BEACH BAPTISM BLAST! The words appeared excitedly across the screen above the church stage. The announcement went on: FREE BURGERS AND HOT DOGS! FREE PARKING! FREE SWIMMING! People were grinning and bookmarking the event in their phones. It was going to be the perfect Sunday at the perfect price: free.
You know you love that word. Didn’t Jesus say we will know the truth and everything will be free? Tack one up for good marketing, I thought.
All church marketing strategies applied without guidance from Scripture undermine the kingdom of God by causing Christians to alter their identities.How about the church in Missouri giving away automatic rifles for lucky churchgoers? As long as we “get people in the door, we get to preach the gospel,” declares pastor Heath Mooneyham. Can’t you just see the Prince of Peace packing a high-powered rifle?
We could go on with examples even stranger than these, from Fight-Club-style churches to bull-riding pastors that get trampled before the congregation and by God’s grace live to preach another day. However, one lurking question remains: How can a church hold true to its identity when engaging in “kingdom marketing”?
Church Marketing 101
Before dismissing the idea that your church does marketing, take a few moments to answer these questions:
- Does your church have a Facebook or Snapchat page or an email list?
- Does your church give out flyers in the neighborhood?
- Does your church ever tell you to invite others to church?
Yes? Let’s keep going then.
- Does your church have a webpage?
- Does your church host concerts?
- Does your church hang posters for the concerts?
Yes again? Then your church definitely does marketing.
Simply put, marketing is the use of any communication media and strategy to promote and sell a product, service, or event. Church marketing is mostly about promoting and creating awareness. We won’t go into the details here of what churches “sell.”
But please don’t misunderstand us. Marketing can be a precious tool for bringing people into the Kingdom of God. Every organization and institution that wants to be successful in attracting potential members in our extremely competitive era must employ marketing tactics. They must have a firm branding foundation and identity. Churches are no exception.
In order to thrive and not just survive, successful brands do four things well. And churches could do well to learn from them.
1. Identity: The heart of it all.
Every brand has a core message that composes the heart of its communication, marketing, advertising, products, and business model.
As an example, consider what two global beverage brands and fierce competitors are saying their identity is. Guy Kawasaki—marketing guru and former Apple brand “evangelist” (note the job title)—calls these brand statements “mantras.” Coca Cola’s mantra claims it is “Sharing Happiness,” while its main competitor, Pepsi, boasts itself as the “Taste of Freedom.”
Their core messages—their identities—speak more about their purposes than their products. For a bottle of soda, one might pay a dollar, whether it’s Pepsi or Coca Cola. But how much would someone pay for happiness, or freedom?
In the same way, churches often find themselves in a headlong sprint against one another, imitating brand marketing strategies but slowly sliding away from their identity. As a brand, or as a church, when you lose focus of who you are, so does your audience.
2. Niche: Your target community.
For a brand, it’s crucial to understand the audience’s needs and desires. They need to bring something new to the market and target it to a specific audience.
Startup companies with limited budget and visibility know they cannot compete with brands like Audi, BMW and Chrysler. Tesla, for example, does this beautifully. An electric car. A luxurious electrical car. It is not targeted for the average consumer but for the upper class—and not even for everyone in the upper class, but only those who care about the planet’s future. Such a market might seem too specific, but this niche recently brought Tesla 325,000 pre-orders in a week.
Likewise, it’s essential for the church to respond to its congregation’s needs. Indeed, the gospel is for everyone, but your church’s niche is what sets it apart in the community. For example, if your church is in a low-income neighborhood, your main niche should be related to the needs of the people in that community. Because the church has many parts, each with its own talents, there shouldn’t be only one niche. Variety is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world.
3. Word of mouth: Spreading the message.
Word-of-mouth marketing involves creating positive buzz around a brand, a product, or a service and is a sure way to bring other people into contact with your brand.
When it comes to Return on Investment, word of mouth can make or break a brand. In 2010, Gap did something that seemed like a good idea—they changed their logo. So many people disapproved of the change on social media that in just a couple of days the brand reverted to its original logo. Power to the people, right?
A second example comes from the time of Jesus. Our Lord spends the night in the house of Peter, he heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and people start pouring into Peter’s home. What happened? Just a few people were exposed to the message. Where did the crowd come from? Word of mouth.
God chose to communicate his message of salvation for humanity through word of mouth. The number one tool for spreading the gospel was and is word of mouth. The number one tool that promotes brands and increases sales and awareness is word of mouth. Do you remember what Guy Kawasaki’s position at Apple was? Evangelist.
4. Online: “Share” is the new word of mouth.
Brands understand that communication has moved online. In many ways, the “share” button is the contemporary version of “word of mouth.”
