‘Marketing reminds us that because the surrounding needs and culture are changing, the churches need to continually reassess their strategies’
Many churches and Christian organisations are adopting marketing tactics to ‘sell’ their particular ‘brand’ of faith. Nigel Scotland looks at the pros and cons of treating the church as a ‘business’ and the gospel as a ‘product’. Consumerism affects all aspects of our society including sex, pornography, holidays, cars, clothes, household gadgets, entertainment, health and leisure, computers and education. For example, in many universities students are now 'customers' who are served by the lecturers and support staff. Course leaders now think primarily in terms of what the students ('consumers') want rather than what they need to know.
We have become consumption oriented with an appetite that devours not merely the products of capitalism but just about everything else, including church. This raises several questions which this feature addresses:
Should churches market themselves? Does marketing help a church to clarify its vision and distinctives? Are ‘soft sell’ marketing techniques appropriate? Does marketing a church encourage church-hopping? Should churches identify ‘markets’ and provide niche services?
Following the Second World War, Britain became a consumer-oriented society. In the 1980’s Thatcherite values began to hit the churches in a big way.
It was then that 'Good Church' guides were first published and some denominations began to circulate free glossy publications and to boost their wares by staging conferences and Bible weeks. More recent marketing drives have also taken to the Internet and independent television networks. The result of all of this is that many church leaders are convinced that in order to survive they must engage in aggressive marketing. The other side of the coin is that potential congregation members ('consumers') go 'church shopping'. Choosing a church is now like exploring the stores and boutiques of the new malls and arcades in our town and city centres. Increasing numbers of those who go out 'churching' on Sundays have several loyalty cards, which they use according to the needs of their spiritual shopping list for that particular week. In the wake of American televangelism has come a clutch of new mega churches whose agendas and mission statements were based on extensive market research in their immediate neighbourhoods. These U.S. mega churches meet in large state-of-the-art auditoriums. They have large numbers of full-time salaried staff including specialists in areas such as; counselling, religious education, youth ministry, marriage and the family. There are small groups which meet during the week that are focused on almost every conceivable need, including those of single parents, recent divorcees and senior citizens.
In Britain a similar concern to address people's needs and to respond to the market in a more overt fashion is growing in many UK churches. We catch glimpses of it in improved decor, the re-ordering of church interiors, the use of guitars and keyboards or orchestral music, the disbanding of traditional church choirs, the giving up of clerical robes, and even in such things as liturgical dance groups, counselling teams, and tape libraries of the preacher's recent sermons. In all of these developments there is a symbiotic relationship between the consumers of religion and the marketers of religion. The clergy and church leaders need to bring people into their churches, but at the same time those individuals are shopping around for what most fulfils their expectations and meets their needs. Confronted with the consumerism of the western world, churches tend to make one of two responses. Either they opt out of the competitive rat race altogether and operate at some fixed point in the past, or they compete fully in the open market for customers. The first of these two reactions regards consumerism as crass materialism, that is, as a part of the world that is passing away and therefore something Christians should not sully their hands with.
On this understanding, consumerism is something that Jesus, who 'had nowhere to lay his head' and 'did not lift up his voice or cry out in the streets', avoided. His followers should do the same. They are also of the opinion that because Jesus is who he is, he can speak for himself and does not need his followers to use hard-sell techniques on his behalf. Christians and churches who adopt this view frequently become reactionary and try to live in a time warp. They attempt to keep things as they supposedly were in the beginning or at some seminal period of church history, such as the first century, Cranmer's England or Calvin's Geneva. Some argue that some of the demands that God makes on our lives are not easily marketable. David Wells, in his provocative study ‘God in the Wasteland’ (IVP, 1994), makes the point that one can market the church but not Christ, the gospel, Christian character, or the meaning of life. However increasing numbers of churches and church leaders believe that it is right to compete in the free market. George Barna, the American futurist and church growth commentator, writing in his book ‘Marketing The Church’ (NavPress, 1988) states, 'Jesus Christ was a marketing specialist. Like it or not, the church is not only in a market but is itself a business.' It has a 'product' to sell - a relationship with Jesus and others, its ‘core product' is the message of salvation, and each local church is a franchise. Barna argues that the church must define its services in terms of contemporary needs just as any secular business must. Advocates of this position urge that churches have to be constantly updated, refined and improved on. Such marketers justify their approach by referring to the apostle Paul's declaration that to the Jews he became a Jew, to those without the law as one not having the law and to the weak as himself weak so that by all possible means he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
So, there are two sides to the argument. There are those who believe that marketing Christianity is a contradiction that undermines the core values of the faith. Meanwhile others are equally convinced that unless churches adopt aggressive advertising and selling campaigns they will lose what little ground they have left.
