Secular Marketers Try to Promote Church Attendance

January 19, 2006 by

In this week’s survey we’re asking whether or not non-Christian marketers can successfully market the church. So far just over half say yes. Coincidentally, we were pointed to an article from a UK Christian magazine where they asked two mainstream advertising firms to put together ad campaigns to promote attending church.

The piece started with a five-fold strategy for rebranding the church from Mark Ritson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the London Business School, who came up with the list after attending a christening he didn’t dread as he expected.

  1. Only select church leaders who understand God, the public and who are good at strategy.
  2. Conduct research to identify the needs of society today.
  3. Position the church against the true competition-consumer culture.
  4. Replace hard pews and exposed brickwork with a better setting for experiencing God.
  5. Revisit the church’s approach to marketing communications. Ritson called for an integrated marketing strategy that embraces advertising, marketing and PR.

It was the final point that prompted the magazine to issue their challenge.

(Though I can’t help but notice how completely superficial and relative the fourth point is. I’ll concede that comfortable seating might keep people from thinking about how their butt is falling asleep, but how does exposed brickwork diminish anyone’s experience with God? I didn’t know God did his best work with sheetrock.)

But what’s really helpful from this article is the lessons from the two ad agencies who tried to promote church attendance:

  • Current church ads don’t work: “I don’t think the ads I’ve seen appeal to non-church goers,” says Guy Lupton of Khameleon. “They often have a quote from the Bible or a cross–which most consider clichéd images and words that are preaching to the converted. They may appeal to church goers but probably not to others.” Jonathan Wilcock, joint creative director at Link ICA, agrees: “I’ve seen ads on the London tube for a particular church which I found patronising. They gave me the impression that they thought they knew what I needed. It felt like they were the boss and I was a child.”
  • Find out what people are looking for, i.e., market research: “Churches need to be more approachable and contemporary. Crucially they need to spend money on proper market research to find out what people are really looking for, rather than presuming they understand the needs of people,” says Lupton.
  • Increase participation: “If you feel part of it, part of a family-that appeals much more. If a church can get in touch with Jesus’ teachings rather than just ritual, so people actually live it out-that would appeal to me. I think people are also looking for a clear message that they could apply to their daily lives,” says Wilcock.
  • Advertising isn’t a silver bullet, but it can help: “Adverts won’t grab someone and turn him or her around, but it could tip a person over the edge into going to church if they were close to that possibility already. Potentially the size of that market–people who are close to that tipping point–is huge,” says Wilcock
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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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21 Responses to “Secular Marketers Try to Promote Church Attendance”

  • Gene Mason
    January 19, 2006

    I have lots of red flags in my head that went up from this article and the poll. Call me crazy, but…
    (1) Do we not believe as the Church that scripture speaks? Since when is God’s Word not enough of a draw or too preachy? I question any methodolgy that devalues the Bible, pure and simple, as a core tool for evangelism.
    (2) What about the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those we want to reach? Do we not believe that God Himself is drawing people to Himself? It’s what He tells us in His Word that He is doing. There is great activity in the “spiritual realm” that is at work as we promote our churches and ministries. I’m not sure coming up with methods to make the church “more approachable” and asking God to bless it is nearly as effective as seeking God to begin with and letting our methods and ministries flow out of His work in and through our lives.
    Quote: “They gave me the impression that they thought they knew what I needed.”
    Well, perhaps there is better language to be used, but in fact, yes, God does know exactly what you need, and what you need does not vary according to your view of God or preferences. We need Christ, period (“I am the Truth and the Life”) and we all come to Him by the same path (“I am the way”). Our invitation is broad, the the Gospel is narrow. We do not “find God,” rather He has found us, and offers us the gift of salvation through His Son. I think believing in Christ and sharing our faith in Him is to a large degree presuming to know the deepest need of all people.
    God is loving and merciful, but God is also just and jealous. Take care in our work that we do not make God look more “attractive” in a worldly sense by not communicating key parts of His character. If people want truth and authenticity and a clear message, a lot of them are frankly not going to like what they hear. The Bible says that the gospel will appear as foolishness to those who do not believe.
    I certainly understand the excellent practice of using mainstream media methods to communicate the Truth (and there is only one Truth) of Jesus Christ. However, I find it interesting that many would suggest that it is beneficial to put the stewardship of our most central message–the Gospel of Jesus Christ–into the hands of those who do not know Him as Savior and Lord.
    Do we really embrace the idea that non-believers can help lead others to Christ when they have no connection with Him themselves? I have a clear separation in my mind between the ins and outs of plumbing and bulletin printing for the church from non-Christian suppliers, and involving non-believers in the core area of crafting marketing in line with your beliefs and mission. Forgive me, and I want to be open minded here, but I have a tough time swallowing that logic. What am I missing?

