When I was about 24, I got a contract to produce a marketing campaign for a large church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. I wasn’t really qualified for the work — especially the television and radio portions — but one of the deacons involved in the selection process was the father of a friend of mine. He asked if I was interested and then set up a meeting with the pastor. I somehow talked my way into the contract.
At the time, I was convinced that churches needed to be using clever and impressive modern advertising to grab the attention of people who didn’t normally attend church. That’s what every modern organization did, so it seemed to make sense to me. I wanted churches to dump their staid old images and be creative in their graphics and copywriting. That approach sold Coke, Tide, Rolaids, Pepto Bismol, Dial soap and Chevrolets. Surely we ought to be doing the same thing.
My advertising campaign was a failure. The TV commercials were generic and boring. (I still have them on old U-matic tapes somewhere.) The radio spots were adequate but forgettable. The flyers for posting on college campuses were actually pretty decent, but I’m not sure anything was ever done with them. And the half page ad in the newspaper was a disaster because the local newspaper flipped my sunrise picture — what a cliche — and the picture and the copy didn’t match.
At the time, I blamed the relative lack of success of the campaign on my inexperience and poor execution. But as I’ve observed church marketing over the years — and thought a lot about why churches do the things they do and what they’re supposed to become — I’ve completely changed what I believe. I’ve decided that all of my beliefs about church “marketing” were wrong.
My mailbox has been bombarded this week with churches trying to lure me to their Easter services. That’s the way it is every year around Easter and Christmas, although I’m sure that varies depending on the part of the country and the sorts of neighborhoods where you live.
The direct mail pieces I get tend to be decently designed, although obviously generic. They’re colorful and are clearly aimed at people who might already have the inclination to come to an Easter service, maybe because they’ve been part of a church in the past and they feel that they ought to come.
Churches that do these sorts of marketing campaigns seem to be successful — if you measure success by the numbers of people who attend. When I was doing that advertising campaign for the big church when I was young, that’s I would have thought was the measure of success. But I don’t think so anymore.
Christian churches have less and less influence today. Many of them attract large numbers of people and many people enjoy the programs of those churches and their entertaining services. But this strategy is doing a lousy job of turning selfish, materialistic Americans into followers of Jesus Christ — and that’s what I now understand our purpose to be.
I’ve come to believe that if a church is really full of people seeking to be like Jesus — loving each other and reaching out to love other people — they’re going to naturally attract people who want to understand what’s going on and want to be part of it. If the people of a church are loving others and making a difference in the lives of people around them every day of the week — instead of just putting on a great show on Sunday — that church is going to be different enough to stand out and attract people because of the love they see being expressed there.
If there’s nothing substantial going on at a church — if people are simply going through the motions of church on Sundays — marketing is probably your best way of attracting bigger numbers of people to come and be entertained by the Sunday morning show. If you’ve convinced yourself that this is making a difference and changing the world, I understand why you would pursue this strategy.
But if you’re interested in building a body of people who are just as radical as Jesus was insofar as loving other people, marketing is probably a terrible idea. If you want to build a body of people who love as Jesus taught us to love, you’re far better off practicing love in radical ways instead of sending out junk mail. That real-world action will attract those who want to follow Jesus.
I might be wrong. I can certainly argue the mainstream position, so it’s not that I don’t understand it. I’m not really being critical of those who pursue that strategy, because it’s the obvious “way to do it” and everybody “successful” seems to be doing it.
But everything in my head and heart tell me today that we’re better off if we ditch the marketing campaigns and instead concentrate on becoming more real with others and on figuring out how to reflect the kind of love and forgiveness that Jesus taught.
Jesus told us in John 13 that other people would know we’re His followers because of our love for each other. He didn’t mention direct-mail campaigns and flashy billboards. I suspect He wouldn’t suggest such things even if He walked among us today.
If we love each other and other people — and if we’re serious and obvious about showing it — we won’t need any marketing campaigns, because the world is hungry to experience real love. But we prefer to do marketing because it’s easier than loving people.