Church marketing in the business pages

“Prepare Thee for Serious Marketing,” an article about church marketing techniques in Sunday’s New York Times, appears on the first page of the Business section — an unusual place for a religion article in the Times. But that’s because this article looks at how churches are borrowing the latest marketing techniques from the business world.

Reporter Fara Warner starts out with Willow Creek Church, the granddaddy of evangelical mega-churches in South Barrington, Illinois. Warner visits an example of Willow Creek’s newest venture in marketing and member retention:– a program called “The Table” that sounds remarkably like the old Unitarian Universalist “Extended Family” programs from the 1970’s, which you can still find in some Unitarian Universalist churches (my dad belongs to an “Extended Family” group in his Unitarian Universalist church in Concord, Mass.). Warner tells about Randy Frazee, one of the many pastors at Willow Creek, as he hosts a “Table” in his home:

As dusk settles on this neighborhood of 1920’s bungalows and old farmhouses northwest of Chicago, Randy Frazee strums a banjo on his front porch, waiting for his dinner guests to arrive. No cars line his curb because everyone who is coming lives within walking distance.

Once the 12 guests — ranging in age from about 7 to 70 — and the Frazee family have gathered around three tables set end-to-end, they join hands, and Mr. Frazee says a prayer. A meal of barbecued brisket, cheese potatoes, and green beans follows.

Throughout the evening, conversation occasionally touches on favorite scriptures and “walking with the Lord.” The guests tell about their best and worst moments of the week. As dinner wraps up, Mr. Frazee asks one of the couples to talk about “how Christ walked in their life.”…

…a total of more than 6,000 people recently attended several hundred weekend “Tables” in the neighborhoods surrounding Willow Creek’s campus. These “Tables” supplement small groups that the church has already organized around people with similar interests — like mothers, singles, or teenagers. But the idea of “The Table” was based on [geographic] proximity, Mr. Frazee said, so that people began to meet neighbors who weren’t just like themselves….

I don’t think you’ll find much talk of “walking with the Lord” at a Unitarian Universalist “Extended Family” group — after all, we do use a different religious lanugage. But the point of “Extended Families” and “Tables” seems much the same: to get church people to meet in an informal setting. As usual, the Willow Creek folks are very aware of the marketing strategy that lies behind this program:

Corporate marketers have been using similar events for years to try to create closer connections with their brand. Nike, for example, has worked with gyms on new workout routines to make its brand visible beyond sporting goods stores.

For churches, events like the ones created by Willow Creek are meant to offer members a similar closeness, albeit for a more profound purpose: religious worship and discussion.

“In the early church, people didn’t get on their camels to go to Bethany to worship,” said Mr. Frazee, who created similar programs as pastor of a church in Fort Worth before he joined Willow Creek in 2005. “We have adults who seem to have suffered a spiritual stroke. They go to church, but they have forgotten that wonderful sense of hanging out, that basic expression of fellowship in their neighborhoods.”

In other words, church people seem to want some unstructured hang-out time from their churches.

Warner goes on to report that the mega-churches are watching generational trends closely. The Baby Boomers like big, corporate-style worship services with thousands in attendance, but the next generation (described as people born in the 1960’s and 1970’s) is looking for churches to be more “authentic.” Warner interviews Robert B. Whitesel of Indiana Wesleyan University:

“The younger generation sees the mega-churches as too production-oriented, too precise,” [Whitesel said]. “They want church to be more authentic. There is a feeling among this generation that there has been a waning emphasis on the spiritual.”

Mr. Whitesel siad this shift was changing the focus of what a religious leader does at a church. “The boomer church has the paster at the top who is supposed to figure out what the church is,” he said. But in the newer churches he studies, he added, “the pastor has more of a marketing function in understanding what the congregations wants and finding ways to provide that.”

“The pastor has more of a marketing function” — that sounds pretty mercenary and cold-blooded. But I’ve been thinking that it might be possible to take advantage of this generational trend in a way that doesn’t seem quite so mercenary. Maybe we can frame this marketing concept in terms of how leadership should happen in a church. Instead of having pastors as CEO’s, it looks like we need to develop an understanding of the pastor as “servant-leader” who helps facilitate grass roots expressions of spiritual needs. Corporations are finding out that they have less and less top-down control over their brands, as consumers make the brand their own. So too with churches, I think: with the newer generations, we’re going to have to move beyond a centralized top-down hierarchical control of a church or of a denomination, towards a new understanding of non-hierarchical shared leadership.

Translate that back into marketing terms, and you might find that instead of advertising in conventional media, churches might be better off using new participatory media like — well, like blogs — media where you can tell me what you think.