Unbranding The Church
I have been allowed to serve in a ministry promotion role in the local church for two decades, focusing on print and online media, video and broadcast, copywriting, press relations and advertising–all the tools of the marketing arsenal. So it may come as a surprise for me of all people to say that there is no such thing as church marketing. But this is a learned and considered statement that I believe is important for leaders in the North American evangelical church to come to grips with and understand.
As we study what marketing is and place it in the context of scripture, we find that its ultimate goal is not the promotion and growth of the church. Rather, it refocuses the church on an objective other than the Person of Christ.
The best definition of marketing I’ve ever heard comes from Wikipedia:
Marketing is a social process which satisfies customers’ wants.
When we talk about marketing in general, we need to realize that (1) despite some people’s best efforts to shoehorn this concept into God’s Word through spotty references, this is not a biblical term or discipline in any way and (2) it is a relatively modern phenomenon, its origins dating back only about 200 years to the transition between the agricultural and industrial ages. This context is important in any conversation related to how the church embraces and uses marketing tools to support its ministries.
Be careful that you do not fall into the common trap of mis-defining marketing as a branding term (it’s about affecting people’s perceptions), or a religious term (it’s about affecting people’s beliefs). Marketing is an economic term, pure and simple, and we must begin at that point in order to have an honest discussion of how it applies to the church. It’s important to agree on a basic definition of marketing. The fact is, there are dozens out there, and they’ve been compressed into every possible box in order to satisfy a desire to make marketing relevant in a given situation. Remember, any definition of marketing that does not grow out of a supply and demand free-market economic model is not a true definition of the word.
Any definition of marketing that is not an economic definition is inaccurate.
Marketing’s history is rather brief. Marketing is not an age-old, ancient and revered concept or practice. In fact, until the beginning of the industrial age, marketing as we know it did not really exist. As families left their lives on the farm and began the daily split of work, home and school as early as the 1700s, specialization in skills and supply lines rapidly began to grow. People stopped growing their own food and began to buy it from someone else. They stopped educating their own children and left it to a community school to accomplish. Bartering for needs gave way to shopping among a variety of alternatives available at a central convenient location or “market”.
Remember, until about 300 years ago, work, food, shelter and education in just about every society worldwide all happened around the nucleus of the family, virtually all of whom were farmers in one form or another. Even the great empires of the past, from Rome to Greece to China to Babylon, were basically agricultural nations. They were also demand-based economies, where need often outstripped supply. The need for marketing exists where supply is greater than demand–and those free-market economies did not exist before the industrial age made mass production possible.
Marketing as a concept also did not exist before the age of the printing press, and it was the combination of the industrial age, the printing press and the beginnings of a communications network in the form of the newspaper and telephone and later the radio that gave birth to the very concept of marketing. The reasoning was simple: suppliers wanted to get the attention of buyers in order to sell their products and services. Over time suppliers developed practices and processes for garnering the attention of buyers–and found out that once they had it, their message could be crafted and targeted to increase desire for a product or service, or even create a perceived need for a product or service where none existed.
This process, in the span of 200 years of development, along with new technologies and the advent of broadcast media, became quite complex and a discipline unto itself. And just as the market itself created a need for marketing, the specialization of skills that led to markets also led to the marketers–those who specialize in marketing.
It’s important to put marketing’s history and development into account when attempting to apply it to the church. When we do, we find that (1) the church was founded at least 1,700 years before marketing existed and (2) the concept and practices of marketing were developed over time to support a free-market economic model. Both of these facts lead us to question marketing’s overall impact for the church. Is it possible that many churches have adjusted their mission and vision using marketing processes? If so, what are the implications, given marketing’s unchurched roots?
The Church and marketing are incompatible. There may be similarities in some of the media tools we use, but the core principles of marketing and the Church move in opposite directions.
Throwing off modern developments? Just because marketing is new does not mean we immediately discount it. You’ve heard the argument: Are we going to question the toilet and air conditioning or other modern inventions the same way we question marketing when applied to the church?
Of course not, because the two are not related in any way. Marketing is a psychological and economic discipline and can therefore affect our philosophy and strategies for the church, whereas an air conditioning does not have the potential to measurably affect our mission, vision and goals as the body of Christ. One is a modern convenience. The other is concerned with economy, supply and demand and the satisfaction of the customer’s desires.
The key downfall of marketing applied to the church is that as a strategic concept, it is focused on the consumer–people, or the buyers. Clearly throughout Scripture we see our focus is not to be on people, but on Christ. That statement may come off as odd, but Christ never told us to abide in one another, but rather to abide in Him (John 15). As we seek Him and become more like Him, He will draw men to Himself (Acts 2:47). The “plan” Jesus gave us for the church is for us to focus on Him and become more like Him. In so doing, others would be drawn to Christ through us.
Marketing supplants our real objective by using media tools to focus our attention as leaders on the people we want to reach versus the living God we are commanded to serve.
Is it possible to “market” the church while at the same time keeping the focus on Christ? While this approach would allow marketing to peacefully co-exist with the mission of the church, the foundational truths of marketing do not align with the foundational truths of the New Testament church in Scripture. Let’s look at the Bible itself for some insight.