  • Michael
    January 19, 2006

    It’s interesting that I both strongly agree and disagree with some of that.
    I don’t understand why the church would put their communication strategy in the hands of someone that doesn’t first and foremost know God, understand how He works. I honestly don’t know that a ‘secular’ agency couldn’t get the job done. When I worked at an agency we certainly had accounts that I wasn’t intimately familiar with when we first went in. But why? Why hand it over when there are so many resources available?
    I may just not be reading your first part right Gene, but I don’t get it. I mean why have churches if not to draw people in? Is the bible enough? I guess I don’t think it is. God is truth. The bible is truth. But God tells us to love one another, not hand them a bible and God will take it from there. He is all powerful. He could with a word draw all to him. But He’s chosen not to. We must do the work as He tells us in His word.
    BUT…marketing alone doesn’t do it, it has to be followed through at church, in personal connections, etc….BUT…yes as a whole it is the Spirit that moves us closer to God. That’s why we as marketers shouldn’t look at our work as ‘good job to me’ but ‘glory to God in what You have done.’
    I’m rambling now….

  • Anthony
    January 20, 2006

    We all know that God can and does use imperfect vessels (us) to convey His message and His image – but that does not mean that we should not “clean up” and try to be the BEST that we can be so that the Holy Spirit has more to work with and through. THAT being said, I would rather listen to and work with/for a country bumpkin who is filled with the HOLY GHOST AND POWER than with a “city slicker” who is all “huff and puff”.
    Let’s be real — God is still God. It is not His fault that the world has turned a largely deaf ear to His message — He knew that when He choose us, we would be imperfect and people would judge Him by what they see in US. The first and BEST way to “market” the church is for each and every person who calls themselves a Christian (me especially) to be RADICALLY in LOVE with God and RADICALLY on FIRE for God. People are drawn to fire, enthusiasm, consistency — so let us let OUR light so shine that men may see our good works and GLORIFY our Father which is in heaven.
    Now — along with that – since we know that everything that is in the world was created by God for His Praise and Glory — why should we not use all the marketing savvy that we can — the web, text messages, billboards, etc — and we should be as creative and engaging and relevant as possible. Paul said that “I am become all things to all men that I might by some means win them to Jesus”. That is a good example to follow.

  • corey
    January 20, 2006

    Let’s not confuse the idea of someone doing marketing and someone communicating theologically sound doctrine from the pulpit. A marketing agency is not going to deliver the sermon/message on Sundays. A marketing agency is not going to do any streetcorner witnessing on your church’s behalf. A marketing agency is most likely going to build a campaign that involves colors, fonts, and visuals (I’m oversimplifying what I do, I know), not theological tenets or beilief bulletpoints.
    This same argument could be applied to hiring an architect to help you build a new sanctuary, which churches seem to have no problem with. Can God work in the old building? Of course. Are we less faithful to the work of the Spirit because we think we need a new sound system or new pews? I think not. Is it wrong to hire an architectural specialist to aid the church (even if he’s a non-believer) or would you rather go by the tried and true church method of progress and just have a volunteer within the church (someone who believes it’s his calling) draft up the plans and submit them to the rest of the congregation so they can build the new building (run plumbing, lay a foundation, wire the building, decorate it, order the sound system, hang the windows, etc.)?
    I’m being sarcastic now, but the point is that there is a place for an outside secular marketing firm to work for churches. Why would THIS be a hill to die on?
    Sadly, this also stinks a little of elitism. Could it not be that God is bending and shaping this unbelieving outsider into a believing, “on-fire” tool for His own glory. NOW, who’s the impediment to the gospel, you or the marketing guy?

