The Church Goes To Market

The Church Goes To Market
By John Throop

When I completed seminary and began my ordained ministry back in 1981, the concept of marketing a local church had never been considered. Occasionally, a book appeared dealing with the local church as a good communicator, with tips on writing a good press release, conducting a pr campaign, presenting well on radio or television, and explaining why a Yellow Pages ad was a good idea. Marketing, however, was not a topic explored by pastors and churches.

There had, however, been some thought given to marketing groups of churches. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, developed something called The Church Ad Project in the early 1980s, a series of professionally produced, award-winning print ads designed to pique the interest of lapsed church members or disaffected members of other churches, but not intended to attract the unchurched.

Reaching Or Conforming?

Today, marketing is a hot topic for pastors and church leaders. Books, videos, seminars, and programs help them learn how to intentionally reach the unchurched. It’s also a controversial topic for some theologians who object to what they view as the devaluation of standards and beliefs to conform to people’s wants and needs. Many lifelong churchgoers also object because, having grown up in the church, they don’t believe there is a need for marketing. To them, everybody goes to some kind of church.

The groundbreaking book on this topic was entitled Marketing the Church (Navpress, 1988). Author George Barna, a researcher with a background in demographics, marketing analysis, and an intense Christian faith, applied marketing principles to the church. In his view, a new kind of person—a secular, postmodern unbeliever—was no longer receptive to the gospel or to a church. Church leaders needed to understand the point of view of the unchurched person and then present the gospel to them in terms they could understand.

Now, reflecting on 15 years of effort, Barna insists that most Christians still do not truly understand the culture that surrounds them, or may not be critical enough of it because they unconsciously have adapted to cultural norms. In “The Third Coming of George Barna,” (Christianity Today, August 5, 2002), author Tim Stafford observed that the wholesale application of a business practice—market research—couldn’t by itself bring holiness of life or wonder at the sovereignty of God.

Still, Barna wants accountability for the time, money and effort being put into ministry. He told Christianity Today, “We’re spending $50 to $60 billion a year on domestic ministry. Tell you what—you give the CEO of IBM $50 to $60 billion this year, and see what he can do.” It’s precisely what the church is not doing that bothers Barna, and why he thinks the church needs to know even more about what people think and want in order to communicate a very different way of life—or eternal life—more effectively.
He followed up the marketing book with a look at cultural trends in The Frog in the Kettle: What Christians Need to Know About Life in the Year 2000 (Regal Books, 1990) and User-Friendly Churches: What Christians Need to Know About the Churches People Love to Go To (Regal Books, 1991). The Barna Research Group continues to poll Americans, especially Christians, on opinions and attitudes.

Barna has his share of critics, most notably Philip Kenneson, James Street, and Stanley Hauerwas who authored Selling Out the Church (Abingdon Press, 1997). They criticized Barna for endorsing a consumerist approach to church life. Instead, they insisted, the church simply should be the church—and if that means it is out of sync with the culture, then that’s the way it must be (and has been through the centuries).

A New Response

However, massive shifts in American society over the past 20 years present churches with tremendous challenges to adapt, address new assumptions, and use a new, non-theological language with rapidly increasing numbers of unbelievers. Five key shifts require a new response:

1. Secularization has created a new kind of person: a seeker. Younger residents in communities are no longer nominal or lapsed members of churches. They are the first generation in America brought up with no religious ties whatsoever. So church leaders cannot begin with religious language, concepts, or liturgy to gain a hearing. It’s not that seekers reject religious people—to them, religious people are irrelevant. Marketing seeks to understand people’s felt and actual needs and link them with benefits offered by the product or service. We are a nation of seekers, especially on the East and West Coasts and in urban centers.

2. The “megachurch” is more appealing than the denomination. A cultural trait of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) is an inherent distrust of large institutions. To them, denominations and their local churches are relics of institutional, bureaucratic religion. Boomers prefer independent, unaffiliated large churches (“megachurches”) where they can come to know Christ but not have to carry what they consider as baggage from centuries of tradition. Denominational churches of all sizes (including megachurches) recognize this trend and downplay their affiliation, with many changing their names to remove the denominational reference. In 1983, the church I pastored was clearly an Episcopal church. Now, I rarely mention the denominational affiliation and it appears nowhere on our literature, because it is meaningless to the potential member.

3. An increasingly affluent culture that values personal freedom wants more choices. People have become accustomed to “options” from a “menu” of choices. Twenty years ago, there were three TV networks. Today, there are more than 200 choices. There are hundreds of car brands, tens of thousands of retailers, and not a few major department store chains. People come to churches expecting a wide range of choices for family members with varying interests.

4. Open immigration policies have brought a flood of new cultures, languages and activities, especially to urban centers. In America in 1983, the primary ethnic distinction was black and white. Today, census reports indicate that the largest ethnic group in the United States is Hispanic. In addition, nearly every large or medium-sized city has a sizeable and diverse ethnic population, representing nearly every part of the globe with various cultural practices, languages and dialects. Each ethnic group must be reached with methods to which they respond instinctively. The “melting pot” metaphor (everyone blends together) has been replaced with the “salad bowl” (everybody remains distinctive). Even in smaller communities, churches must use a multicultural, multilingual approach to appeal to people.

5. The Internet is beginning to replace the local with the virtual church. Methodist pastor Michael Slaughter, in Out on the Edge: A Wake-Up Call for Church Leaders on the Edge of the Media Reformation (Abingdon, 1999), noted that his congregation (Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio) has “virtual members” in Australia, Russia, and Korea. They may never set foot in the church, but they participate in the church service through a video camera. Reaching out to and including members through the Internet requires an entirely new set of competencies and technologies that could hardly have been imagined in 1983 when the PC was brand new.

Marketing the church, and presenting the gospel in understandable terms, will continue to grow in importance as boomers age and younger generations take positions of leadership. We cannot imagine what marketing will be like in 2023. Only two things are certain: the pace of change, especially in technology, will be even more rapid; and the gospel of Jesus Christ will continue to convict, convert and convey new believers into the kingdom.


This article “The Church Goes To Market” by John Throop is excerpted from Christianity Today, Inc./Your Church magazine, May/June 2003.