Should The Church Be Into Marketing?

I moonlight as an adjunct professor at a theological school, teaching communication in ministry. One of my better students recently quit marketing and switched his career path from communication to community ministry. 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. None of the work seemed to really matter. He wrote,

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?

It’s understandable. His job had been to create a seemingly endless parade of storyteller-focused bubbles, most of which float out into an unprotected asteroid belt of competing messages and pop without ever entering the storyreceiver’s space. It is very, very difficult in a world of competing messages to create resonance. Traditional marketing techniques, built on the premise of impressions and promises of return, 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 church of 500, does it?

Any marketer will tell you, the most effective marketing isn’t mass marketing, but personal 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, should the church be into marketing at all?

Marketing occurs when a storyteller – usually an organization – attempts to engage and grow an audience around a product or service. Usually, it’s something the audience wouldn’t otherwise know about. As it’s practiced by industry, 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, and the reason why many people believe marketing is consumeristic and has no place in the church. If people don’t want something, putting a bow on it doesn’t make it a gift. 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 create consumers rather than to change lives. That’s bad.

To be fair in response to former student’s lament, though, marketers will also tell you that personal invitations don’t happen in a vacuum, but in an environment in which brans identities are being established. In other words, marketing does the ground work to create a favorable response to the personal invitation. And, his post seemed to argue on grounds of value rather than integrity.

Seems to me, the bigger question lies in how we approach any of our messages. Marketing is an act of communication. Anything we do in ministry, from delivering a sermon to teaching a class, is also an act of communication. Each of us with a message to communicate needs to help others know about it, even if our goals are selfless.

All too often in the church, 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. 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.

But what if we could use marketing’s ability to know its audience for ministry purposes? In other words, what if we communicated the benefit to the right people? Instead of using industry’s ability to identify “audience” needs in order to sell things, what if we used the same methods with integrity, for, as Marcus said, the counter-cultural values of community building and spiritual growth?

In other words, is it possible to use marketing to actually help people?

What are your thoughts?


Meet 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).