. I was well-aware — thanks to traditional marketing — that the event happens the first Saturday of every month, but it wasn’t until a guy from my small group invited me to the breakfast did I ever feel the need to attend. And I’m on staff! How much more difficult would it be for someone in the church body to make that step from information to engagement?

T  hese words came from one of my better students, who switched his career path from communication to community ministry sometime after graduating from the theological school where I’ve taught. He drafted a long blog post, discussing his problem with the concept of church marketing. In it, he discusses his weariness with endless announcements and changing venues and channels, all of which only seemed to perpetuate the processing of information.

It’s understandable. His job had been to create a seemingly endless parade of data, most of which float out into an unprotected asteroid belt of competing messages and pop without ever interrupting the storyreceiver’s space.


It is very, very difficult in a world of overwhelming messages to create resonance. 

Traditional marketing techniques, built on the premise of impressions, are increasingly ineffective. Consider that even prior to the digital era, a standard mass marketing rule of thumb is 2% engagement. For example, 10,000 direct mail cards blanketed to a city back in the day might generate 200 responses.

Doesn’t translate well to the impact your message might have on a group of 500, does it?


The problem with traditional marketing is that “impressions” are really “interruptions.”

Any marketer will tell you, the most effective channel isn’t information designed to capture the attention of mass, but interpersonal invitation. My former student goes on to write,

One of the most useful things I picked up from the church communications culture came from a talk given by Mel McGowan of Visoneering Studios… all ministry is “soil specific” and contextual, and that “community is absolutely counter-cultural.”

So, if traditional marketing is both practically not helpful, and to some, ethically questionable, maybe it’s time we redefine what we mean by “marketing.”


Marketing is the means by which we communicate our story.

In a previous post in this series, I talked about the error we make when we assume whatever we say reaches its destination intact. In fact, there’s a dynamic and semiotic relationship between us, our message, and the receiver.

When people talk to me about marketing, I say, ‘Tell me what marketing is.’ Some of what they usually describe seems like common sense, wise communication. Some of it seems like manipulation.
– Tim Keller

Traditional marketing, or what we’ll call interruption marketing, is based on the faulty notion that we just have to get people to pay attention. If you’re a typical company, you might add to the end of that sentence, “…by any means necessary.”

As it’s practiced by our capitalist system, marketing almost exclusively has the interests of the storyteller organization in mind (and not the storyreceiver). The word itself is instructive: Its goal is to create markets. Corporate marketing is at its heart self-oriented, not other-oriented.

This is the reason why many people believe marketing is consumeristic and has no place in the church.


If people don’t want your gift, putting a pretty bow on it won’t help.

There’s little doubt that our culture’s marketing gurus have gotten very good at knowing the storyreceiver. They’re artists. We enjoy their work. The ethical dilemma is that they use their techniques to interrupt people’s live with something they don’t want or need.

Some Christian communicators associate marketing with pandering, or gratifying consumeristic tastes without the challenge of a call to change. This indeed happens, and in some ways is exasperated by a socially networked world where everyone is “building platform.” The most egregious anecdotes of pandering and self-promotion have one thing in common. Their messages are all related to the sender – the storyteller.

To be effective, you must begin with the end. It’s the opposite. You want to build a real platform? Build a relationship. Don’t start with yourself – start with the needs of your people. Care about your storyreceiver – who they are, and what their dreams and needs are. If you want them to know your story, first know their story. Then you can address their issues in specific, tangible ways.

There isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you know their story.
– Mr. Rogers

Don’t start with looking at ministry programming: for example, a men’s ministry breakfast. Start with the congregation. Learn their stories, and then figure out their needs. It’s only when you first engage them with stories, heal their sickness, take care of their immediate problem, that you position yourself to move further down the shoreline of faith. When you engage them with content that matters to them, you’re engaging in a different kind of marketing – and one that Jesus knew well.


We must shift from Interruption Marketing to Permission Marketing.

Anything we do in ministry, from delivering a sermon to teaching a class, is an act of communication. And anytime we communicate an idea, we engage in marketing. So this isn’t something you can ignore.

The question then becomes: are you interrupting people’s lives, or building trust and earning permission to speak?

Most of the time we think of marketing with the metaphor of a megaphone when instead we should think of it with the metaphor of a whisper.

All too often, we craft a message with our ideas, and not the needs of the storyreceiver, in mind. Some people call this “program” church, where church staffers perpetuate programs, forgetting to keep in mind the benefit it offers people. Then we feel like we have to yell at people to get their attention.

JM Logo 250

Like my student said in his post, a year’s worth of promotion for the Men’s Breakfast had failed to engage him. Presumably, that’s not because the Men’s Breakfast is worthless, but because no one had ever thought to connect the benefit it offers with the real spiritual needs of men in the church. Or at least my student’s spiritual needs.

Jesus marketing isn’t self-oriented; it’s a form of strategic caring.

I need someone, someone who hears
For you, I’ve waited all these years
– Coldplay

So how do we do this? The answer lies in Scripture, as we shall see.


This is part 4 of a 12 part series, Jesus Marketer.

Next, Part 5: How Jesus Marketed to the Crowds


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).