A dying church in a small British town. A young American priest. A mission to revitalize a congregation of less than ten. It doesn’t exactly sound like the basis for a reality TV show, but Priest Idol will air as a three-part series in November on the UK’s Channel 4. James McCaskill was that priest, stepping in to revitalize the parish of St. Mary Magdalene while the TV cameras rolled. Christianity Today talked with McCaskill about his experience.
As part of the show a marketing firm came in to help relaunch the church—and suddenly it’s clear why we’re talking about it. A church taking part in a reality show is another topic entirely, but the role of church marketing in the project is interesting.
Here’s what McCaskill had to say about his experience with church marketing:
The filmmakers brought in a marketing firm to help you sell the church to the town. Was this a positive experience?
It really was. The marketers—a firm called Propaganda—were very respectful and sensitive. They brought a fresh perspective from the world. I don’t think it was selling out to the world. I think it was a way of learning what is going on in the culture, what does the immediate society want, how do they view church? I don’t know the story very well, but I wonder if Bill Hybels used a similar approach when he went knocking on the doors around Willow Creek, asking what folks would like to see in a church. The most positive thing this did was to raise the profile of the parish in the community, to say, “We’re here and open and alive.”
What would you say to those who argue that the church does not need to market itself?
I would say that we did not take a secular approach and put the label ‘Christian’ on it and therefore redeem it. What I would say is that we used a tool available in Western society and used it in such a way to produce something that is worthy of the church. For instance, the marketers challenged us to say, “What is special about the Christian faith?” It was a challenge for us to articulate it; in fact, the congregation was not able to articulate it. By taking a sales point of view and asking, “How are you are you going sell this place, if you can’t tell people what’s great about it?” the marketers weren’t asking us to make things up; they were asking us to genuinely examine ourselves. It sounds pathetic that the congregation was not able to articulate those things already—this is our faith we’re talking about, after all—but obviously it wasn’t happening.
Propaganda, the marketing company involved, talks about their role in coming up with the Church Lite campaign, which included billboards and placards with sayings like “Now with 50% less stuffiness” and “More conversation than conversion.” (link via Cartoon Blog)
Update: Propaganda founder Julian Kynaston talks about the marketing campaign:
“The idea of ‘branding God’ started out as a bit gimmicky,” he said. “But it quickly became one of the most serious things we have worked on.”