Why Churches Fail To Market Themselves

Why Churches Fail To Market Themselves
By John McGee


Do They Really Want To Go There?

A lot of well meaning pastors and leaders really want their churches to be market oriented.  They talk the talk on Sunday mornings and get their congregations believing that marketing is a good thing.  But, invariably, nothing happens.  Why?

The 100% Trap

Please don’t ever try to get 100% of congregants behind any of your initiatives, that’s pure suicide.  Any idea that 100% of people will support is likely to be so bland, so safe that it will fail miserably.  Ideas need to be powerful and compelling to move people to Jesus.  The plain vanilla ideas most churches try to pass off as “innovative” will usually meet a painful death.  This is largely because many churches require nearly everyone to buy into something before moving forward with it.  Innovation and 100% agreement are competing ideas.

It helps me to remember that the very people who are most likely to undermine your church marketing efforts are the very people who need your church least.  Think about it, those most adamantly opposed to creating a Great Commission culture are those whose Christian Memory calcified and time-bound beliefs about how church should work is most pronounced.

This group really has no interest in doing anything that will alter their view that church should look basically the same today as it has during their lifetime.  They mistakenly equate relics of their history with Jesus’ teachings. In their minds, it’s as if Jesus ordained a specific worship style, a particular program, or other humanly constructed notion while simultaneously outlawing change. The outcome is clear: No matter how great your plans or eloquent your words, this group’s view are unlikely to change.

Equally clear, this group is constricting growth.  The price of their obstinence is an eternity apart from God for the unbelievers your church could have reached had it responded appropriately.  So instead of letting the pace of change be set by those who have decided to fight you every step of the way, gently admonish them and insist on fulfilling God’s call for your church.  Worst case: The Christian Memory folks leave your church for another church where their memory is preserved.  Their status as it relates to eternity goes unchanged.

Vision-Free Environments: “Where there is No Vision, the People Perish” (Proverbs 29:18)

Too often, church leaders assume that their congregation has bought completely into their vision or, worse yet, they don’t bother casting a compelling vision in the first place.  No marketing plan will achieve even 10% of its potential without being part of a church culture where a compelling vision permeates every strand of its DNA.  If you want your outreach to be contagious, you’ve got to build contagious Christians first.  The contagious Christian–an endangered species at many churches–doesn’t come about by accident.  She’s got to see her role in God’s vision for her church and her life first.

Equally important, church leaders must continually articulate the vision.  About the time you’re ready to puke because you’ve communicated your vision so often, your congregants will start to get it.  Remember: While God has indelibly etched a vision on your heart, he hasn’t done the same for your congregants–that’s your job.  So communicate your vision incessantly if you want it to catch on.

Willow Creek Does It

Question: If Willow Creek jumped off a bridge would you follow?
Answer: About 70% of American churches would answer “yes.”

I have great admiration for Willow Creek, Saddleback, and other large churches. They have found ways to do great things for God.  That said, you are not Willow Creek.  You are not in suburban Chicago; your pastor is not Bill Hybels; your success is not ensured by following their path.

In no other sector, do so few players define the entire sector as in the church world.  You don’t hear most companies in the for-profit sector talking about how their goal is to be just like Wal-Mart or some other company.  They understand that Wal-Mart’s path to success is going to be much different than theirs.  While they will certainly take a few lessons from successful companies, for-profit organizations work hard to innovate in ways that will enhance their business, not in ways that bring them closer being more like Wal-Mart.

Despite abundant lessons in the for-profit world, many churches are convinced that if they can reconstruct Willow Creek’s DNA in their church, they too will be great.  It doesn’t work that way. Your realities are different than any other church’s realities.  Just as Sears cannot expect to flourish by copying Microsoft’s strategy, you cannot expect to succeed by being like another church.  Clearly Willow Creek has much to teach most churches, but you can’t expect even half of what they do to work for you.  Use what applies to your church, and leave the rest in Chicago.

We’ll Just Follow Your Advice

The approach advocated in this article is meant to be a part of a comprehensive marketing plan.  In addition to employing the macro-level outreach tactics advocated on this site, you’ll want to incorporate healthy doses of micro-level (personal) evangelism into your overall marketing efforts.  Your macro- and micro-level activities should be internally consistent and mutually supportive so that each activity area builds off the other.  For instance, your marketing and personal evangelism approaches should flow from your core values as a church.  Similarly, all levels of outreach should be in alignment so that your marketing makes personal evangelism easier and vice versa.


Core Competencies: Wearing Your Socks Correctly

Legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden started each season by teaching his players how to put on their socks.  It wasn’t that Wooden’s players didn’t know how to dress themselves; rather, Wooden knew that success emanates from a fanatical focus on doing a handful of things exceptionally well.  And to play basketball well, you have to have blister-free feet.  Feet like that come from wearing your socks correctly.

GM’s Got a Really Big Piggy Bank

The idea that any church can do more than a handful of things well is ludicrous.  Even the largest of American churches have budgets representing only 1/10th of 1% of organizations like Wal-Mart and GM. Yet even mammoth companies like Wal-Mart and GM focus on just one area each, retailing and auto manufacturing respectively.  Why?  Because even mega companies realize that the world is too complex to allow one organization to be great at more than a few things.  Imagine what would happen if Wal-Mart got into overnight delivery (FedEx would fly circles around them) or if GM started selling sub sandwiches (Subway would eat their lunch).

Why then do many churches boast that they have 48 ministries or 17 types of services when they can’t even put their socks on right?  Like any organization, a church must focus on doing just a couple of things great and leave the rest behind.  This might seem counterintuitive at first, but the results are undeniable.  Groups that focus– Habitat for Humanity, FedEx, Intel, Domino’s Pizza, UCLA basketball– flourish.  Organizations that lose focus– IBM before Lou Gerstner, Xerox, AT&T– begin to suffocate under their own weight.

Focus, Focus, Focus

How many priorities can an organization execute successfully?  We tend to side with the argument made in the book, The Discipline of Market Leaders, that an organization can really have only one “dominance” competency– something you do better than any one else.  In addition, an organization may be able to develop one “differentiating” competency that is better than average but not “dominant.”. That’s it.  You need to shoot for an acceptable level of competence on everything else. This may seem like a concession, but in reality by choosing to be merely competent in most areas you are buying yourself the opportunity to excel in a few critical areas.  Achieving world-class excellence in one or two areas will propel the entire organization to unprecedented success.

Where Doust Thou focus?

If you are smart and decide to focus one just one or two things, how do you know which areas to choose?  The first place to look is your current activities.  What are you doing really well now that could be improved with more resources?  Do other churches in the area also do this well?  If so, you may want to look at your strengths again.  The market will only support so many copycats; to succeed, you must be original.  Finally, make sure there is a fit between what you can be great at and what the unchurched in your community value.  If you could offer the best traditional worship service in the area but the unchurched in your community value contemporary worship you should choose to be great at something else.

What If you’re not good at anything?

If an honest assessment of your strengths reveals you are not close to doing anything exceptionally well, you must take a look at the unchurched in your community and determine what they will respond to.  For example, if the unchurched in your community tend to live paycheck to paycheck, a first-class social service ministry could be your dominance competency.

Based on need, then, begin cultivating the skills essential to meeting that need.  Recruit a pastor whose strengths fit the community’s needs (or develop the existing pastor’s skills in that area), provide relevant continuing education opportunities for existing staff and recruit new staff with your core competency in mind.  If you believe Plato, excellence is a habit that is developed over time.  Focus on your competencies and excellence will come.

From: Christianity Today magazine. Page 65 June 1998