  • kevin
    January 20, 2006

    If a non-Christian marketer is going to help your church do some marketing, I think it goes without saying that they’ll do as much research as possible so they understand what they’re promoting. And if they get it wrong, that’s when the church steps in and fires the marketer.
    The fact is this is what marketers do. They learn about something they don’t know a lot about and figure out how to promote it. One of the big advantages of a non-Christian marketer is that you’re getting someone with an outside opinion. If you’re trying to reach non-Christians, you need to know something about them. A good way to do that is to hire one of them.
    And Gene, never did we say that hiring a non-Christian marketer is discounting the work of God. That goes without saying in anything the church does. God is the one who makes things happen. But we’re not called to sit around and watch them to happen.

  • Michael
    January 20, 2006

    I guess my point is why hire someone who doesn’t know Christ when there are many great agencies that do know Christ and are passionate about Him.
    But you’re right on in that can’t only lookg at the christian’s viewpoint but also must see the non-believer’s stance. For me I’ll not forgot what I was like, thought, etc. before I came to Christ and draw from those experiences.

  • Gene Mason
    January 20, 2006

    Clarification: I do not separate “marketing” the faith from our doctrine or theology. In my opinion, we are communicating what we believe, which is our theology (n. the study of the nature of God) and doctrine (n. a set of beliefs held or taught). My brain will just not let me separate the “pulpit” from the “promoter.” The two delivery methods must be in union with one another.
    I believe that an understanding of Who God is and what a relationship with Him really means is essential in any individual who is going to attempt to share that very message and belief with someone else. I would consider this a foundational statement in terms of how God has called me to lead the ministry He has entrusted me with.
    I would certainly never discount the fact that God can work in all circumstances, and that a secular marketing firm could produce acceptable work for the faith. Nor even that decisions to use secular firms are not prayerful and even intentional on the part of some.
    For me, though, there is a line here that I would not cross. I am just trying to discover why that is not an issue for at least half of the folks who visit this site.
    Thanks to everyone for the excellent feedback. It is highly insightful, even if I take issue with some of it.

  • kevin
    January 20, 2006

    For me, Gene, it comes down to the very same reason I don’t care about what a plummer believes. I need somebody who can do the job. If I know the faith and the marketer knows the marketing, then we should be able to work together to get the job done. The marketer can draw on my knowledge of the faith where he or she is lacking, and I can draw on the skill of the marketer in an area where I’m lacking.

  • Brian Norris
    January 20, 2006

    The biggest problem the “church” faces is that more people are aware of the direct connection they can have with the Creator. The shift is in the distribution channels. More and more people prefer to go direct to the manufacturer, especially when you have hundreds of brands of Christianity, each proclaiming that their interpretation of scriptures is more right than the other. Did Jesus ever mandate the building of massive stadiums or elaborate cathedrals? Or does the bible tell us to pray in a closet, quietly?
    Perhaps marketers can help to develop an internal campaign that speaks to the needs of current members to focus on the church as one, to model behavior that demonstrates God’s love in action, Christ’s strong feeling on judging on others (lots of planks), the need to forgive and to be socially responsible (addressing local issues like poverty, malnourishment, and bigotry) and vocally advocating peace, even towards our purported enemies.
    Statistically the church is as dysfunctional as non-church goers. So, where’s the product? So where’s the compelling differentation?
    People want hope. What’s the church body doing to offer it? People want to escape materialism? What’s the church doing to NOT look like infomercials, QVC or Amazon?
    Since the skepticism is only going to increase, the most practical questions may become how do we get current members to stay (marketing value)? And how do we encourage members to contribute more financially (marketing)? And how do we get different brands to share mailing lists, share physical spaces, share volunteers, and other resources that drain budgets (marketing)?

