Church Marketing Sucks: No, It’s a Religion, Yes, Christians Follow the Bible, and Yes, That Is Totally A Church.

Church Marketing Sucks: No, It’s a Religion, Yes, Christians Follow the Bible, and Yes, That Is Totally A Church. July 23, 2015

I was reading this funny site that gathers “horror stories” from Christians about really awful church experiences they’ve had and realizing that quite a lot of Christian marketing isn’t very well thought-through.

Angels are apparently kind of, um, cute. (Credit: Allan Ferguson, CC license.) This is an ad from yet another group of "more hardcore than thou" Christians downgrading other Christians to make themselves look better. They're not like all those other Christians "driven by dogma and creed," oh no!
Angels are apparently kind of, um, cute. (Credit: Allan Ferguson, CC license.) This is an ad from yet another group of “more hardcore than thou” Christians downgrading other Christians to make themselves look better. They’re not like all those other Christians “driven by dogma and creed,” oh no! Come sit with them and be cool!

Not much says “churches are businesses like any other” quite like the amazing and extensive variety of resources available to Christians wishing to promote their churches to outsiders. I quickly discovered hundreds of thousands of hits on the subject when I began writing this post, all offering lists and tips for ministry groups and pastors to use that will “grow” a church into a self-supporting machine for conversion and retention–which is to say, tithes.

Almost none of it, of course, is documented as effective. Christians all have their guesses about what works to attract new people and retain existing ones, but in the end about all these guesses have in common is that they are, well, guesses. Generally, church strategies center around Bible-thumping vs. seeker-driven tactics. The former generally pushes authoritarian, structured worship featuring Victorian music, archaic Bible translations, and a fire-and-brimstone message of hatred, slavish obedience, exclusion, and willful ignorance, while the latter generally fits most folks’ mental image of the megachurch: slick presentation, contemporary music with an extensive sound system, big-screen televisions, pastors and laity alike in casual clothes and sometimes carrying coffee cups into the sanctuary, lots of activities for members, and a message light on the condemnation and heavy on the positivity and rah-rah.

Prosperity gospel, if nothing else, teaches adherents that membership numbers are an indication of their god’s approval: churches doing his will enjoy rapid growth, while churches that are not dwindle away. Even churches that say they reject this doctrine tend to subscribe to it deep down. Consequently, one sees a very uneasy relationship Christians have with doctrinal correctness vs. church growth. It seems clear that even the most hopping-mad zealots furious about the seeker-driven approach are vaguely aware that their preferred methods don’t actually pull in vast crowds in most churches; they may hate knowing this truth and lament that it is in fact the truth, but they don’t generally try to deny it. Instead, their strategy is to shame the people who’d rather go to churches like that when deciding where to spend their Sunday mornings–and their tithes.

Books written by the leaders of very popular groups, like megapastor Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church get roundly criticized and condemned by distressed-sounding Christians favoring the opposite approach, but the seminars he teaches on the subject draw many thousands of pastors and church leaders eager to learn his secrets and apply them to get similar success. Even when arguments break out between the two camps, I’m guessing the far-more-prosperous and successful pastors like Rick Warren cry all the way to the bank. Like his approach or hate it, his system tends to work; megachurches using this approach tend to enjoy faster and more dramatic growth than their smaller sisters, often precisely because they cannibalize members from these other smaller churches–which end up too depleted of members to compete. Bible-thumping churches favoring a more authoritarian message and more archaic worship styles can rail against this trend all they want and blame the people leaving their ranks for these more appealing pastures, and they do both, but it seems clear that their constant attempts to shame people for preferring seeker-driven churches isn’t working–as one small-church pastor notes, people are leaving anyway.

Very few studies indeed analyze exactly which approach works better in the long run or produces more dedicated, fervent members, or even why one approach works over another. So Christians end up making a lot of wild guesses. They have no choice otherwise. As this essay puts it, watching a church marketing campaign reminds one of “a duffer’s golf swing. She is constantly going from one extreme to the next, over correcting, coming up short, searching, and frustrated. Occasionally, she gets it right and drives one down the middle, but repeating that feat is rare and soon she is slicing again.” Chances are these rare hits happen as flukes, more despite their leaders’ efforts than because of them, and are way more dependent on the local community’s culture and pastor’s personal style of leadership than anything else.

So we’re back to marketing, and about treating churches like any other business. At least we know–more or less!–what works for businesses.

When Marketing Meets Dishonesty.

To a certain extent, most marketing is in some way dishonest. Whether we’re selling ourselves on a dating site, a car to a person on a used-car lot, or a business proposal to a room full of suits, we’re inevitably going to play up the positive and downplay the negative. People sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to do this, even when they absolutely know the truth is going to come out eventually to their own detriment; generally the hope is that the buyer won’t care about the negative stuff for whatever reason–or that the lie won’t be caught until it’s way too late.