THE ARGUMENT AGAINST…
1) The Cloning of Success
One immediate danger in trying to sell the church is what might be termed the 'cloning of success'. Something works well for one church down the road or in the same town, and immediately other fellowships and denominations change their vision or methods and adopt the latest route to pulling in the customers. Churches that once enjoyed close relationships with others in the locality and were even members of the same denomination begin to view their neighbours as rivals whose competition must be overcome. Many of them seem to survive on what sociologists have termed 'marginal differentiality'. That is, their objectives and ethos are very similar, but they develop a small margin of difference that is just sufficient to distinguish them from their immediate competitors. Perhaps the greatest downside in ecclesiastical consumerism is the use of soft-sell techniques to market the Christian message. Certain key aspects of the creedal faith, it has to be said, do not market readily; notably the themes of judgement, punishment, suffering for one's faith, the cost of commitment and the demands of taking a public stand on Christian values in a culture that does not acknowledge them. Thus there is always the temptation to tone down or pass over these issues in church adverts, brochures or Web pages on the Internet. At the same time strong emphasis is placed on the more appealing aspects of the worship band, the small groups, the camaraderie of the safe-haven youth groups that will try to keep teenagers from drugs and sexual misadventure. Those who oppose the church adopting marketing techniques regard it as a dangerous tool that will re-fashion the church in its own image. In short it will change the nature of the product itself.
2) Talking up the Market
In order to hold onto customers they already have, many churches talk up the market. I recently heard a charismatic Christian express his disillusionment at the way his church had for the past 20 years constantly 'preached the anointing', while holding out the prospect of a great revival just around the corner. He felt that the church had used the 'promise of revival' to maintain its grip on the congregation. They did not dare to leave in case the blessing did come and they might miss it. Rowland Howard’s book Charismania (Mowbray, 1997) analyses the origins of the charismatic movement and questions the value and validity of many charismatic practices. He attacks the charismatic movement's marketing and promotion techniques, describing them as 'an uncritical use of modernity's tools to exploit the market’. He considers the continual use of hype to promote the new experience, the next rising preacher, or conference or event, is little more than 'a mirror image of ‘worldly’ consumerism. Another means of holding existing congregational members and drawing in other floating customers are conferences. These draw people together in closer comradeship and give the organisers a chance to promote their wares. Perhaps of more serious concern are the large sums of money that the organisers of large conferences are able to pull in and an addiction to conferences on the part of a small but growing number of participants. In my view, some are getting hooked on Bible exposition or worship or the next piece of powerful ministry to a point where other more essential activities are neglected.
3) Only the Fittest Survive
One problem of a free-market enterprise among the churches is that inevitably there will be winners and losers. In the end it will be the most aggressive and powerful who will survive and prosper, while the weakest and smallest will go to the wall. All this raises serious questions since the gospel focuses on one who came to empower the weak and to serve and strengthen the outcasts and the marginalised. Mega churches and fellowships with large congregations have sufficient income to develop sophisticated media advertising and thus to attract a following from a wide geographical area. At one level this can be interpreted as beneficial, since it provides an opportunity for community and religious experience that may not be available to people in their own locality. On the other hand, it draws people away from smaller churches and may in some cases result in the closure of these churches. It could be argued that overtly aggressive marketing by churches, if it is siphoning members from other congregations rather than reaching outsiders, is probably dysfunctional in the long term.
