Church marketing sucks — or does it?

My mother-out-law (Carol and I aren’t married, so she’s an out-law, not an in-law) sent me a fascinating piece from the October 23 Wall Street Journal. In an article titled “A Congregation of Consumers,” Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews the book “Shopping for God,” by James B. Twitchell (Simon & Schuster). Riley says, in part:

Choosing a religion, [Twitchell] argues, is much like choosing any other product — from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the “spiritual marketplace” in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book’s smug chapter titles: “Christian Consumers Are Consumers First.”

Sociologists have long noted that religiously tolerant societies actually inspire greater religious allegiance than societies in which piety is imposed by government fiat. But “Shopping for God” adds a twist: “In a highly competitive market, suppliers have to stay on their toes. . . . Coke sells more going up against Pepsi. McDonald’s needs Burger King. When markets are supplying interchangeable products, selling can become frantic. Brand war! The complacent get killed.” The “complacent” are the mainline churches, according to Mr. Twitchell; they have basically dropped out of the competition. The evangelical churches, by contrast, are competing wildly and thriving even if, like Coke and Pepsi, they are are offering similar “products.”

So far, I basically agree with Twitchell. The mainline churches — Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on — have faced dwindling memberships for years, primarily because they are unwilling to get their hands dirty in marketing and publicity. Unitarian Universalists have been holding steady or slightly increasing, not because we have paid any attention to marketing, but because we have what Seth Goodin calls a “purple cow” product:– our “religious product” is so different, it advertises itself. But back to the main point of this post.

Naomi Riley does not like the idea that churches have to market themselves. She argues that churches have to answer to a higher calling than mere marketing:

If you can find a way of seeing religion primarily as a form of consumerism — skipping the (how to put it?) faith and truth part of religious belief — then Mr. Twitchell’s analysis makes some sense. And in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to “grow” their flock, and they obey a market discipline. Mr. Twitchell notices a sign hanging in Mr. Hybels’s megachurch office that quotes Peter Drucker, the business guru.

But consultants can only do so much, and the point of church outreach surely has less to do with improving “brands” than with saving souls. Mr. Twitchell concludes by noting that, “in the Land of Plentitude, the customer is king.” Thus he asks: “Why should religion be different?” The answer to that question comes from another book.

So do you agree with Naomi Riley, or with James Twitchell? In a society that is dominated by marketing mentalities, how far may religious organizations accommodate themselves to market forces?

Let me make this question more pointed:– If your congregation is faced with declining membership, to what extent do you feel it is acceptable to employ marketing strategies to boost membership? Which specific marketing techniques are acceptable (ads in traditional media, Web and new media marketing, assisting current members to engage in word-of-mouth marketing, door-to-door solicitation, etc.), and which are not? I don’t have a firm answer myself, so consider this a brainstorming session where we’re all thinking out loud….

7 thoughts on “Church marketing sucks — or does it?

  1. james twitchell

    I rarely respond to blog comments but here I do b/c you are totally correct. I spend some time w/ the UUs b/c they really do have an “ingredient difference.” They don’t need a trumped-up brand or an ad campaign. They are aggressively “out of your face.” That’s their position. The UU religion is yours. You share it w/ them. From a marketing POV, that’s very powerful.

    Plus the UUs catch members as they fall from other denominations and even other religions, esp the Jews. I argue that of all the old-time suppliers the UUs are best positioned for the future.

  2. Philocrites

    Your question, put another way, is simply this: Should we invite people to visit and join our churches? Absolutely!

    The best “marketing” is a personal invitation from a friend, coworker, or neighbor. That’s the the second-best marketing, too. After that, I’d rank media references to Unitarian Universalism (from news stories to “The Simpsons”), good online content, and, finally, paid advertising.

    Most importantly, if a visitor doesn’t find a great worship service when they visit, no amount of marketing does any good. Friendly people at church sure helps, too.

    (How cool to have James Twitchell stop by to comment!)

  3. Dan

    james twitchell — Thanks for bringing your broader perspective to this discussion. You write: “They don’t need a trumped-up brand or an ad campaign. They are aggressively “out of your face.” ” — which, maybe, in a way, is the “purple cow” approach?

    Philocrites — I like your reframed question — which perhaps suggest moving away from traditional, top-down marketing?

  4. Paul

    In the paid advertising space, I think there is something to getting our “brand” out into the mass “marketplace.” Many of our most energized visitors and ultimately most active new members have NEVER heard of UUs.

    My wife, raised Catholic, then ex-, and very resistant to organized religion, is now deeply connected to our congregation, and now refers to herself as UU. She never knew we existed before she met me. (Chalk one up for inviting friends personally.) But, given our numbers, I think this can reach just so far.

    I don’t know about you guys, but I have maybe two sets of friends outside of church that might be open to UU. I’ve invited them both, but sitting inside on a Sunday morning just wasn’t for them.

    Philocrites ranks the Simpsons ahead of Time magazine.

    (Bart, ordering ice cream at the Springfield church ice cream social) “I’ll have the Unitarian.” Rev: Gives Bart an empty bowl. Bart: “Hey, this is empty!” Rev: “Exactly!”)

    OR, Bart playing a video game in which bolts of lightning strike pagans, turning them into Christians. The ones that are just winged are turned into Unitarians.

    It’s difficult to argue that Simpson references aren’t catchier and will stick better than any ad that we could run anywhere else. References on the Daily Show are nice, too, but few and far between, as on the Simpsons. And, though funny, are the references close to the image we want to project? Garrison Keillor probably does much better than the Simpsons in that respect, but I think we’ve already got NPR listeners wrapped up ;)

    In the Bay Area marketing campaign, we ran ads during the Daily Show and Colbert, though just for a month or two.

    Given unlimited resources, I’d say mass marketing first, followed planting UU’s on the Simpsons and Daily Show writing staffs (most of those writers come from Harvard, so that shouldn’t be too difficult), followed by marrying outside the faith.

  5. Patrick Roberts

    There are a lot of ways to “market” church these days… i think about this often. It is relevant to think about “spiritual marketing” when you’re talking to Americans especially. The tough part here is to maintain a God-dependent, Christ-surrendered, Spirit-led mindset.

  6. Dan

    Paul — Not being a Simpsons fan, I’d prefer to get references on the new Futurama movie (imagine Bender as a Unitarian Universalist!), but aside from that I’m with you.

    Patirck Roberts — Um, well, actually not all of us want to maintain a God-dependent, Christ-surrendered, Spirit-led mindset, but I get your point. Marketing is fine if we manage to keep our eyes on the prize, and not let marketing become an end in itself.

  7. Paul

    I think you’re on to something there, Dan!

    Bender, greeting visitors at a UU Welcome Table: (I think we already have one of our own …)

    “Who are you, and why should I care?”

    Bender, on a Journey Towards Wholeness:

    “This is the worst kind of discrimination. The kind against me.”

    Bender contemplates the Ultimate:

    God: Bender, being God isn’t easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.

    Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money.

    God: Yes, if he makes it look like an electrical thing. If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.

    Bender, the UU Congregant:

    “Hey. Do I preach at you when you’re lying stoned in the gutter?”

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