Church Marketing Doesn’t Suck (And That’s Probably a Bad Thing)

In Design, Theology
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Having worked in church marketing for much of my career, it can be without a doubt a very mixed bag as far as the quality of the marketing is concerned. From complete misunderstandings of one’s market to the downright cringe-worthy, it’s effortless to multiply examples of just how bad church marketing can be. (The actual reality is that secular marketing is just as prone to being awful, but when one works within a certain field one tends to see the bad of what’s close at hand more than for something further outside one’s purview.)

Thus, it is easy to point out that church marketing often sucks, and on the individual level and in the particular this is often true.

However, I would suggest that on a more generalized level, church marketing has actually been very successful, even though it might not be in the way that is necessarily desirable.

A recent survey by Pew Research Center (published on August 23, 2016) looked into the (likely largely American) phenomenon of “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship,” which can often be colloquially described as “church shopping.” The survey sought to determine the contributing factors for why those who chose a new church did so.

One important caveat: After the survey asked about the logistics of choosing a new church (e.g., online search, phone call, attended a worship service, etc.), it moved on to asking which of a list of factors played an important role in the choice of congregation. It then moved through a series of 4 questions in which the available factors were randomly inserted into the question. The upshot is that by limiting the choices to a predetermined list, the survey risks predisposing the respondent to those choices since they become top of mind when mentioned. Additionally, the order in which the questions are randomized can also affect the answer for the same reason.

For this survey, the following choices were randomly available:

A. Location
B. Feeling welcomed by clergy or lay leaders
C. The quality of religious education for children
D. Having friends or family members who were already going there
E. The style of worship services
F. The quality of sermons or preaching
G. The availability of volunteering and community service opportunities

Following the list of questions, the respondents were also asked if there were any other factors that hadn’t been mentioned.

The results of this portion of the survey indicated that the most important factor in choosing a new congregation was the quality of the sermons, at 83%, although the content of “quality” is rather ambiguous. The next important factor was feeling welcomed at 79%, followed by style of services at 74% and location at 70%.

I mentioned the caveat above and think it is important to bear in mind when interpreting these results; that being said, I suspect that the results are still rather close in proportion to what one would find even if a predetermined list of answers were not provided. The reason for this, of course, is that church marketing actually doesn’t suck.

If we consider even the possible choices in the survey, they very closely line up with much of the focus of church marketing. I was initially surprised that quality of sermons ranked number one, but as I thought about it more deeply I realized it actually wasn’t surprising, as this is one of the primary things that churches push in their marketing.

Now, quality sermons (which is almost always concomitant with quality preachers) have nearly always held a premium in Christian worship, given its (among other things) didactic essence. In the ancient world rhetoric was an important aspect of culture and society, and thus there were no shortage of excellent Christian orators. Notable is St. John Chrysostom, who was an exceptional orator who would attract throngs to hear his sermons, which would often be two or more hours in length. And through the centuries Christian rhetoric in the sermon has continued to play an important role in worship and Christian formation.

With the Protestant movement placing a greater emphasis on the Service of the Word and the spoken word itself in worship, the homily- which formerly, although an integral portion of the Mass, was not as important as the Service of the Table and the celebration of the Eucharist- came to occupy a greater place and have more emphasis placed on it.

In much of the modern church today, oration continues to occupy a central role, albeit in many ways quite different from that of previous generations. With the near ubiquity of multimedia, sermons are often not simply about the spoken word but incorporate other visual elements as well as other multimedia components. Further, the advent and popularity of structuring sermons into topical “series” has birthed other ways of enhancing the sermon through stage design, graphics, videos and other means.

For many churches, promotion of sermon series (and by extension the preacher presenting the series) occupies a great deal of its marketing efforts. This can range from mass mailings to radio and tv commercials to social media advertising and viral promotion.

In my own experience within church marketing, the sermon series is one of the most heavily marketed aspects of the church, and is often done so to serve as a soft sell contact point for potential congregants, an interest garnering method for irregular attendees, as well as a way for regular attendees to have a contact point for inviting friends and family to church.

It is the ubiquity of this phenomenon among churches (largely those of the Evangelical Protestant persuasion) that I think justifies its inclusion among the list of predetermined responses, and anecdotally lines up with my own experience of why someone chooses a new church.

Given that it is one of the most heavily marketed aspects of a church’s worship service, it is thus unsurprising that it is the most influential factor for choosing a new church. Much of church marketing is about marketing the sermon, which has the effect of making it a larger priority in the minds of potential congregants. It is something that churches push relentlessly and pour immense amounts of resources into, and thus the importance of the sermon has helped to define what makes a church good, and in this respect church marketing has been extremely successful.

