I cited this quote at a recent workshop I led on casting vision in church settings. It refers to a basic tenet of good marketing: don’t start with your own features, but with the benefit your thing offers those to whom you want to give it.
People don’t care about your idea. They only care about how it impacts their lives. – Kevin Roberts, the CEO of the Saatchi & Saatchi
Since it was a church event, I assumed I’d get some theological push back, and sure enough, a friendly gentleman approach me afterward, asking in a nice way about this quote and its implied narcissism. After all, he said, our job as communicators of the gospel isn’t just to pander to people’s wants.
Here’s what I told him:
It’s true that in one sense I’m advocating that we do the same thing as the culture.
American marketing culture is all about meeting people’s needs.
To be clear, “meeting needs” is a euphemism for corporate profit. But there’s also a human element or philosophy that emerges from corporate communication, which is to live and let live, to allow people the freedom to pursue their dreams and passions, or to self-actualize.
“Self-actualization” is a term for the top of Maslow’s triangular hierarchy of needs, a 20th-century humanist meaning of life chart. It’s a positive cultural message based on tolerance and self fulfillment, but it’s not the gospel. While I don’t agree that you can find the summit of existence in the pursuit of self, I do think there’s truth at the bottom of Maslow’s chart, which is that before we can engage in any effective communication, we must meet people’s basic needs.
American marketing, and Hollywood too, understand well how to speak to people’s needs. They just miss on the solutions. In corporate marketing, actually helping people isn’t necessarily frowned on; it’s just ancillary to the primary goal of making money.
The church has different goals. Charles Spurgeon is credited with saying about preaching the gospel,
Our goal is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Jesus invited weary souls to find rest. Likewise, our first obligation in the church, in marketing and in ministry, is to respond to people’s needs, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
We cannot expect those in need – spiritual need, physical need, emotional need, all of the three – to understand the rigors of true discipleship. First they must experience the beauty of healing and wholeness in Jesus.
So yes, it’s both fine and fitting to identify marketing “benefits” and appeal to people’s immediate problems through our communication. This is what Jesus did.
We can either do it off the cuff or we can plan to do it strategically. I prefer the latter, which is why I like to talk about “strategic caring.”
Good church marketing is strategic caring.
It is understanding the message, the medium through which it’s delivered, and the context in which our audience receives it. We can either ignore these realities or we can seek to understand how they impact our work and leverage them to our advantage as communicators.
The hook of course is that it doesn’t stop there.
What happens next is what separates the church from the culture.
The ultimate goal for gospel communicators is not to leave people with a full belly or send them off like ungratefully healed lepers but to call each one in their healing to sacrificial discipleship.
That’s because we know that life isn’t found in “self-actualization.”
The way to find life isn’t through fulfillment but through surrender.
Jesus said, All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.
This is the endgame for following Jesus. It is not self-actualization but self-sacrifice. In our marketing, are we giving the audience the full weight of a counter-cultural Christ who calls us to lose life to gain life?
Marketing in the church is a form of strategic caring and not an end in itself. It’s the first part of the path that ultimately ends at the cross.
I explore this idea more in-depth in my post at Church Marketing Sucks titled, Does Sharing the Gospel Justify Any Church Marketing Means Necessary?