Priest Idol: Church as Reality TV

November 15, 2005 by

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.”

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Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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18 Responses to “Priest Idol: Church as Reality TV”

  • glenn
    November 15, 2005

    On they boast that “after the year-long Church Lite campaign, Propaganda has helped to increase attendance by 1000%.”
    So, who gets the glory? I’m sure Propaganda (as a company, not just a few of their employees) isn’t saying, “Praise God for His blessing; thank You for answering our prayers!” Rather, their saying to each other, “Job well done; we sure are a creative bunch!”
    The verse that comes to my mind is Psalm 127:1 that says, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”
    I’m definitely not against employing marketing technique for advertisement, promotion, and community awareness . . . but something about this whole “Priest Idol” gig rubs me the wrong way.

  • Justin Broome
    November 15, 2005

    Does it matter HOW the people got in the building? 1000% more people are being exposed to the truth of Christ at that church. I don’t care how they got there. They are there, and that’s what counts. It’s perfectly fine if a marketing company wants to take credit for it too. I’m pretty sure the people who are seeing their lives transformed aren’t sitting around telling their friends about the great marketing company that helped revitalize their new church…
    Ephesians 1:18 “But whether or not their motives are pure, the fact remains that the message about Christ is being preached, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.”

  • Greg
    November 15, 2005

    but there’s something to be said about a church that is entertaining instead of reaching and involving. how is Priest Idol bringing glory to God? it sounds like it’s about entertainment and putting butts in pews…

  • Nicola David
    November 16, 2005

    Who gets the glory? That’s up to Father McCaskill – we brought the horses to water, whether or not they can be made to ‘drink’ is up to the Church. This is all in a day’s work for Propaganda: we got a brief, we did the work insightfully and creatively, we produced great results. Whether it’s a dishwasher, a cookie, a shampoo or a church, we just do what we do best – grab people’s attention and make them interested in the product. Our work is usually totally invisible to the consumer, so we certainly don’t get off on glory. I sense instead that people are uncomfortable with what are perceived as non-Christians ‘selling’ Christianity. Does this mean that women can’t market guys’ clothing? Or that a guy can’t work at Tambrands? When a church has a blocked drain, it calls in a plumber – why not call in marketing experts to solve marketing problems? Why would God’s church be less worthy of great marketing than any other organisation? Let’s all do what God gifted us with doing well. The facts clearly show that we did what was asked, and brought people into the church: let the church make them want to stay.

  • Greg Vennerholm
    November 16, 2005

    Well said. And, apparently, well done. Interstingly, a firend of mine recentlty was sharing the idea of a U.S. network doing something very similar here… perhaps they’ll learn soemthing from your project.
    // greg

  • Shawn Stewart
    November 16, 2005

    I think that some of the “issues” people have with marketing companies marketing to the church is a problem of theological world view, and ultimately our view of truth itself.
    In my opinion we culturally have a problem with what we consider secular and sacred. We call some jobs secular and some not, we quickly jump to a conclusion that a marketing company (especially a non Christian marketing company) doesn’t represent the real church, that they are “outsiders” selling God’s property. Here is a hypothetical question. How many Christians would need to work on this project before we thought it was okay, 1, 2, 10?
    Secondly, the issue of truth itself. The truth seems to be that people in that community felt that church was “stuffy”. the Marketing company took that truth and used it as bait to draw people to the greater truth… Jesus does not intend for life to be stuffy, including church services. They may not have put it that way, but Father McCaskill probably would.
    Jesus is the truth and all truth wherever you find it belongs to him. Whether or not someone knows him personaly makes, in some sense, no difference. One example of this is God’s silent stamp of approval on Moses’ pagan father in law, Jethro’s advice–aka: business consulting (Exodus 18:13-26). Tools are tools, and truth is truth. We should just use the tools truthfully. I think this is a job well done…

  • glenn
    November 16, 2005

    You stated:
    “Why not call in marketing experts to solve marketing problems?”
    That’s probably where some of the rub lies. A dead church is not a marketing problem, it’s a spiritual problem. (Just taking a quick tour through Revelation 2 & 3 will demonstrate that). Why some would see it otherwise?
    My personal hesitation with the whole idea of Priest Idol is banking on the efforts of a secular marketing firm to bring back “life” to a dead church. Now if “life” constitutes greater numbers of attendees, then yeah, mission accomplished. But if “life” means a spiritual revival among the saved and salvation among the lost, then I guess time will tell.
    I’m not going to judge the results (we all know that’s up to God); but there’s nothing wrong or unBiblical in my judging of the method.

  • glenn
    November 16, 2005

    Concerning “outsiders,” here is an article about Mr. Julian Kynaston, the founder of Propaganda, and his involvement with the Priest Idol project.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but is not Mr. Kynaston an unbeliever? Does he represent the “real church?”