Style of service is another example of this, and again in my own experience this result is borne out very well. This is another aspect of church worship that is not only marketed heavily, but is also sculpted so as to reach particular markets. Many churches will have varying worship “styles” so as to attract different types of people that prefer one to the other. Sometimes this is as simple as a change in musical style, while others are more or less liturgical than another. Other churches invest heavily into one particular style of service to reach a more targeted demographic, while others attempt to create very niche styles to focus even more on a certain segment of the population.

In this respect what I call “worship marketing” has also been a successful marketing campaign in that, I would argue, it leads the target market to understand that- by virtue of how much emphasis is placed on it in terms of resources employed and marketing expended- this is something that is important about a church, and helps to define whether a particular church is good or the “right fit” for that person.

Now, it is not my intent to speak to any of this in a necessarily pejorative manner; marketing in and of itself is benign, and only becomes “good” or “bad” in respect to its end and of the means employed. Rather, as I have mentioned, in many respects church marketing has been extremely successful, in that it has actually communicated to its target market what it has wanted to communicate. That the list of reasons on this survey line up with the lion’s share of what churches market about themselves would seem to demonstrate this.

Thus, the success of church marketing is, I would argue, actually a fairly successful endeavor. That being said, the question then becomes: has that been a good thing?

Marketing is ultimately the story that any organization tells about itself, and becomes the story that its market understands about that organization. When you are developing branding, it is always crucial to tell a story that not only captures what the organization does well and what it is about, but also does so in a way that the potential market comes to know that same story. In other words, one wants what the market thinks about one’s organization to line up as closely as possible with what one’s organization does and what one’s organization is.

Marketing influences this tremendously in that it is the story that the market hears about one’s organization. Thus, the foci of any marketing largely becomes what the market knows about one’s organization and shapes their perception. If one heavily markets a particular message, that message helps to define the market’s understanding.

As an example, for some time Apple has marketed their products not primarily in terms of what they do or how they function, but rather in terms of lifestyle. Rather than focusing heavily on tech specs, they have focused on how the product can enhance one’s life and effortlessly integrate into it. In some respects it’s trying to sell a notion of being cool, being creative, and all these other things.

There are no shortage of other products from other companies that can perform many of the same functions, but the perception of the products in respect to lifestyle is markedly different. Apple ultimately wants you to perceive the products as an extension of one’s ideal life, rather than a decision based on competing specs (or price!), and thus often is able to command higher premiums with comparable (or even substandard) hardware or software.

This is the story about itself that its been telling for years, and in many respects it has been wildly successful. In any particular case it may not be successful, but it has succeeded in bringing a particular and intended perception of itself to the market which is undeniable, even if one largely disagrees with that perception. The upshot is that many of Apple’s customers buy into that story and want to be a part of it.

The same is true for church marketing, in that the stories that churches tel about themselves through marketing form the perception of what church is in the minds of their markets. Church can thus often come to be defined by how well any particular church matches up with that story, even if that particular church hasn’t been as aggressive in marketing that particular story.

Hence, the things that are most heavily marketed (like quality sermons, welcoming communities, particular styles of worship, etc.) can come to largely define one’s idea of church and form a litmus test of sorts for attending or committing to any particular church.

While I was surprised that sermon quality ranked at the top, after thinking through this some more I noticed something interesting: there is little about some of the top ranked reasons for church attendance that are actually specific to a church. In other words, they are reasons that could largely define attendance at events and venues that have nothing to do with church.

As an example, quality sermons in and of themselves are of course often specific to a religious context; the actual activity, however, is not. It is interesting that term “quality” is used to define the sermon, in that it seems to place the “quality” of the sermon largely in the subjectivity of the church attendee. After all, what does “quality” refer to?

The theological content of a sermon?
A sermon’s fidelity to orthodoxy?
Its presentation and exposition of the Scriptures?
An engaging talk and topic that retains interest for 35 minutes?
The professional delivery?
The quality of the multimedia that accompanies it?
Its ability to provide edification or self-help instruction?

One can find other speaking venues that offer quality talks (see the TED Talk phenomenon) that are engaging and even life-transformational, but have little or nothing to do with the explicitly religious purpose of the church. Thus, using quality as a delineation doesn’t necessarily mark out the quality of the sermon as having any necessary religious basis.

The same of course is true for the “style” of worship service, which, although potentially more religious in nature, suffers from the same critique owing to the fact that a large portion of styles in respect to worship refer in large part to the music. This means that the style is often predicated on a particular predilection for a specific feel or performance of music.

