Approaching People In The Right Spirit

Approaching People In The Right Spirit
By Mike Cotter

Religious leaders are beginning to consider marketing as a possible tool for increasing their ability to understand and respond to the changing American religious scene.

A computer search of articles written on religious marketing from 1949—1989 will reveal dozens of articles written on the subject, including: “The Marketing of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Chaplaincy, and Clinical Pastoral Education”; “Marketing Pastoral Counseling”; “Applying Marketing Principles to Outreach Programs”: “What Churches Can Learn from Marketing”; “Marketing the Church’s Ministry”; “Effective Evangelism: A Matter of Marketing”; “Religion as a Marketing Problem and How Research Can help”; “Marketing the Church”; “True Marketing Concept Is Based Upon the Biblical Philosophy of Life.”‘

Also, several books have been published on religious marketing.’ While the appropriateness of marketing for congregations remains somewhat controversial, there is evidence that the majority of pastors and rabbis feel marketing techniques are appropriate for their ministry.’ Nevertheless, as Thomas Huxley said, “Skepticism is the highest of duties, blind faith the one unpardonable sin.”

Marketing is a disciplined approach to keeping a congregation’s ministry on target with the needs of its inside and outside publics. When these publics are satisfied that the church or synagogue is offering something of genuine value, they will gladly and willingly enter into meaningful “exchanges” that will benefit themselves—and the congregation.

But the question still stands: Why do we have to do this?

Indeed, for the seminary, local congregations, denominational agencies, and for all religious organizations—things are different.’ To continue doing the same things in the same way will almost certainly lead to regret. In times of rapid and radical environmental change; new approaches must be found for ministry, or the organization will drift toward anomie and irrelevance, simply because the world around it (its publics, competition, societal characteristics, needs, and interests) is changing while it is not.

When new approaches to ministry are required, marketing offers the best theories and tools currently available. Marketing is based on systems theory, which has grown out of the need to understand and proactively respond to new and changing environments. Marketing, coupled with the best of “faith-full” listening and discernment practices, can help any religious organization achieve greater effectiveness in ministry, and avoid wasting scarce resources—or outright failure.


Basic Approaches To Ministry

There are 3 basic approaches to ministry in American religion today. They are production, sales, and marketing. The marketing approach may be applied to persons only, or to societal concerns as well as persons. This orientation toward society as well as individuals is known as the societal marketing orientation. We shall describe these approaches in this chapter.


The Production Approach

In the production approach we produce a product—over and over again with no change, unless forced to do so.

The production approach to ministry is based on the idea that things aren’t changing, that people inside and outside the congregation think and act as they always have. Based on this assumption, it makes sense to “produce” a ministry product that does not change. Since persons and societies do not change all that much, the clergy and congregation can get by well enough by producing an unchanging “product.” Furthermore, they will get better and better at producing it. Lloyd Perry, retired professor of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, told his students about churches whose guiding principle was “Come weal or come woe, our status is quo.” This is a production approach to ministry.

When the environment changes to the extent that the ministry or its “packaging” becomes valueless, the “production” ministry spirals into decline.

Yet, making changes in a production-oriented congregation is never easy. When the Roman Catholic Church moved from the Latin mass to the vernacular mass in the language of the people, it caused tremendous wrenching among the ranks. Many priests could not imagine having to relearn the mass in another language. Many older Catholics could not imagine a mass in any language but Latin. The same is true of many Protestant leaders today who still believe the King James Version of the Bible is the only one of value. So they continue the public Scripture readings in archaic English, never stopping to consider that there aren’t many people out there still using the “begats,” and “thous” in their conversations.

We are not saying that members of a religious body should not love their “product.” In fact, if they don’t strongly believe in their faith and tradition they will be poor advocates of it. However, there is a difference between being in love with the production of religion and being in love with the essence of what the religion represents—so in love, in fact, that the greatest joy is seeing the effects that the product’s “consumption” can make in the life of a new “consumer.” In this case, the love is for the successful marketing of the product (i.e., a mutually beneficial “exchange”) rather than in a rigid and possibly outdated method of producing the product. A production orientation consists of an unchanging devotion to the production of the product, rather than a commitment to the mission the product is intended to support.


The Sales Approach

Whereas a production approach to ministry focuses on producing and distributing a product that the producer thinks is best for its publics, a sales approach focuses on the organization’s ability to sell its publics on a product (idea, program, method). The product itself is not as important as the effectiveness of the sales effort.

