Marketing the Church

By: George Barna

The evangelical church in America is losing the battle to effectively bring Jesus Christ into the lives of the unsaved population. I offer this bold statement nor to thrust myself into the role of social prophet of doom. Instead, it is a judgment that comes from my perspective as a professional marketer, and a Christian who is concerned about our ability to reach a needy world.

I base the bold statement on a marketers most critical tool-information. Consider the following facts, and you will see why I believe the Church is losing its battle to positively and effectively impact this nation for Christ.

Fact: Since 1980, there has been no growth in the proportion of the adult population that can be classified as “born again” Christians. (These are people who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, accepting Him as their Lord and Savior.) The proportion of born again Christians has remained constant (thirty-two percent) despite the fact that churches and parachurch organizations have spent several billion dollars on evangelism.

Fact: Since 1970, there has been no appreciable change in the proportion of adults who attend church services at any time during the week. This is true in spite of a growing number of churches, increased church spending for advertising and promotion, and the availability of more sophisticated techniques for informing people of a church’s existence.

Fact: The fastest growing churches in America are not Christian. Among those that are expanding most rapidly are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various cults.

Fact: Attitudinal studies have shown that despite a growing public interest in religion, people’s confidence in the Church as an institution is declining. Furthermore, only a minority of adults in this nation consider the Christian Church to be “relevant for today.” Levels of biblical literacy and involvement are on a slow, but steady, decline.

Fact: Community studies conducted in various parts of the country have revealed that a growing number of adults are unfamiliar with the churches around them. These adults do not even know the names or denominations of the churches in their community, much less what they teach or otherwise offer.

I could continue this list of supporting facts, but the point is clear-the Church is not making inroads into the lives and hearts of people. My contention, based on careful study of data and the activities of American churches, is that the major problem plaguing the Church is its failure to embrace a marketing orientation in what has become a marketing-driven environment.


What does it mean to be “marketing driven”?

For now, think of marketing as the activities that allow a church to identify and understand people’s needs, to identify its own resources and capabilities, and to engage in a course of action that will enable it to use its resources and capabilities to satisfy the needs of the people to whom it wishes to minister. Marketing is the process by which you seek to apply your product to the desires of the target population.

If a church’s sensitivity to people’s needs causes it to develop ministries that will impact people’s lives, it is marketing driven. A marketing-driven church has a consistent desire to know where people are hurting or unfulfilled and to do whatever it can to alleviate their pain and emptiness, for the purpose of building up the Kingdom of Christ.

A marketing-driven church is people centered, not program centered. It develops a ministry to solve problems, rather than expecting people to force their problems into its mold. It believes that ministry is an interactive, evolving process, not a static structure in which everything can be foreseen and handled via organizational procedures. People have a need to which the church responds. Its response changes people, which requires it to devise a new response to their changed condition. The marketing-driven church is involved in a continuous process-a cycle that does not have a clear starting point and will never have an ending point. Why? Because people, whether they are believers or not, will always have needs that the Church can address.

A church with a marketing orientation understands its purpose and its product. Such a church is compelled to get that product to everyone in its environment who needs it. The church may have to adapt its approach in order to reach certain people, but that is part of the marketing process.

What is success in marketing? For a church, it is fulfilling the corporate goals and missions as set forth by the church governing body, in compliance with the mandate of Scripture. Success is helping people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ.


Chances are good that you have yet to encounter a church leader who talks about his marketing plan or reveals the details of a successful church marketing campaign. You may be inclined to think that marketing is something that only secular corporations do with any aplomb. But this is not so. It is safe to assume that for-profit corporations often have a better understanding of marketing than not-for-profit organizations. However, even some of the best-known for-profit organizations have marketing programs that leave much to be desired.

For several decades, Chrysler was among the innovators in the industry, among the “big three” auto manufacturers. In the 1970s, Chrysler found itself on a roller-coaster ride to oblivion-a rapid decline that brought it to the brink of bankruptcy in 1979. It had been transformed from a successful leader to a crippled also-ran, fighting for its financial life.

Within just six years time, that position of weakness totally reversed. Once again, Chrysler is an innovator, a leader in its field. What made the difference? Shifting its emphasis from manufacturing products that fit its plant capabilities to marketing products and services that satisfied a demand in the marketplace!

Your church can be the Chrysler of tomorrow.

Today, organizational survival requires the ability to evaluate the environment and adapt one’s style to keep pace with the changes. Survival does not require compromising one’s morals or vision, or the gospel. It does, however, necessitate a clear understanding of the territory within which an individual or organization will attempt to demonstrate those morals and convey that vision.


Conceptually, a church marketing strategy rests on four key premises. These assumptions form the foundation for the comprehensive strategy for church growth and development.

First, the Church is a business. It is involved in the business of ministry. As such, the local church must be run with the same wisdom and savvy that characterizes any for-profit business. As in the business world, every church must be managed with purpose and efficiency, moving toward its goals and objectives. Our goal as a church, like any secular business, is to turn a profit. For us, however, profit means saving souls and nurturing believers.