The worship wars of the past millennium certainly set the stage for this, and the prevalence and propagation of worship styles, venues and the like has further accentuated the tendency towards preference marketing in this respect. And while the music often has explicitly religious content, it’s not really the intellectual content of the music per se that is at issue, but rather the musical trappings as a whole.

This phenomenon is anecdotally confirmed in how attendees actually choose churches based on these criteria, as well as the tendency for those of us within the church to speak of them in using value terminology.

For example, I have often found myself performing postmortems on worship services, and often the things I say (and others as well) tend to run along the lines of: “worship was really good today! ” (by which we usually mean the performance was exceptional or the band performed songs that we enjoy), or interrogatives such as “what did you think of the sermon?”

I don’t bring these up to be necessarily pejorative, as I believe these things really do have these sorts of valuations, but rather to demonstrate that this is how we often think about and decide upon churches, largely because of how churches actually market themselves to us. We are marketed to about sermon series, in which language is crafted intended to intrigue us to attend; perhaps there is something important and life-transformational about it; maybe the sermons will be powerful because of the speaker and his or her reputation.

We are marketed worship services as events to be experienced; we use language like awesome and powerful and uplifting to describe the worship style or event, and promise the chance to “experience worship” or “experience God” or “feel the pretense of God” during the worship event.

I’m not necessarily denouncing this kind of marketing, but rather trying to demonstrate how the ways that we market do actually form people’s ideas of what church is and what it has to offer. The things that we promote about church are the reasons that decide to attend any particular church, and thus as a corollary why they choose to not attend a particular church, or perhaps any at all.

One glaring omission from the list of possible responses in this survey is anything specifically religious in nature. An example of potential reasons that are explicitly religious might be:

A. I want to grow deeper in my faith
B. I value a focus on discipleship
C. I want to learn more about the Christian faith

Granted, some of these could presumably be included in some of the original responses. However, I was curious why these sorts of things (or even just one) weren’t included, and my best conclusion is that church marketing doesn’t largely focus on these things.

Now, to be sure, our marketing does include references to these reasons, even pretty frequently. However, if we actually look through the vast majority of our marketing, it largely consists of these things occurring within the context of the things that we do market heavily- sermons, being welcoming, styles of worship, volunteer opportunities, etc.

I think that what happens is that these things tend to become either an afterthought or a perfunctory inclusion. And I don’t necessarily think that it’s a deliberate move; rather, I think that churches have become so accustomed to marketing the things that they do that it often happens on auto-pilot.

The reason for this occurring is that there is (I would argue) a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing within the church.

Most churches will have mission statements that have the sorts of explicitly religious things that form the ethos of what the church is. These might include a commitment to Scripture, certain belief statements, a goal of discipleship and evangelism, a heart of outreach to the community, etc. However, many of these missions are a hard sell; they don’t really have any marketing punch as they tend to require much on the part of the target market.

What often ends up happening is that in order to soft sell, the things that churches actually market (sermons, music, etc.) are meant to be a means of getting people in the door, with the idea that if they are exposed to these things, there is the possibility of life-transformation and subsequent commitment to what the church is actually about.

The problem is that since marketing is about telling the story of what one’s organization is about and what it does and what it is, the focus of our marketing ends up telling the target audience exactly the wrong story, and instead their understanding of what the church is about is formed by how churches market to them, which is why they choose churches in the manner that they do.

There are some unfortunate effects.

Firstly, it can become form of bait-and-switch, as we soft sell what we market and then reveal what the church is supposed to be about once someone is in the door. They come for a sermon series and good music, we start talking about commitment and giving.

Secondly- and perhaps far worse- churches can actually start to believe their own marketing and allow it to form their own self-understanding of what they are about. This likely doesn’t happen intentionally or even consciously, but is often borne out in where resources are allocated and how the value of the things that are marketed are perceived vis-a-vis the church’s actual mission.

Granted, the “hard” things associated with church (discipleship, sacrificial giving, ethical demands, etc.) are not the most market-friendly notions available, but neither does it do to market the church in ways that either diminish or ignore those integral aspects of what the church is about.

There is likely a very large swath of balance-finding in regards to this discussion, but my fear is that much of the church has allowed the story that its marketing tells to become what the church is about, with the effect that people’s decisions about what church to attend is determined by what are actually ancillary concerns, which then further entices churches to embrace what they market, which perpetuates a vicious cycle.

Church marketing doesn’t suck, and that’s probably a bad thing.

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