In order for a church to be relevant today, it should consider building a social media presence that is anchored in Christ and sends the right message, speaking the language of its followers (its niche). Churches need to understand this not-so-new medium and use it for God’s glory, not their own. It’s incredibly easy to slip and create an event on Facebook and invite people to your Free Swimming event and Free Hot Dogs, instead of focusing on the reason a church comes together or does baptism.
People are bombarded with thousands of messages every day. If the church only adds to the clutter, its message will get lost. In this advertising-infused world people have developed their own protective barriers, reducing their attention span only to what’s relevant to them. It’s not news, but it’s real: the “eight-second attention span.” That means that in the time it took you to read the last two sentences, the average person has moved on to something else. And that fact is terrifying. For churches, there are a few techniques that might give momentary results, but may cause people to question their long-term results:
- “Out-of-this-world” evangelism marketing, or what some might call the “Kids, don’t try this at home” technique. A perfect example for this might just be grabbing the bull by the horns, and not in the metaphorical way: riding a bull in church; preaching with a black eye after beating up someone in a kickboxing ring; extreme marketing measures whose only purpose is to start controversy and attract people to a spectacle that often deviates from the focus of who Jesus is.
- “Churchtainment” marketing—poorly contextualized blending of entertainment with a veneer of church. Many might just prefer it to the traditional approach to church. The issue with churchtainment isn’t that it’s cool and hip. The issue is that, once again, you might lose focus and have a dance party in church for Christmas rather than a worship service. The mind-set behind this approach is quite simple: if secular styles are housed in a Christian environment, church becomes more desirable. But we can only wonder if such a strategy would be desirable to God.
- “Bait and switch” marketing. Actually, even brands are wary about using this technique. To be more precise, churches fall into the temptation of using dishonest marketing strategies just to get people in church. A thriving food bank in the middle of a major U.S. city daily serves hundreds of down-and-out men, women, and children. People are invited to this free food bank. But there’s a hidden agenda. After standing in line to enter, shopping through the “makeshift grocery store,” and checking out with food bank volunteers, the people are then ushered in thirty or forty at a time so that the gospel might be shared by a local pastor. People find themselves trapped into a gospel presentation that they did not know was coming. Wouldn’t you feel used? Tricked? Deceived?
We contend that highlighting burgers instead of baptism is confusing at best and heretical at worst. Yet it would be irresponsible of us to merely point fingers and not suggest a possible solution for discerning honest from dishonest marketing.
Tips for drawing the line
If you’re going to do proper marketing for your church, don’t forget there’s a whole “brand Book” (the Bible) that outlines what goals to set and how to evaluate the results. Here are just a few you should keep in mind:
- Identity. We must always come back to this. No matter where you go, the Church is Christ’s and should promote, talk about, preach, adore, discover, share, like, love, write, and sing about Jesus Christ. A firm theological foundation anchors all marketing activity in the pure message of the gospel. Ask yourself if you are adding too much glitter to the gospel. Are people invited first to Christ and then to burgers, or the other way around? In 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle Paul explains that he did not use extraneous words and tactics when ministering in their city. Instead, he says, the power of the Spirit was shown through the simplicity of the gospel of Christ crucified. Why? Paul writes, “[S]o that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
- Honesty. In their zeal to reach people, Christians sometimes sell promises of immediate satisfaction, all the while “forgetting” to tell people what Christians are really after. Suddenly visitors realize that this is not just any movie night but a prayer group as well. We owe it to people to let them know what they are getting into. Jesus did not teach dishonesty. In fact, Jesus was so thorough in explaining the truth that the crowds often couldn’t receive his words and the religious leaders wanted to kill him. According to John 6, Jesus’s honesty left him with only a dozen followers. John Frame contends, “If a marketer tells us that we should not mention sin, or that people prefer not to hear of blood atonement, the Scriptures must prevail over the human advice.”
- Relationship. No brand wants one-time users. This is why marketing is done with purpose and a long-term perspective. Defining success through God’s perspective means making gospel-centered disciples, not just getting people through the church door. Some of Jesus’ last recorded words are found in Matthew 28:18-20, in which he commands his people to “make disciples” who grow to become a genuine community of mature believers. Disciples, according to Jesus, obey Christ’s commands and are in it for the long haul. After all, Jesus said the world will know us by our love for one another.
Some churches may be tempted to lose their identities, quickly selling them for a couple hundred people on Sunday morning or a couple thousand more “likes” on Facebook pages. We must align ourselves with the brand Book: are we within the God-sent guidelines? Are we doing this the way we know, or by imitating other successful brands?
All church marketing strategies applied without guidance from Scripture undermine the kingdom of God by causing Christians to alter their identities. The end result may easily create a false image of who God is and what church means. Marketing, in itself, is not evil. The question that a thoughtful Christian must ask, and ask often, should be, “Is Jesus the focus of it all?”
Image by Eric Lassiter, Discover Los Angeles, via Flickr.