  • kevin
    November 16, 2005

    Glenn, that’s where the term ‘marketing’ gets so sticky. Is a dead church really a spiritual problem? I’d say it depends on the church. Certainly there may be some spiritual problems at work, but it could also other problems at work. A lack of space, poor communication, even something as silly as the temperature can result in fewer and fewer people coming to church.
    Part of the goal of marketing is to look at the problem and figure out what’s going on. If you look at what McCaskill said, the marketing company asked questions to help the church figure out its purpose. It didn’t come down to what the marketing company did or didn’t do, it came down to the people being willing to change, to actually articulate what’s so special about their faith. That’s a spiritual lesson just as much as it is a marketing lesson.

  • Nicola
    November 16, 2005

    You can’t solve a spiritual problem only by having a relationship with God: you have to have a relationship with the people around you, too (that’s what God is after, after all). And the way to start a relationship is to engage with people and be both interesting and relevant – which the gospel is, but in the church’s hands it ironically often doesn’t get as far as being heard. In today’s media age, the church (which, bluntly, doesn’t have the resources that sex, drugs & rock n roll do) has to put up with well-meaning volunteers – I know ‘cos at my church, I’m one of them. It’s a sad-but-true fact that the church simply has not kept up with understanding what engages with people in society today – especially with young people, who may be very smart but have shorter attention spans than 25 years ago. We can be purists – and say we know what we’re doing, let them come to us – and we can continue to watch our churches die. Or we can say, ‘hey, let’s learn from what people around us are responding to. If it’s flashing lights and amusing captions, maybe we can grab a slice of that attention so that we can follow it up with our message.’ People who think marketing is a dirty word simply don’t understand real marketing and branding – because, like religion, they can only really work in the long-term when based on real truths and integrity. Because real marketing is NOT about making a buck regardless of cost.

  • Michael Rew
    November 16, 2005

    Priest Idol. Propaganda. So people go to church to worship dead idols and listen to propaganda. I hardly could set up a better three-word description of what many unbelievers think of the Church.

  • Michael
    November 17, 2005

    Ok, not crazy about Priest Idol either…I get the play on American Idol…I just think it was a poor choice of words and not all that creative.
    BUT…I think it’s great that this church brought on someone who understood marketing communications. Secular firm or Christian firm…I don’t know, would have loved to see it be a christian firm but heck, who says they aren’t christians…I think some of their tags “even God needs help sometimes” are a bit much for me. Don’t trade truth for creative. God doesn’t need help.
    I haven’t looked at the whole campaign as I couldn’t find it on the site.

  • Franklin Reeves
    November 21, 2005

    When it comes to things such as what color fo carpet, or what temp to set the building to so that most people willbe comfortable I have no problem.
    To say that all truth is God’s truth is correct. We have to be careful that we do not get confused by something that appears true but is not.
    At one time science said that the earth was flat, this was held to be true, but it was not God’s truth because it was not really true. God always said it was a sphere or circle.
    The only thing we can really trust to be true is the Word of God. The methode that God prefers in building a Church is the believers use network marketing.
    The preacher shares the gospel with enough people until 12 get saved. Each of those twelve saved shares the gospel with enough people until 12 more get saved. Now a church of 1 is a 157. If that takes two years, what will the church be like in year 10.
    Church of Christ wake up, do what you were called to do, preach the gospel to every creature.

  • Franklin Reeves
    November 21, 2005

    When I said that God prefers newtwork marketing, and used the number twelve, I was arbitrarly picking a number. I was not implying that God said that everyone get twelve or anything like that.
    I was just giving an example of how a church can grow and grow well both in numbers and spiritually. The church that has members actively evangelizing (work of the ministry) will have members that are growing in faith.

  • Ray
    November 28, 2005

    FANTASTIC – AS Paul said, I will be all things to all people so that by all means, I might win some!
    One of my pet peeves is that the church seems to be “not wise”enough to reach real people. But this shows hope that we can be as clever, or more so even, than the world!

  • Mike
    November 29, 2005

    This project is great because it shows how simple things can produce great results. In this case “Marketing” simply removed stupidity from the scene. Removing barriers for people to receive… Isn’t that what Jesus did? Some people would call consulting “unspiritual” but any church with a boring building, boring music, and boring sermons will fail. I believe God does want us to seek inspiration from him, but he assumes that we will at least get the “common sense” stuff right, right?

  • Franklin Reeves
    November 29, 2005

    I hope that boring sermons and boring hymns are not going to be fixed by the people (marketers) that are fixing the boring buildings.
    A sermon should not be boring, but it should not handled as if the subject was trivial and not of importance.
    A wise preacher once said,
    Get on fire for God, and people will come watch you burn.

  • Nicola David
    February 7, 2006

    Some of you may have read about the Priest Idol show in the UK – about when a new vicar came to a church (the last of 4 in a large village) with 8 congregation members. There was a bit of an uproar amongst Christians because the marketing company brought in to test ‘medium’ (‘message’, or the vicar going out to evangelise, had not worked too well) was seen as secular (although I work there…) I’m pleased to report that 6 months on, the average service attendance is 85 – and 150 attended the midnight service on Christmas Eve, including 20-30 teenagers. Sometimes the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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