Pros and Cons of Church Marketing
Child care available. Family friendly. Convenient parking. Well-staffed classrooms. Air conditioning. Contemporary service. Excellent preaching. What do all of these phrases have in common? They’re all encouraging people to attend our churches. In one way or another, we’re marketing what we have to offer. How far should you go to market your church? And what are the consequences or rewards of marketing your church? Take the time to consider both sides of the issue and what works best for your church.
The reason I advise churches to use caution in adopting marketing principles and practices is that, as a tool, marketing encourages us to think of the church in a certain way. Anyone who has held a hammer and who knows the pleasure of using it understands the point: With a hammer in your hand, the whole world quickly divides itself into the strikeable and the unstrikeable. In a similar way, with the tools of church marketing in one’s hand, one quickly begins seeing the church in terms of what is marketable and what is not. Like any tool, marketing has the potential to transform the church into something less than what God called it to be.
To see how this might happen, we need to know a little about marketing principles and practices. Marketing involves the management of self-interested exchanges. I agree to make available to you what you need as long as you agree to make available to me what I need. While this seems to work efficiently in some spheres of life (I exchange the $3.79 my grocer wants for the box of cereal I desire), we should pause to ask ourselves whether we want to transform the church into another venue for self-interested exchanges.
If we do, then inevitably we will be compelled to seek ways of packaging our products—salvation, religious experiences, or whatever we determine the product to be so that consumers will want what we have to offer in exchange for whatever we expect from them—loyalty, attendance, financial support, and so forth. But the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot easily be repackaged into the what’s-in-it-for-me mentality without doing serious harm to Christ’s claim on our lives. How, for example, do we simultaneously appeal to people’s self-interest while calling them to follow a Jesus who demands that they die to self? One possible side effect is that the church that adopts a marketing orientation may find it increasingly difficult to present those dimensions of the Christian life that are not marketable.
The central role of self-interested exchanges in the marketing approach raises the possibility of another detrimental side effect. For good or ill, much of our contemporary lives are shaped by self-interested exchanges. Would it be a good thing, for example, for us to consider all of our interpersonal relationships as self-interested exchanges and to act accordingly? People increasingly view marriage as a self-interested exchange, as a kind of contract. If that contract is violated by one or both parties, then they can consider themselves free to terminate the relationship. Is this what Christians believe themselves to be doing when they marry? If not, should we be any more willing to have our relationship with God structured around the practice of self-interested exchanges? What happens to the notion of grace, to the idea of God’s gift in Christ, when our relationship with God revolves around self-interested exchanges?
I also worry that marketing strategies treat merely the symptoms, while leaving the church’s deeper problems untouched. As a result, I have little confidence that the marketing option can restore the body of Christ to full health. Advocates of the marketing option often insist that the church’s problems are a result of its refusal to adopt a marketing orientation. For this reason, we are told, the church is languishing on the sidelines of our society, lacking the strength to make an impact on people’s lives.
My own diagnosis, however, is considerably different. I believe the church’s malaise is rooted in its confusion about its identity and mission in the world. The church has in large part forgotten who it is and why God has called it into being. In such a situation, trying to offer ways of doing church better or more efficiently are beside the point. More techniques will not help us. The question remains: What is the church for?
This confusion about the church’s identity and mission is compounded by the fact that more people have fewer reasons to go to church, which isn’t at all the same thing as being the church.
Gone are the days when attending worship on Sunday morning was the only game in town. Unfortunately, the church didn’t expend much energy thinking about its identity when hordes of people came simply because it was socially acceptable to do so. Now that going to church is no longer socially sanctioned, lots of people have stopped going (or never started), and the church finds itself in the position of trying to convince them that they should.
In a consumer culture like ours, such convincing usually takes the form of marketing, which involves persuading people that they have self-interested reasons for doing what they have no other reasons for doing. But as I noted above, it’s not clear that the church can package the gospel in such terms without inadvertently perverting it. Even more importantly, it’s not at all clear that getting more people to go to church will aid us in more faithfully being the church.
Indeed, to the extent that a marketing orientation encourages the church to pay more attention to what consumers want it to be and less to what God has called it to be, such an orientation exacerbates the church’s confusion about its identity and mission. For example, if the church has been called to be a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of God’s reconciling work in the world, it’s not clear that simply getting people to come to church helps us fulfill that mission. By treating only the symptoms, and by treating those in a way that compounds the underlying but unacknowledged problems, church marketing may unwittingly inflict greater damage on the body of Christ.
Finally, we must address our understandings of health. Doctors cannot treat us without some idea of what counts for a healthy body. How do we decide what constitutes a healthy church? I worry that advocates of church marketing encourage congregations to take most of their cues from the surrounding culture, so that a healthy congregation is measured the same as a healthy businesses. Thus, a healthy church is understood as one with increased market share and demonstrable growth as measured by quantifiable factors like attendance and budget.
But should these be the standards by which we determine the health of a church? Would we consider a fruit tree healthy if it merely sprouted new limbs in all directions, yet never bore any fruit? In the same way, should we regard as healthy the body of Christ if it simply increases in size but seems incapable of producing the fruit of the Spirit? Can people who are encouraged to regard the church as another agency for servicing their needs come to bear the fruit of the Spirit, fruit whose cultivation requires that our attention be directed toward others—both God and neighbor—rather than toward ourselves?
Yes, lots of people view the church as another consumer item, just as lots of people view their relationships as self-interested exchanges. Yet why is it so clear that we shouldn’t further encourage people to view their deepest relationships in self-interested terms, while we don’t have the same hesitation with respect to their relationship with God and the body of Christ? Perhaps we need to take a long look at our churches to see if our problems don’t lie deeper than dwindling numbers and increasingly lax commitments. Is it possible that we’ve forgotten why God called the church into being in the first place? When was the last time we asked our congregations to reflect deeply upon the God-given purpose of the church?
Philip Kennson is professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College in northeastern Tennessee.
This article “Pros and Cons of Church Marketing” by Philip Kennson was excerpted from: www.preachingunleashed.com/smartministry web site. July 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
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.”