  • Michael
    January 22, 2006

    If you were to hire someone to spread the word – a spokeperson – for your church, would you want someone who knows God and walks in faith with Him, or someone that doesn’t believe in God as our creator and savior?
    There’s your answer. This isn’t a plumber we are talking about…that is the problem, if we don’t view marketing as communication and take it more seriously than fixing a pipe, how can we expect anyone else to? That’s a big reason church marketing often times sucks.

  • corey
    January 22, 2006

    Michael, I think that’s where you and I fundamentally disagree. Someone in marketing specializes in the service of communication. MOST marketing agencies are paid to deliver a message that is separate from their own. If there are similarities, it should be serendipitous. Can you and I do ads for a motorcycle company if we’ve never been on one? Aren’t we professional/ talented enough to do so? A marketing agency is HIRED to deliver the message you give them. And don’t forget, to hire a marketing agency is a different process than hiring a spokesperson. It’s dangerous to confuse the two. I think they’re about as similar as hiring Kevin’s plumber to be your spokesperson. One is the VOICE of the soul of the church. More like an Executive Director. Yes. THAT guy needs to share your faith. But a marketing agency is going to build a campaign that targets the demographic and delivers the message- BOTH of which are supplied by the client. Couldn’t you market Pepsi if you prefer Coke?
    Additionally, the irony in all of this is that by some of the standards set here in these comments, churches are hiring ONLY christians to rip off or emulate the most famous (and most secular) advertising campaigns, like the “got milk?” or the iPod look. Funny. “Let’s walk like a duck and sound like a duck, but let’s hire penguins to teach us how to do so.”

  • corey
    January 22, 2006

    Another point to consider is your target audience. If you’re using only christians to market to non-christians, you’ve missed the opportunity to have a test group. Couldn’t these secular marketing agencies give you the benefit of a litmus test to see if you’re using Christianese language in an attemt to communicate with non-believers? If you’re only trying to grab believers from other churches or if your target is those who have taken a break from church attendence, then this isn’t relevant. But most church marketing is meant to bring in outsiders and create new Christians.
    In your case, you’ve just entered a foreign mission field with no translator.

  • Brian Norris
    January 22, 2006

    Is Gotham Inc., the agency behind the very successful “God is still speaking” campaign for United Church of Christ specifically niched exclusively to Christian organizations? Attendance numbers went up. It was (and is) the message that helped prompt the increase. The personal faith of the people in the agency had no bearing on that success. Christian or not, the message resonates with the core teachings of the gospel. It (the TV ads also exposed the ugly tapestry of hate that courses its way through some churches, putting the networks and church leaders of other denominations in an uncomfortable situation). How unconditional is Christ’s love? It’s a question that should be addressed if you expect to preserve membership or increase traditional membership.

  • Michael
    January 23, 2006

    I actually don’t disagree with you Corey…a good marketing firm is focused on communication and whether they believe in the product or not, they should be able to do a great job.
    I personally don’t do work I don’t believe in. Even when I was at a ‘non-christian’ agency, I’d hand those to others…I’m not going to work on a campaign for Pepsi when I would never drink it. Could I do it? Sure. Would I be better at Diet Coke because that’s what’s in my fridge…I think so.
    If a church is going to bring someone in why wouldn’t they bring in christians? Sure, there are times when it would be more appropriate to bring in a firm that can give the outside picture or shake some things up. But for me, I want someone who believes in my cause/my product/my service/my God to promote it.
    Churches also need to be cautious not to let any firm water the message down. In the “God is still speaking” for example you have to be careful that you don’t cross the line of sinner friendly to sin friendly.
    But of course I’m a designer who communicates for churches for a living…so I’m certainly biased. :)