The sales approach does not aim to maximize information about a product. In fact, it may conceal information, because sales do not depend on informing the public on all aspects of the product. It works to “hype” the product. For the salesperson, selling often becomes an exercise in persuasion, rather than an exchange of values or benefits.

The sales approach, like the production mode, is common to religious organizations. A. pastor will “sell” the congregation on a new day school or the need for a building program. The denominational official will “sell” a pastor on accepting a certain appointment.

A sales orientation to ministry differs from the production approach in one significant way. Whereas the production approach will produce a product and attempt to defend it against any change, the sales approach will pick and choose a form of ministry it thinks it can sell. If it doesn’t sell, the sales approach will discard it for some-thing else that might produce better sales. The production approach to ministry doesn’t want to pay attention to the users’ tastes and interests at all. The sales approach, on the other hand, pays attention, but only to change the tastes and interests of potential users, not to respond to them.

The sales approach to ministry often takes form around one main actor who leads the congregation or organization in directions he or she wants it to go. This person (the salesperson) decides the style and focus of ministry and sells it by the strength of his or her charisma and persuasion. Consequently, when the main actor is removed from the scene, the ministry often folds. There are many current examples of this in the American church scene, especially in the scandal-ridden world of televised evangelism.

Some organizations believe they can substantially increase the size of their market by increasing their selling effort. Rather than change their products to make them more relevant to a changing environment, these organizations will increase the budget for advertising, personal selling, sales promotion, and other demand-stimulating activities. Thus the pastor reacts to a decline in attendance, or membership, by turning to promotion. This tactic may have an immediate effect of stimulating curiosity and subsequent attendance, but it fails to address more long-term problems.

Selling in religious organizations has an important place. For example, if the leader-as-salesperson is educating the people to see higher values and to “buy” them as their own, selling is achieving a good purpose. When there are programs that are good and valid, and the people should support (buy) them, a strong sales effort may be called for. On the other hand, selling falls short when the salesperson is not so much interested in the value of the product, as in his or her ability to sell it. Perhaps the worst example of selling is when the salesperson is attempting to sell a value that isn’t there, or to make up for a product’s deficiency by a strong sales effort.

It is a cardinal rule that you cannot sell what you haven’t got, Sooner or later the “buyer” will catch on.


The Marketing Approach

The marketing approach to ministry embraces a guiding principle that the ministry exists to serve the needs and interests of persons. Since people and environments change, the religious organization must adapt and customize its specific “products” and “packaging,” while remaining faithful to its doctrine.

Thus the religious organization remains vital in its environment. When the main actors leave, it survives, because it is not based on a product or a person, but on a commitment to religiously relevant needs and interests of its people and community.

The best examples of ministries based on the marketing approach are perhaps being carried on by persons who have not studied marketing, and who would be surprised if we suggested they are utilizing marketing concepts. These are pastors of’ both large and small churches, rabbis of synagogues, evangelists, seminary administrators—men and women who are succeeding in renewing their organizations by implicit or explicit marketing.

The ministry team’s focus on the needs of singles and divorced persons constituted a marketing approach. The team started with understanding the needs of a targeted group, not with what they wanted to produce or sell to an audience. Yet in talking to the authors of this book, Pastor Wilson and others on the team disavowed knowing anything about marketing. They said they only knew how to “find a need and fill it.” “And,” they said, “whenever the church succeeds in doing this, people will come to the church on their own.”

Some congregations have discovered the value of focusing their attention not on production, products, or sales, but on meeting persons’ changing needs and interests. They recognize that with-out satisfied customers, the organizations will soon find them-selves customer-less and tailspin into oblivion. A true market orientation exists only when the focus of satisfying needs pervades all areas of the organization, rather then being adopted only by its leader.

The marketing approach requires that the congregation systematically study needs, wants, perceptions, preferences, and satisfaction of its members and others whom it is trying to reach. The planners must then act on this information to meet those needs more effectively.

The user orientation that Pastor Ed Young has built into the mentality of Second Baptist Church (known as The Fellowship of Excitement) expresses itself in the manner in which the custodians approach their task, in the friendliness with which the receptionist answers the telephone, and in the helpfulness of various church employees in solving parishioners’ and visitors’ problems. The employees and volunteers in a market-oriented congregation will work as a team to meet the needs of the specific target markets that are to be served.