Second, marketing is essential for a business to operate successfully. We have to recognize the advantages of marketing and adapt them to the ways of the Church, if we are serious about reaching the world for Christ.

Third, the Christian Church in America, with a few exceptions, does not have a marketing perspective regarding its growth and development. Marketing by default-that is, letting events determine the way in which a product or service is shaped, priced, promoted, and disseminated-inevitably leads to failure by neglect. Sadly, research studies have shown that marketing, as a conscious set of activities growing out of an articulated marketing philosophy, is absent in more than nine out of ten evangelical churches. Most churches, by marketing standards, are failures: that is, they are not maximizing their potential for profit (i.e., ministry gains).

Finally, I believe that many evangelical Christians are sufficiently concerned about the condition of our nation and the state of the Church to seriously consider alternative approaches to building up the Church through the local church body. While the failure to embrace a marketing orientation will not result in the immediate, absolute collapse of the Church, it will prevent the Church from taking advantage of existing opportunities for growth and outreach.

This is not to suggest that prayer and trusting the Lord are not key elements to church growth and development; they are absolutely critical. However, we can do more to further the cause of Christ. We, as a Body, have been equipped to do so much more than we have done or attempted to do. I am convinced that God equipped us for a purpose, and that the purpose is to expand the Church. Until we use the resources He has provided, I cannot imagine Him being satisfied with our efforts.


Many Christian leaders, when confronted with these facts and perspectives, persist with the notion that marketing is “too worldly,” or “not Christian.” They view the marketing of a church as a sinful activity, or at least one leading to sin. A credible ministry, they reason, ought not to be tainted by overt marketing.

Enter “Exhibit A” on behalf of marketing for churches: the Bible.

The Bible is one of the world’s great marketing texts. No, it does not clearly list the basic marketing principles. Granted, it does not contain a series of chapters with clearly identified marketing case studies. But the foundational concepts of marketing and a myriad of applications are found in the Bible.

For the purpose of understanding how we can see examples and teaching about the marketing in the Scriptures, think of marketing as the activities that address the needs of a target audience, thereby allowing the business to satisfy its goals.

I believe that as we begin to understand the basic elements of marketing, we will find countless examples of marketing activity in the Bible. Many of the efforts of Jesus and His disciples represent lessons in marketing and ought to reduce our concern that marketing, as a way of approaching Christian ministry, is not biblically sound.

Research. For instance, an effective marketer must base his plans and tactics on recent and accurate information. Rather than relying on emotion and instinct alone, the marketer relies on objective data to provide a realistic picture of the environment and population that he is charged with serving.

If you review Jesus’ ministry, you will discover many examples of His mastery of the data gathering and analysis process. Jesus consciously sought to identify people’s needs-not by making gross assumptions, but through research (either by questioning the individual, or through keen observation). He asked the blind man what he wanted. He asked the centurion what he desired. At the Cana wedding, His conversation with Mary uncovered the need for more wine.

The Apostle Paul was another leader in Scripture who understood the value of research in church growth. His entire public ministry was based on a continual environmental assessment. He consistently evaluated the spiritual condition-the need for evangelism, education, and exhortation-of the communities within his jurisdiction. The epistles indicate that the nature and duration of Paul’s ministry in a given city was determined by his interpretation of the information he received about the spiritual condition of that place.

Strategy. Another aspect of marketing is the process of marketing planning. This entails the development of a vision, goals, and objectives, and identifying a viable strategy and set of tactics for reaching those goals. The apostles were early advocates of this approach. Read Acts 6, and notice how they developed a plan for sending out missionaries while leaving other saints behind to attend to the church’s material needs.

Jesus Himself taught the importance of planning, criticizing the foolishness of those who failed to plan (Lk. 14:28-30). Several of His parables underscore the centrality of strategy and tactics.

Paul was one of the all-time great tacticians. He perpetually studied strategies and tactics to identify those that would enable him to attract the most “prospects” and realize the greatest number of conversions.

Pricing. Knowing the product and its cost are also integral to the marketing process. Under-pricing or overpricing a product can drag a company to its knees in no time flat. Knowing how to determine an appropriate price and how to communicate it are of vital importance.

Jesus Christ understood the price tag of true faith. It was steep, but He was promoting a transaction of great value. Was faith without cost? Absolutely not! Just ask the rich, young man who wanted eternal life, but chose to hold onto his earthly possessions rather than gain heavenly treasures (Mt. 19:16-26). Just ask those seekers to whom Jesus said, “Follow me!” about the extent to which obedience to His command transformed their lives-at the expense of career, family, reputation, and belongings. Indeed, Jesus warned that people following Him would pay a heavy (but fair) price.

Communication. Marketing cannot occur without clear and meaningful communication. Modern marketing incorporates various forms of mass communication (radio, television, direct mail) and interpersonal communication. Companies that have not developed means of conveying their message with clarity are rarely successful.

