Church Marketing: A Step, Not a Panacea
By George Barna
If you look at the nonfiction books that sell most briskly these days, the biographies of business leaders are among those that head the list. As I write this chapter, the stories of John Sculley of Apple Computers, Roger Enrico of Pepsi, Debbie Fields of Mrs. Fields’ Cookies, David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather, Buck Rogers of IBM, and Akio Morita of Sony are among the best-selling books.
Research tells us that these books, and others before them (like Lee Iococca’s book), sell well because the leaders of today’s business world are looking for models they can emulate—individuals whose success can be dissected and applied in other situations by people who want to market them selves and their products more effectively. I suppose if I wanted to stretch the point, I could claim that since the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, thousands of people out there must be reading it and absorbing the marketing lessons of Jesus Christ. But even I wouldn’t believe that one! However, the idea is sound.
As I mentioned early in the book, I believe we can follow the life of Jesus and glean many tips on how to successfully market the Church. Although our focus is almost always on how Jesus ministered to people—and I am not suggesting that our focus ought to be anything different, for even as we market the Church, our primary responsibility is to share Christ with a lost world—it would be to our advantage to also spend time evaluating how Jesus went about marketing His ministry.
Perhaps the single most important marketing lesson Jesus taught was that marketing is not a one-time event, but a lifestyle. Read the synoptic gospels and marvel at His commitment to His ministry. Read the Gospel of John and be struck by Jesus’ sense of timing and His plan—how everything had a time and place, how sensitive He was to the needs of the people He encountered, and how seriously He took the communication of His ministry. Every situation He encountered was seen as an opportunity to reach out and touch someone with His product, that is, with the opportunity to know Him and build an eternal relationship with Him. Clearly, He knew His goals and created opportunities to fulfill people’s needs by offering His product, thereby satisfying His goals as well.
Jesus ought to be our model in ministry and in marketing. Just as He did, we have to become so dedicated to, and immersed in, the development of Christianity that it becomes an ingrained part of our everyday behavior. We have to evaluate all situations in light of how we can work with people and situations for the advantage of the Church.
Paul wrote that we are to be ambassadors of Christ. In contemporary language, I interpret that to say that you and I are to be marketing agents of the Church, spreading the good news through all available means and helping build the local church through our marketing efforts.
In evaluating Jesus’ ministry, it is also apparent that His work was constantly evolving. He was never satisfied to sit back and rest on His laurels. He was perpetually adapting to new circumstances, each of which brought a new opportunity to reach people. That ability was a function of maintaining a clear, focused perspective. Our goal, too, should be to achieve such a level of sensitivity that we regard every circumstance as a new challenge or opportunity to reach the world.
But as we look at Jesus the marketer, we also have to realize that He paid a price for His marketing activities. His product was not always warmly received. His communication divinely inspired and perfect as it was, was often misinterpreted. The cost He required for His product was rejected by many. Since His distribution system (the apostles) was inefficient in the beginning, He often had to bear double the burden that would be expected of another marketing executive. So I offer a word of advice and encouragement: If you really believe in what you are doing to market your church, remember that even Jesus faced His share of rejection and His work was successful partially because He was diligent.
Perseverance. Commitment. Faith. These are three indispensable characteristics of a successful church marketer. If we truly believe that Jesus is our only hope, that the Church is His instrument for guiding people and nurturing them to higher levels of spiritual development, and that we have been called by Him to make the Church a reliable source of spiritual truth and righteousness that is accessible to all people, then we must exhibit the depth of that faith by remaining unwavering in our commitment to marketing the Church for His glory.
Practically speaking, this means continuing to implement a marketing plan when people shout insults, claiming that we have turned our backs on the Holy Spirit and are failing to trust God. They may not realize that God has called us to behave intelligently, using the means and resources He has provided to accomplish His ends. Many of our critics will fail to realize that the marketing process itself is neither holy nor unholy; it is how we use and perceive the process, and the fruits of the process, that determine whether or not we have abused it. If we put all our trust in our own marketing abilities, or if our marketing efforts are successful in reaching people for the Church, and we give all the credit to the marketing process rather than to God’s blessing on our efforts, only then’ are our critics correct.
In evaluating whether or not we are marketing effectively, we also have to be wary not to confuse successful marketing with successful ministry. Effective marketing provides the opportunity to minister in a meaningful and significant way. Effective marketing does not mean that the Church is doing all that it has been called to do at a maximum level of quality.