The other day, one of our commenters, Blanche, mentioned getting a rather deceptive email from a family member asking her to critique a sermon he apparently wanted to give that he thought would make young people particularly interested in visiting. The whole thread is entertaining–as another commenter noted, it’s “like watching someone be beaten to a pulp with a stick in slow motion”–but this part of the sermon’s intended appeal always stuck in my memory:

What if we at [name redacted] Congregational Church each carried a pack of business cards with this announcement: “We are not a Christian church but simply followers of Jesus, the Jew. We meet together each week to compare notes on our experience with Jesus. We invite you to meet with us.”

He seriously didn’t see the problem with giving cards like this one out to prospective visitors. No, no, the good people of Etcetera Congregational CHURCH are “not a Christian church.” Nope, not at all. They just meet every week at the same time–like a church does–in a building that is actually named as if it were a church that happens to look a lot like a church and that has church-like furniture and decorations in it, dedicated to the exact same purpose that churches are dedicated to, with a ministry structure that looks a lot like that of a church, enjoying the tax benefits that comes of being a religious organization like a church, and preaching sermons that sound exactly like those you’d hear in a church.

But they’re not a church.

That’s the lie they’re going with. Come hang out with them in your hoodies, bring your weed, and enjoy a couple hours of rapping about this far-out cat Jesus in a totally cazh atmosphere. I’ve seen less egregious fibs on a dating profile, and less certain denouements as well.

One can hardly blame pastors–especially of small churches, which are struggling particularly hard right now–for getting desperate. But one can blame them for being blatantly dishonest. This approach sounds a lot like the come-on speech of a multi-level marketing drone: Oh, that’s okay, I hate sales too! This is totally not sales. And you can work as many or as few hours as you like at YOUR business, doing it YOUR way, and build a business that’ll pay residuals long after you’re off enjoying your retirement in Maui! Oh, the name of it? I’ll tell you more over lunch, but I promise it’s not (insert whatever was asked).

And then it turned out the minister wasn’t really wanting a critique of the sermon–he’d already given it–which added dishonesty to dishonesty. I wish I could say I was even surprised to hear that.

Blanche’s story made me think of this other funny story about a backfiring billboard ad, and about how Christians don’t generally think about the slogans and catchphrases they say to trick intrigue visitors into dropping by of a Sunday.

The billboard in question reads: “Church for people who don’t like church.” It’s a very common slogan. Most of us have heard this sentiment before–especially from the sort of Christians fond of making pious-sounding claims like “I follow Jesus, not the Bible” as Neil Carter recently wrote, or the ever popular “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” mumbo-jumbo Christians say almost reflexively–a magic spell that even some Christians are starting to understand as counterproductive. The people saying this stuff don’t realize that we long ago decoded those sentiments and know they’re just ways of making the people saying them feel more hardcore, correct, and cool than all the other kids in the lunchroom.

In the case of this billboard, the blogger objects particularly to the way it “beats up on an already-damaged brand–the church.” He writes,

If you think of the Church (with a capital C) as a brand, we can all agree that the brand is in bad shape. But the answer is not to run an ad campaign that distances your church from other churches. In fact, I believe this approach probably hurts your local church more than it helps. Remember, the majority of your community is indifferent. As a result, they don’t care enough to take time to understand the nuances between your church and the church down the street. So any time we speak of the church—with or without a capital C—we should seek to build it up.

Leaving aside that attempt to shame “indifferent” consumers, it’s interesting to me that this fellow has caught on to the fact that increasingly, when Christians try to spark interest in their own group or quirky lil take on the Bible, they do so by beating up on some other Christian group or idea in order to build themselves up. Look, I want loving Christians to rescue their faith from the nastier elements in it as much as some of these Christians might, but this isn’t how it is done.

Blanche’s relative, in his deceitful sermon, ended thusly:

But, you know, I think I’ll just have to admit I am a Christian but would like to follow Jesus anyway. Wouldn’t you? I think that is what I like about [Redacted] Congregational Church – we are a Christian Church but want to follow Jesus anyway. So talk with [this other guy] about joining up with us followers of Jesus.

