Last Sunday about 7.5% of the UK population attended a church service. Each of the past five decades the numbers attending church has fallen.

Although some churches, denominations and geographical regions have bucked the trend, overall fewer and fewer people choose to go to church. Mark Ritson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the London Business School, attended a christening in a Glasgow church last year – beforehand he was “dreading” the prospect of an hour in church. Afterwards he wrote of his experience in Marketing magazine (14 November 2002). He admitted being surprised by the “interesting and contemporary sermon” delivered by the priest. As the service concluded Ritson began considering the factors that had deterred him and the majority of the British public, from attending church regularly.

‘We live in a society that has never needed God more,’ writes Ritson. ‘We are confused, unhappy, depressed, Christianity Renewal + september 2003+13 lacking spirituality and lonely. Aside from previous world wars, the demand for God has presumably never been higher.’

His solution was re-branding church in a five-fold strategy:

  1. Only select church leaders who understand God, the public and who are good at strategy.
  2. Conduct research to identify the needs of society today.
  3. Position the church against the true competition - consumer culture.
  4. Replace hard pews and exposed brickwork with a better setting for experiencing God.
  5. Revisit the church’s approach to marketing communications. Ritson called for an integrated marketing strategy that embraces advertising, marketing and PR.

With the fifth recommendation ringing in our ears Christianity+Renewalapproached two marketing and communications agencies. Their brief was to devise a series of adverts to promote attending church. These are the results…

Get a Life - Go to Church

Link ICA devised a strong, simple campaign with the slogan ‘Get a life – Go to church’.

“Initially it was a difficult task,” admits Jonathan Wilcock, Joint Creative Director of Link ICA. “We even asked ourselves whether this was the sort of thing that should be advertised. Compared to the usual brief of advertising soap, baked beans or holidays it was tricky.

“We decided to opt for ‘Get a life - Go to church’ as the strap line because most people come to a point in their lives when, although they may have a nice car, home, and partner – they feel something is missing.”

Part of Link ICA’s research involved the team talking to friends and family. It soon became clear that many people felt there was a lack of meaning and direction in their life – a hole. Everything else in their life may be sorted, then comes the realisation that your soul isn’t – hence the agency’s decision to choose the ‘medicine for your soul’ message.

“I tried to establish a link between the church and life quality,” says Wilcock. “And this message resonates with me. Maybe it’s my age. Teens think they’ll live for ever, 20-somethings are busy getting a career, a partner and building their life, but when, like me you get to 30-something, you start to feel something is missing. Others fill it with something else like alcohol or sex or loads of holidays. For some people the church can shed light on what life is all about.” Wilcock thinks his ads should particularly appeal to 30s and 40- somethings, who like himself are prepared to try out various churches as well as other faiths and spiritual paths.

You don’t know what you’re missing

The creative minds at Khameleon found it “fun and interesting” to devise a strategy to promote the church. Like their counter parts at Link ICA none of the team were churchgoers. But they were keen to avoid offending churchgoers or worse – incite contempt for religion.

“We wanted to steer away from the typical image of church and religion,” explains Guy Lupton, Managing Director of Khameleon. “We don’t think people like to be preached at, and we didn’t want traditional images like a picture of Jesus or a cross. We felt the key was to get people through the door of the church and let them make their own mind up.

“I think it’s like reading a book,” explains Lupton. “You conjure up an image in your mind of what the characters look like, then when you see the film of the book you are invariably disappointed because the person cast as the hero doesn’t look like you had imagined. We didn’t want to disappoint people with a picture of Jesus that didn’t fit their views, even before they got to a church.”

Lupton and his team made a conscious decision to avoid the traditional approach of using visuals and quotations including Bible verses – which they felt was normally associated with religion. “Going to church can be a social event where people catch up with news and friends,” he says. Hence their campaign which promotes the values of community life at a church, the chance to have a good ‘sing’, hear a good sermon, and have a heart to heart chat. The ads themselves use eye-catching visuals and humour to grab attention and communicate core values about church.