4) Changing Both Clergy and People
This constant pressure to market the church more and more effectively inevitably carries a price tag with consequences for both church leaders and their members. Traditionally and in the New Testament, the local church has been seen as a tightly knit fellowship with the members bound together in commitment, love and practical caring and under the pastoral supervision of their leader or leaders. In recent years, however, all of this has begun changing; church leaders are no longer pastors but marketers and managers, and many congregational members are ceasing to be committed serving members. Instead they become church shoppers. Because of the pull of market forces there is now constant pressure on churches to employ pastors or incumbents who are good managers and know how to run a successful business. As George Barna puts it, 'Ultimately, many people do judge the pastor not on his ability to preach, teach or counsel, but on his capacity to make the church run smoothly and efficiently.’ Because churches are marketing their product in such an aggressive fashion, people are minded to keep looking round in case they miss out and there are better bargains and services to be had at St. Develictus-in-the-Marsh on the other side of town. Consumerism has created a generation of church shoppers who move from one fellowship to another in the same way that grocery shoppers change from Tesco 's to Safeways to Sainsbury's. In the same way churchgoers move as the ads and the grapevine prompt them. All of this, it is argued, produces a jaundiced church, which is far removed from the deeply committed fellowships that formed the backbone of the early church.
To sum up, the downside of consumerism in contemporary Christianity is that it has resulted in rampant individualism. However, although, I believe consumerism has engendered a host of adverse side effects, its impact on society and on church life is by no means all bad. Indeed, in secular terms, consumerism has brought in its wake better health and housing, affordable food, clothing and transport. There can be no doubt that the physical quality of life is vastly improved, far above what it was 100 years ago. The same is true of Christian churches; consumerism has provoked and stimulated improvements in many areas.
THE ARGUMENT FOR…
1) Clarifying vision
A major benefit of the present market orientation is that it has caused churches to consider carefully what it is they're trying to sell and how they can best go about it. For example, a church that is going to open its own Web site may find itself compelled to reflect on what is distinctive in its vision and how it should set out a mission statement. One group of church marketers recommend defining a church's mission in terms of customer groups, customer needs and alternative technologies. There is much to be said for seeking to meet people's needs. In particular, to do so is a servant-oriented ministry and Jesus called his disciples to follow his example of service to others. In Mark 10:45 Jesus stated that his mission was not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. After having demonstrated what service meant in a very visual way by washing his disciples' feet he called on them to do the same for one another and, by implication, others outside their immediate circle (John14:13-17). George Barna urges that offering to meet people's needs is not a marketing gimmick but a 'method of ensuring effective ministry'. The key issue here, must be to distinguish carefully between a person's 'perceived' need and their 'genuine' need. Some 'needs' may prove to be selfish, materialistic and indeed unbiblical. It cannot be right to work towards satisfying what are in essence wrong desires. Barna urges every church to develop a vision and to focus on it repeatedly until it is firmly rooted in the mind of the congregation. By vision he understands a clear mental picture of the future which is not humanly contrived, but which has been sought from God. Each church's vision will be distinctive and customised to its immediate setting and goals. Barna argues that such mission statements are what change churches and enable them to grow and develop. It seems to me that marketing a church by means of a specific vision and mission statement that sets out the finer details, in bullet points or succinct paragraphs, can only be beneficial, always assuming that the biblical creedal faith is not compromised in any way. Jesus clearly came 'to be about his father's business', he knew that he had a baptism to be baptised with, he set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, he only did what he saw the Father doing and he cried out, 'Father, not my will but your will be done.'
