Church Marketing: Market the Message AND the Community Formed by It

Here’s a church-angled follow-up to our post last week, Marketing is what happens when relationship fails.

The blog site Q considers whether Christianity is amenable to being marketed as a “product”, ultimately deciding in the negative:

Let’s think for a minute about what Christianity is and why it doesn’t make a good “product.” For one thing, products must be subject to markets, yet God is not subject to the consumer needs or wants of any market. God only and ever deals on his own terms. His grace comes from within him and is bestowed on us as he pleases. It doesn’t come when we are ready for it or when we long for it. We struggle to fathom something that can’t be purchased “on demand” in this day and age, but Christianity is one such thing. God saves at his discretion and on his watch.

Good stuff. And yet the title of the post, Church: Marketing a Non-Commercial Message, implies an interesting assumption, namely, that what one would be marketing–were one to be marketing it (which Q suggests one should not)–would be “the message”:

Another reason why Christianity doesn’t make a good product is that it doesn’t lend itself to an easy commercial sale. Sure, there are appealing things about it, but there are also not-so-appealing things about it (um… taking up one’s cross, avoiding sin and worldliness, etc.). And although the Gospel is wonderfully simple in the sense that even a child can recognize its truth, it is also mind-blowingly complex in a way that doesn’t lend itself to thirty-second jingles.

The potential danger here is a slide into a conception of Christianity that can be adequately expounded entirely through propositions–a perspective on which Jesus makes an interesting comment in John 5:39-40 which is brought out nicely in The Message translation:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.”

So marketing “the message”–the propositional aspect of the Gospel–in disembodied form typically leads to “missing the forest for the trees”.

Marketing the embodiment of “the message”–the church community itself–is a concept that receives attention from Carol Howard Merritt in a Huffington Post piece from last week provocatively titled, Church Charity In The 21st Century. She relates a conversation she had at a party recently when a fellow partygoer asked her, “So what do you do?” When Carol answered, “I’m a pastor”, she received a notable reply from her interlocutor:

“Oh my God,” she responded. “I never knew why anyone would go to church. But last year, my mom got sick. She’s divorced, and I’m living hundreds of miles away from her, so I didn’t know what we were going to do. And her church totally took care of her. They brought her meals. They drove her to the doctor. They called me when anything out of the ordinary happened.”

“Yeah. That’s what the good churches do.”

“Really?” She looked completely confused as she continued, “I had no idea. You should really advertise that.” I laughed, and we talked for a bit more about her career. But, her initial comments stuck with me as I walked away and snagged a rare empty space on the couch. I looked at the crowd of mingling people, and the loud music triggered my thoughts. It never occurred to me that people wouldn’t know that churches care for the sick. What had church become in the minds of most people?

The last question is a fair one to ask and a painful one to answer. Carol posits a reply worth discussing:

While many civic organizations have become relics of the past, spiritual communities still thrive in our society, as a place of solidarity in all stages in life. In our sanctuary, there is a space where CEOs and homeless people sit together in the same pew. We’re a gathering where people from diverse ethnicities work with one another. It is a setting where the young and the old support each other when we’re in spiritual, emotional, or physical need. It is a place I can go to in times of faith or in doubt. When I’m too weak to hold any belief in God or myself, I know that a community holds it for me. And I can be strong for others when they falter. It is a sanctuary, in a broad sense of the term, where people can question and work to make the world a better place.

Two posts, two approaches to marketing the church.

The Book of Acts suggests a third and different approach, however: Since “the message” is incomplete unless it is embodied, the marketing of the church requires the presentation of both “the message” and the community formed by it if the transmission is to be complete.

Simon Sinek’s Start With Why is especially relevant in this regard. If we keep the “why” in mind, we’ll market neither the propositions nor the community separately, as the “why”–why do we feed the sick and visit the shut-ins, why do we gather together across age and economic boundaries, why do we stay together when we’re weak–links the two:

Any organization can explain what it does; some can explain how they do it; but very few can clearly articulate why. WHY is not money or profit– those are always results. WHY does your organization exist? WHY does it do the things it does? WHY do customers really buy from one company or another? WHY are people loyal to some leaders, but not others?

Q is right that we can’t just market the “what”. Howard Merritt’s “how” is compelling but incomplete. Church marketing–and Christian nonprofit marketing, too, for that matter–depends on the “why” for its power and persuasiveness.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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