When challenged about whether the ads paint an idealistic image of church, Lupton explains; “We are selling a concept that applies to some churches.

The advert aims to get a person to consider church, to try it out, and then it’s down to the church to sell the concept. Advertising can raise awareness and create interest, but ultimately it can’t make the sale.”

What about current church ads?

Some local churches advertise in local papers, or billboards on buses and trains. Both Guy and Jonathan felt most of these messages missed the mark.

“I don’t think the ads I’ve seen appeal to non-church goers,” says Guy Lupton. “They often have a quote from the Bible or a cross – which most consider clichéd images and words that are preaching to the converted. They may appeal to church goers but probably not to others.”

Jonathan Wilcock agrees: “I’ve seen ads on the London tube for a particular church which I found patronising. They gave me the impression that they thought they knew what I needed. It felt like they were the boss and I was a child.”

Both Lupton and Wilcock agreed that even the best advert would be unlikely to turn around a person who is anti-church or not interested in church.

However, ads promoting a church can work and are particularly likely to affect people who have recently had a spiritual experience, according to Wilcock. In this case the ad can help push them over the edge to decide to go to a church.

So are ads a worthwhile investment for churches?

“If I didn’t think it had a reasonable chance of success I wouldn’t have wanted to invest time and effort in to creating this campaign,” says Lupton of Khameleon. “Although it’s difficult to predict the response these messages will get, I think these ads would certainly raise interest and awareness.”

Jonathan Wilcock is not completely convinced. “My boss will kill me for saying this, but part of me thinks that God will find a way to reach a person and

He doesn’t need a billboard. But an advert which is part of a bigger picture, and which is read by someone on the back of a spiritual experience or a significant conversation could definitely make a difference. Adverts won’t grab someone and turn him or her around, but it could tip a person over the edge into going to church if they were close to that possibility already. Potentially the size of that market – people who are close to that tipping point – is huge.

“What I do believe is that we are all on a journey. Some of us are closer to our maker than others,” adds Wilcock.

So what can churches learn from the advice of non-Christians involved in the field of advertising, marketing and PR?

Lessons to learn

Guy Lupton agrees with Mark Ritson of the London Business School, “Churches need to be more approachable and contemporary. Crucially they need to spend money on proper market research to find out what people are really looking for, rather than presuming they understand the needs of people.”

Listening hard to discover new keys into culture and the real needs of people’s lives today - is what he suggests.

Jonathan Wilcock believes churches should increase the sense of participation from the congregation. “If you feel part of it, part of a family - that appeals much more. If a church can get in touch with Jesus’ teachings rather than just ritual, so people actually live it out - that would appeal to me. I think people are also looking for a clear message that they could apply to their daily lives.”

Abundant Life Church in Bradford have paid for large advertising hoardings at their local Rugby League club. As well as being seen on Sky TV’s coverage of the Super League, home supporters get a large name check on the church every time they go to watch the Bradford Bulls play at home.

The church consider this money well spent as it helps lodge the churches name in people’s minds. The church has a wide range of ministries which serve the community - the adverts help so that during door-to-door or at the launch of some other project the church don’t have to spend so much time explaining who they are - they are already visible and known.

While churches are understandably careful in the way they choose to spend the money given to them, sometimes sacrificially by members of the congregation, some like Abundant Life, consider this frugal stance could be a false economy. With so many people interested in spirituality - there are literally millions of non-churchgoers who want to know God and have a spiritual experience - who currently are unaware of what is literally on their doorstep.

If a chocolate bar advert can promise ‘a taste of paradise’‚ isn’t it time for the church to do the same and more?

Our thanks to the ad agencies for their assistance and creative ideas. For further information contact: LINK ICA Tel: 01622 767 700 Email: KHAMELEON: Tel: 01403 783403 or via their website.