2) Calling to Service
Jesus clearly established a new model for leadership and discipleship; both were to be servant ministries. A great deal of what marketing the church has been, and is about, is seeking more effective ways of serving the needs of congregations, communities and localities. It has been frequently said, and with justification, that many Christians and churches are scratching people where they do not itch. The kind of market research that is being done using structured questionnaires has, at the very least, generated an awareness of the gaps that exist between churches and those they would like to serve. This divide, in many instances, has to do, not so much with matters of faith and order, but rather of style, ethos and cultural relevance. Some churches have removed traditional symbols such as crucifixes, icons and statues that outsiders might find intimidating. Bare boards have been carpeted and pews have been replaced by comfortable movable seating. In some instances the whole sanctuary has been reordered with pulpits and choir stalls removed. Clergy have shed their robes and vestments and worshippers have been encouraged to dress-down. New church buildings have on occasion been constructed to resemble shopping malls or airport lounges. Such moves seem eminently sensible since their objective is to provide a more familiar environment in which people can engage with the Christian message. Of course church marketers carry their desire to serve beyond the level of mere aesthetics. They conduct surveys that often reveal high degrees of brokenness in particular localities. The problems include debt, unemployment, inadequate housing, marital breakdown, dysfunctional families, loneliness and fear. In addition, there may be ethnic and racial tensions together with a rundown physical environment that fosters a culture of drugs, violence and petty crime. For congregational leaders to be aware of the level and extent of such issues can only widen the possibility of a more effective ministry.
3) Challenging Apathy
There comes a stage in every religious institution that sociologists term 'routinisation'; that is, when the original 'charisma' and enthusiasm of the leadership begins to run down. At that time there is a temptation to put the whole package - doctrine, worship, vision and ministry - into a fixed pattern or ecclesiastical straitjacket. The advantage of this is that no further effort is required. However, the problem is that within a generation the whole movement will be in decay and facing a lingering death. Vance Havner, formerly of Wheaton College, Illinois, charted this process of decline as follows: 'It begins with a man; soon there emerges a movement; then a machine takes over; and finally there remains only a monument.' One of the benefits resulting from ecclesiastical marketing is the reminder that because the surrounding needs and culture are constantly changing, the churches need to continually reassess their environment and strategies. One Church of England bishop expressed his gratitude for the way many New churches have challenged Anglicans 'to rethink the ways in which they are doing church.' Clearly the church is in the debt of those who survey and seek to quantify genuine local need. They are the agents who help to provoke the people of God to authentic action and service.
4) Niche Marketing
One aspect of consumerism is what is frequently termed 'niche marketing'; that is, a customised, individual approach that is designed to reach particular groups of people who have distinctive tastes and values. The success of confined marketing enterprises has positive implications for the churches. Some church planters, for example, have established new congregations with the specific objective of reaching a particular people group, or ethnic minority, or designated age bracket. This kind of precise targeting has proven to be an effective means of evangelism and has seen the emergence of youth congregations. Niche marketing widens the appeal of a particular product to a greater number of people by repackaging it in distinctive styles for varying contexts. In the same way, churches have been enabled to reach a greater number of constituents by using variations of this model. Christians and church leaders must be constantly engaged in the task of analysing their surrounding culture and the perceived needs of the people who live within it. Such an exercise is demanding, and some may be tempted to give up the ongoing struggle and to stick with 'the old-fashioned, unchanging gospel'. Critics of church marketing continue to urge that this is a science of compromise. I personally acknowledge that, on occasion, they may be right. However I believe it is possible to market the gospel using consumerist models without necessarily changing the product.
It is also possible to embrace some aspects of post-modern culture without allowing the world to squeeze us into its mould. We must recognise that success and successful methods are not a valid criterion by which to judge anything, marketing included. Nevertheless, the church is surely in a more effective position when it blends good marketing practice with a wholehearted commitment to Christ and the biblical Christian faith.