He “thinks” he’ll “just have to admit” that he is a member of the majority religion in the United States, one with near-uncontested majority power as well as numerous perks and civil rights, like it’s some sort of hardship on his part or some difficult thing that only the bravest of the brave would ever do? His entire appeal is spiteful, insulting, and condescending. As Blanche correctly noted, this preacher has managed to totally alienate not only atheists but even Christians who don’t happen to subscribe to the same quirky lil take on the Bible he does–but this was meant to be a sermon that would make people feel more interested in visiting and joining his church. I can see what he was trying to do–set his group up as the Cool Kids’ Club, the ultimate clique that all the other kids should want to join, the group that everybody wishes they could sit with at lunch. He was trying to make his audience feel flattered and privileged, brave and wise and special, by seeing his point and buying into it. But that kind of tribalism isn’t going to appeal to anybody truly compassionate or desirous of following a philosophy of truth and love–or even wishing to spend time with a nice, compassionate, caring community.

Did these people’s emotional maturity hit ground at 17? Because this behavior reminds me of teenagers gossiping about another person the second that person leaves the room, then turning on the million-watt smiles when that person returns. Ignore all those OTHER groups… they’re doing something terribly wrong. WE’RE the ones who are doing everything right. THEY’re deluded, but WE’RE correct. I’d sooner walk back into my high school cafeteria than face more of that shit from adults.

And can there be any more obvious way to trumpet the obvious here?

This song-and-dance all but forcibly reminds onlookers that none of these people really have the faintest idea what they’re doing and they’re just guessing–as well as trying to out-Christian their neighbors enough to stand out from the crowd. They can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong.

Worse, if a Christian can’t even be honest and straightforward about the fact that he attends a church and is a member of a religion, then I sure don’t trust him to be honest and straightforward about anything else. If he begins his appeal by insulting people and downgrading others to make me feel special, I don’t trust him to do any different to me sometime down the line–if he isn’t already.

Little Boundary Violation, Big Boundary Violation.

The truly astonishing part about this unspoken message is that Christians don’t appear to have the faintest idea that they’re actually doing irreparable harm to their “brand” by tearing down their own tribemates to make themselves look cooler. It’s especially painful to hear them rip apart other Christians by negating their right to even call themselves “Christians.” The moment one Christian decides that another isn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, I know I’m dealing with someone who isn’t one either: instead I’m dealing with someone who desperately wants the authority and power to make that kind of call, but who lacks the humility, compassion, or self-awareness to understand what a serious boundary violation that is.

Remember that Southern saying, “Little lie, big lie”? It means that someone who’s willing to tell little lies about things that don’t seem important will be willing to tell really big ones about things that are. We can apply that as well to boundary violations. Someone who’s willing to negate the experiences and feelings of even a tribemate is probably going to do it bigtime to someone who isn’t in the tribe, and probably way worse about something much more important.

Certainly I won’t be taking their demands and threats seriously–not when they can’t even do so.*

We need to be paying attention to people who can’t look good without tearing others down. A salesperson who relies on bad-mouthing the competition is someone who can’t come up with real reasons to buy his or her product, and just hopes to be the last option standing once the others have been eliminated**–as if people will suddenly swoon into belief once all other options are destroyed. That kind of logic worked on me when I was the same emotional age they are now, but I’ve grown up a little since then. Alas, the people falling for this advertising–and perpetuating it–sure could use a few lessons in Logic 101.

And using dishonesty to sell even that kind of high-school-level marketing scammery? Oh, that is just the cherry on a bullshit sundae, right there. When Christians must lie to get someone to vaguely consider their position, that tells me that the position itself can’t be supported by them in any other way except through dishonesty. It tells me that even they know their position is weak. It tells me that they have so little faith in their god that they can’t help but embellish everything about him and his religion in the hopes that we’ll go on the date, get charmed by their smooth talk, and decide to stay even though everything they put on their dating site profile was false. And sometimes that happens–but not often.

Christians are alienating who even knows how many people and destroying their credibility trying to find and reach those few people that won’t mind their dishonesty. And in return for this show of desperation, they are getting recruits who don’t mind dishonesty, and cultivating leaders from among that group who are the best at propagating and selling dishonesty.

There’s a certain beauty in the karma there.

Little wonder Christianity is losing so many people, if dishonesty and high-school drama is their idea of successfully “winning souls.”


* I know they’d come back with “do as I say and not as I do,” and that doesn’t fly with me either; it’s just something Christians say so they don’t actually have to inconvenience themselves enough to pretend they take their own message to heart. Not that I expect one of them to come up with some kind of credible reason to take their threats literally, but I can’t even take this religion seriously on a metaphorical, mythic level because of the hypocrisy its people display.

** This is the philosophy behind Creationism, for that matter: bad-mouth the idea of evolution enough, and Christianity’s mythology might start looking viable as an explanation for how life began and why it looks like it does. Except the bad-mouthing they’re doing isn’t even accurate, and reality doesn’t work that way anyway.

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