It is clear that different organizations within the same industry will vary in the degree to which they truly work for the present or potential users of their product. Consider a service industry such as airlines. A British guidebook publisher decided to rate the quality of 14 different airlines as an aid to travelers.’ The staff boarded 43 transatlantic flights armed with tape recorders and evaluated each trip on such factors as check-in service, baggage delivery, food, cleanliness, friendliness, and response to special stress situations, such as asking for aspirin, and so on. The scores were combined in a weighted index with a maximum score of 100. The results showed a great variation, with Delta topping the list at 77 and the worst airline scoring only 36.

Churches, like airlines, can demonstrate considerable difference in the degrees to which their operations reflect a sensitive and caring attitude toward their members and others they are seeking to serve.


A Societal Market Orientation

A market-oriented congregation faces two problems in committing itself to satisfying needs and wants of its members and others whom it wishes to serve. First, persons may have wants that are not proper to satisfy, either because they go against society’s interest (such as buying handguns) or against the consumers’ long-term interests (such as cigarette smoking). Second, persons may have needs of which they are not aware (such as the need for a personal relationship with God). In this instance the congregation may want to offer help to the person for his or her good, even though it may be costly to do so.

There is a growing awareness on the part of religious leaders that the congregation is called to minister to society as well as to persons. Society may function either as a competitor or an ally in the congregation’s efforts to produce a “transformed person.” A market orientation that carries concern also for society takes four factors into account in making marketing decisions: the person’s interests, society’s interests, and the short-term and long-term consequences of satisfying those interests. This orientation can be called a “societal” market orientation.

Adherence to a societal market orientation is consistent with the biblical “Golden Rule” of concern for the long-term welfare of others. If profit and nonprofit organizations alike were to practice a societal marketing concept, it is likely that our quality of life would improve. The “quality of life” includes the quality, quantity, availability, and cost of goods; the quality of the cultural environment; the quality of our spiritual lives and how that affects our relationship with God and with each other. People judge marketing systems not just by the amount of direct consumer satisfaction that is created, but also by the impact of marketing on the quality of the physical, cultural, and spiritual environment. In fact, research has shown that both devotional (private) and participatory (public) aspects of religion have a positive relationship with life satisfaction.

Thus a societal market orientation, as difficult as it may be to adopt, can be accepted as a way for religious organizations to pursue their mission. If the term “market orientation” still makes some of our readers a hit uneasy, they can substitute “responsive” or “out-reach” or “development” for “market” orientation. The key, as we shall see in chapter 3, is to utilize the suggested approach to help achieve the objectives of the religious organization, while satisfying the needs of its targeted groups.

Congregations will more and more need to consider modern marketing practices, because religion is an increasingly “tough sell.” Comfortable life-styles among the affluent, general cynicism and ennui among the middle class, and basic survival concerns among the disadvantaged distract many from listening to what churches and synagogues have to say about the need for God in our lives. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book Who Needs God?’ makes a persuasive argument that religion is a fundamental need of the human condition, but many seem skeptical of the role of organized religion in their lives. It is frequently difficult to get “trial use” among prospective users. This is nothing new. The path to God is intentionally narrow, steep, and rock strewn. While everyone may need religion, to many persons it is far from obvious that a product so difficult to obtain is desirable and satisfying.

Moreover, true religion faces strong competition from other sources, such as the New Age movement, secular humanism, and materialism. Marketing, when practiced according to the societal marketing concept, is of value to all religious leaders because it offers a means by which to achieve their objectives—to improve the quality of life of all to whom they minister. The societal marketing concept focuses on the long-term welfare of people through satisfaction of “healthy” needs that ultimately benefit society as well as the individual. This indeed is a worthy objective for organized religion as well.



When properly understood, a marketing orientation can be seen to adhere to scriptural principles of concern for others’ needs more than the production and selling orientations which exemplify the approaches taken by many religious organizations in dealing with their “markets.” Nevertheless, some very successful religious leaders have been leading their congregations in what could he described as a societal marketing orientation without knowing about marketing principles. A societal marketing orientation holds that the main task of the organization is to determine the needs, wants, and interests of target markets and to adapt the organization to delivering satisfaction that preserves or enhances the consumer’s and society’s well-being on a long-term as well as short-term basis. Such an orientation results in an improved quality of life for those affected by the implementation of such an approach to fulfilling a religious organization’s mission.

Our purpose thus far has been to help you learn what marketing is and to decide whether it is appropriate for your organization. The next chapter will discuss ways by which marketing can contribute to making the religious organization a more responsive institution.


This article “Approaching People In The Right Spirit” written by Mike Cotter is excerpted from Marketing For Congregations written by Mike Cotter.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”