Signs of Success
You probably know a few churches like the one I am about to describe. Perhaps your acquaintance with such bodies remains a concern regarding the acceptability of becoming involved in church marketing.
The church is in the South. Over the years, it has grown to the point where several thousand people attend the worship services every Sunday morning. The preaching is good, but not as good as it used to be. The music is well-rehearsed and biblically solid, but not as crisp as in past years. Why has the church lost its edge? Primarily because the church leaders have become so enamored with numbers that they have neglected their true mission: to reach the hearts of the people who come to the church for nourishment, challenge, and an experience with God. Technique and head counting have gotten in the way of the ministry.
Yes, this church has figured out how to market to its community. But it has allowed a marketing strategy to over power the quality of the product. It is forgetting how to minister for the glory of God’s Kingdom. It has no desire to cheat God or steal His thunder. The church leaders have simply gotten caught up in the excitement of having the “biggest.” Because their judgment has been clouded, they equate being the biggest with being the best. They have lost sight of their bottom- line goal, which the marketing orientation was designed to help them achieve, of saving souls and edifying believers.
How, then, can your church know if its marketing is effective and on track? Assuming that your marketing plan is geared to creating a church that is growing in numbers, let me suggest a few simple tests.
Growth In Numbers.
First, you should experience growth in numbers—the numbers of people who visit your church, join your church, and accept Christ as Savior. Since the purpose of your marketing efforts is to address people’s needs, you most likely have either misjudged people’s needs or have not effectively figured out how to address those opportunities for ministry if you are not growing. Likewise, if you are seeing many new faces in the congregation, but few are accepting the Lord, you need to reexamine the strategies you have developed and implemented for guiding people through the spiritual growth process.
Second, you should find that as a result of your marketing activities a greater number of people are actively involved in the work of the church. When people catch a vision that is meaningful and exciting, they invariably commit a part of themselves to it. God has prepared every person for such involvement, gifting each individual with talents and capabilities that can be used in the marketing campaign. If you have developed a strong marketing campaign, everyone should be able to find a niche that suits them—one that helps them feel good about making a contribution to the growth of the church.
Third, there should be a sense of excitement about what the church is doing and how it is evolving. When marketing works, it is an exhilarating experience!
How would you have felt to have been part of Ronald Reagan’s marketing team that carried him to the presidency in 1980? Think about what it must have been like to be on the marketing team that brought Builder’s Emporium, the home improvement chain, back from the brink of bankruptcy to leader ship in its industry. Instead of a line of creditors, scholars and journalists wanted to study their work, and investors wanted their share of the pie. How about Disney Studios? Michael Eisner’s group of marketing mavens transformed an old-fashioned, moribund, movie studio into the hottest production house in Hollywood. The people in your church can become every bit as excited as these stalwart teams if they catch the vision, receive proper direction, and sense ownership in a ministry that is really going somewhere. Everybody loves a winner!
Sensitivity To Minister.
A fourth indicator of successful marketing in your church is a greater sensitivity to the nature and quality of the church’s ministry. By working through the marketing planning process, you will take stock of what the church is doing, how well it is doing it, and what it hopes to accomplish in the future. As a growing team of people becomes involved in the marketing process, and as the congregation becomes increasingly informed about church plans and tactics, members should become more aware of how satisfactorily the church is doing what it is in business to do: minister to people.
A fifth sign that your marketing is successful is when the burden of doing all the work is removed from the back of the pastor. Church marketing is not a one-man show. In the early stages that may be inevitable, but as the church grows and people become excited, more and more individuals will show interest in joining the bandwagon.
A Changed Atmosphere.
Finally, if the atmosphere at the church changes, it may be due to good marketing. When things start to happen, the entire mood of the church can be radically uplifted. Every once in a while, after you have been implementing your marketing strategies for some time, take a moment to step back and observe what is happening. Can you feel a different aura about the church? Is there a greater sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and joy? Without taking away what rightfully belongs to the Holy Spirit, part of the change in the environment might be attributable to the gains made through the marketing process.
The Importance of Feedback
Regardless of whether the success in your marketing is obvious or not, I cannot overemphasize the importance of developing feedback systems. Unless you are sensitive to what is happening, and are not simply relying on your own limited and possibly biased information and interpretation, your efforts might be wasted. You do not need the world’s most sophisticated tracking systems to get a handle on how things are going. But you should have multiple systems in place to give you a comprehensive, reliable perspective on what is happening.