Jesus Christ was a communications specialist. He communicated His message in diverse ways, and with results, that would be a credit to modern advertising and marketing agencies. Notice the Lord’s approach: He identified His target audience, determined their need, and delivered His message directly to them. By addressing the crowds on the mountain sides, or the Jews in the Temple, He promoted His product in the most efficient way possible: by communicating with the “hot prospects.”

Just as important, Jesus designed the content and language of His message with the nature of His audience in mind. For instance, He spoke very differently to Peter than to Nicodemus, and He conveyed His message to the Pharisees quite differently than to the centurion-even though the message was essentially the same.

Paul provided what I feel is perhaps the single most insightful perspective on marketing communications, the principle we call contextualization (I Cor. 9:19-23). Paul advocated speaking to people with words and logic that they understood that the audience, not the messenger, was sovereign-he was willing to shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he sought.

Distribution. Another key aspect in marketing is to develop a distribution or delivery system that carries the product to the consumer. If demand for the product exist, but the marketer is incapable of supplying the product, nothing is gained and much, potentially, is lost.

Jesus was well aware of the need to ensure that the faith was accessible to those who sought it. He labored long and hard to turn a motley bunch of working-class men into an informed, capable distribution system. As time passed, His men opened “franchises” (local churches) to further spread the product.

We could spend more time dissecting the Bible to see exactly how the Lord Jesus, the apostles, the prophets, and others in leadership positions utilized basic marketing techniques to further God’s Kingdom. However, the point is indisputable: the Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing. In fact, the Scriptures provide clear examples of God’s chosen men using those principles. So it behooves us to not waste time bickering about techniques and processes, but to study methods by which we can glorify our King and comply with the Great Commission.


Let’s suspend any attachments to traditional thinking about church growth. Let’s also enter this journey with a common perspective on the local church. Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency- an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs. We believe that, in the Person of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Body of believers, we have the perfect solution to people’s needs. We are well prepared to fulfill those needs-not the needs that we claim people have, but the needs that people themselves recognize and express. Using the resources the Church already has time, talent, money, facilities-how can we squeeze the greatest possible results from those resources and achieve our goals as a service agency in the employ of the God of all creation?


Based on my experience, here are some benefits a church can realize through effective marketing.

Numerical growth

If a church studies its market, devises intelligent plans, and implements those plans faithfully, it should see an increase in the numbers of visitors, new members, and people who attend their church.

Better communications

A church can enhance the effectiveness of its communication by planning the message it wants to convey to its target audience-not just through sermons, but through advertising, programs, and other forms of interaction. It can better alert people to what it, as a church, is all about, and how they can benefit from what it offers.

Greater understanding of its ministry

Many churches are diligently ministering, but lack a clear sense of direction or purpose. A church that devises a marketing campaign properly can overcome this difficulty. By specifying its goals, resources, problems, opportunities, strategies, and tactics, a church can gain a very precise definition of why it is in business and how its ministry can achieve optimum results.

Superior use of resources

Every church is plagued by limited resources: human, financial, and physical. But these limitations do not have to limit what it can accomplish. If a church knows exactly where it’s going and how to get there, it is much easier not only to conserve its available resources and use them more efficiently, but also to identify other needed resources and determine how to acquire them.

Community sensitivity

A good marketer is in touch with the environment in which he operates. If a church assumes a marketing orientation, it will become better acquainted with the people, problems, and opportunities within the geographic area it serves. Beyond mere awareness of the prevailing conditions, this insight will allow it to make its programs and communications more relevant to people’s needs.

More extensive community outreach

When a church adopts the outward perspective a marketing orientation provides, it will gain wider awareness of the community, have a greater presence for Jesus Christ, and reap the benefits of having members who are more involved in personal outreach.

Enhanced personal ministries

As the people in a church catch the vision and understand the plan for marketing the church, they can have more meaningful personal ministries. The marketing approach enables individuals to take greater ownership of the ministry process and assume more responsibility for it, yet it does not overburden them with unwanted or unnecessary spiritual baggage.

New leaders

What church could not use a new crop of committed leaders to support existing ministries and help shepherd the church into new areas of ministry? By sharing the vision and developing a planned approach to church growth and development, a new team of leaders can be identified, trained, and involved.

Reduction of the pastor’s frustration

Our surveys have shown that one of the greatest frustrations of pastors is their feeling of being all alone in ministry. By preparing new leaders, by using existing support more effectively, and by developing a plan for managing ministry and growth, the pastor’s burden can be better managed, if not largely alleviated.

A changed environment

Once the marketing activity begins to take root, different attitudes become evident. People gain a better-defined sense of purpose. Generally, the church atmosphere becomes much more positive, upbeat, and confident. The enthusiasm is hard to miss-or ignore.

(The above material appeared in 1988 issue of Discipleship Journal.)

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