Simple data can be collected regularly and analyzed for trends. For example, you could find out how many people attended the worship service, how many attended the Sunday school classes, how many children were in the nursery, or many visitors were present. Having such easy-to-collect data can enable you to begin to see the effect your marketing activities have had.
Another key is to track what happens to visitors. Do they return after their first visit? After their second? Do they attend a Sunday school class? How did they learn about the church? What caused them to try your church? Do they eventually join the church? How long does it take them to decide to join? Charting such simple and basic information can help you see patterns in activity that identify how well you are building the kind of church you want.
It is also important to obtain regular feedback from members. This should be done in as nonthreatening and unbiased a manner as possible. Talking informally with members in settings other than the church grounds is helpful, and relying on people other than the pastor to obtain the information is wise. Even such time-worn methods as having a suggestion box can be useful. A more formal approach, such as congregational surveys, can also be invaluable, as long as they are intelligently conducted and not done too frequently (no more than once a year).
It is also advisable to conduct a marketing audit. One simple approach is to identify a team of people that might be qualified to evaluate the church and, then, have them visit the church for several weeks before drawing their conclusions. These judges should be Christians who are familiar with church life and who have had the vision of the church explained to them before their visit. That explanation will enable them to put their observations into an analytic context. The judges should be individuals from other churches because a member of the church cannot be an objective evaluator.
Who could you ask to perform a marketing audit? You might try business professors from a nearby college, graduating seminarians, representatives from your denomination, or marketing consultants who would be willing to assess your progress. The results of their observations should be provided in written form, and should include recommendations of activities that might further improve your church.
Growth Without Compromise
Growth is an indication that something exciting and meaningful is happening. Growth itself can be exciting too. If you are truly seeking growth for the glory of God’s Kingdom rather than for yourself, you have to be extremely cautious not to become so numbers crazy that you lose sight of your original purpose.
A church in Southern California began with less than a dozen people attending the first week’s service. You cannot find a seat in the sanctuary today, because more than 10,000 people regularly file into the church every Sunday. But the growth of the church occurred as a consequence of spiritual compromise. People who attend that church see a good show, but they don’t hear the gospel the way Jesus proclaimed it. Yes, this church is well marketed, but it is marketed for a different purpose than to serve Jesus Christ.
Make no mistake about it: marketing can become so engulfing, so exciting, that it begins to feed on itself. Your job is to master the marketing process, but not to let it master you and your church.
At what point is marketing most likely to lead to compromise in your ministry? From my experience, these are the weak points:
• Getting so carried away with the power of advertising that truth becomes secondary to the number of people reached with the message;
• Becoming so hooked on numerical growth that the preaching of the gospel gets watered down to a “cheap grace,” “name it and claim it,” or some other form of perverted spiritual teaching;
• Changing the vision from one of reaching people for the spiritual renewal that can happen, to reaching the greatest number of people so that the church will be known as the largest or fastest growing church, regardless of its spiritual life.
If God chooses to bless your marketing efforts, keep in mind that your success is because of His blessing. Our purpose is to glorify Him. When we lose the perspective, numbers or no numbers, we will be worse off than when we started our quest.
Marketing Helps, But It Is Not the Only Answer
I wish I could tell you that if your church followed everything in this book, you would have to build a new, multistory building to handle the overflowing crowd that rushes to your ser vices every Sunday morning to listen to a vibrant, meaningful message from God’s Word. Naturally, that is an unrealistic expectation. Even if you market your church effectively, your growth may be modest, rather than explosive. Why? Because marketing is only one step in the process of building a successful ministry. It is an important step—an often overlooked step—but it is not the end-all for church growth.
Think about your worship service. Suppose the sermon on Sunday morning is absolutely superb. Will that cause the church to grow like wildfire? Not in and of itself, although it will certainly be a key element to growth. Think of all the other activities that have to occur in concert with superb preaching. The music should be passable, if not outstanding. The worship experience should be of high quality. Parking and seating must be available. People must know about the church and be made aware of the amazing sermons flowing from the pulpit. All of these elements are related and must be working to complement each other. No single element is adequate to build a church— not even a great marketing plan and its implementation.
Is marketing, then, worth the effort? Yes! You are working with the resources provided by God to enhance your effort toward having a meaningful, growing ministry in people’s lives. How can you reject that opportunity?
Excerpted from ‘Marketing The Church’ What They Never Taught You About Church Growth’ By George Barna
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.”