  • Gene Mason
    January 23, 2006

    Curious, because this conversation raises interesting questions… Would any of you (us) who do marketing and are Christians have an issue taking on a project that promotes the Muslim or Hindu faith? (There, I did it–I drew the faith card, sorry.) I would not do it, because I could not in good conscience promote that in which I fundamentally do not believe. Would you agree?
    I mean, forget the “outreach opportunity” here, or that “God might speak to them through my marketing effort.” Aren’t some things just wrong?
    Of course, that would never happen, because a Muslim would never approach a Christian firm to promote their beliefs. Yet we would defend that very same inclination, allowing those who do not serve the same God to speak for Ours. Hmm. (Plumbers don’t speak for the church, by the way, so I do think there is a difference.)
    If I have to go to someone who does not believe as I do and use their skill to make my faith “presentable,” does not that fact say as much or more about my beliefs or confidence in them than the “outreach” to that marketing firm?
    Maybe I am just of a different mindset here but if we’re so lacking in our ability to relate to the lost world that we have to get lost people to help Christians “present” their own God in a compelling way by the world’s standards, maybe we’ve got bigger problems that bad marketing.
    I don’t want to be the Bible-toting, verse-quoting, fundamentalist stick in the mud here. But perhaps I am. :)

  • Michael
    January 23, 2006

    No I would not Gene. I wouldn’t work on communications for anything that I couldn’t show my savior.
    That goes across the board. Even in the small amount of businesses I take must make the mark. Of course I look at what I do as a calling, not simply a business, even though it is what puts food on the table.
    I think you have a great point that if we can’t relate to people who don’t know Christ to the point that we have to look outside, we have a problem. It’s a really easy path to go down to stay inside our bubble.

  • PARoss
    January 24, 2006

    Sure, marketing techniques can definitely improve church attendance. Churches have been doing it for decades, and have had great success. The churches are filled with people who don’t know why they are there. They just think it’s cool.
    A better question might be, “Can attending church make a person Christian?” If it can, then all we have to do is get ’em in the doors!
    But I don’t think so, myself. As someone once said, “Sleeping in a garage won’t turn a person into a car.”

  • Elizabeth
    February 7, 2006

    This seems like a no brainer to me. I am a committed Christian, passionately pursuing what it means to live like Christ. I am also a marketing professional, employed by a major national branding agency. While I don’t think we should employ “sex sells” tactics or every other trick in the arsenal of current advertising communications, its absolutely ridiculous to say that we’re not going to be smart about the way we talk about God, just b/c we don’t feel like the message necessitates it. We have important news to share. And while I think there’s something to be said for letting our lives speak, there are too many loud Christians making Christ look worse by the day with their judgment and condemning comments blasted over the airwaves or through bull horns in your local parking lot. If the message of the Gospel is going to be effectively communicated to everyone with ears to hear it, it has to stand out in the sea or marketing messages – it has to be heard through the clutter of our buzz-filled sound-byte culture. And if marketing professionals have found smart and compelling ways to do that, there’s no good reason not to employ them (assuming they’re ethical and compatible with our beliefs). After all, don’t you think the corner church with a sign that says “Hells flames await” is communicating a message? Or the reality shows that promise security and happiness through money won and consumer goods purchased – isn’t their message coming through loud and clear? The question is, are we going to let the message of love and reconciliation be heard? Or are we going to bury it for the few to enjoy? Just b/c we feel like we shouldn’t have to advertise…

  • Matt Larson
    June 15, 2006

    As a marketing professional, I’ll offer the “have your cake and eat it too” philosophy.
    Hire them for their input. There is no reason why churches have to reinvent the wheel in everything just because secular people did it first. That mentality just keeps us about 5-10 years behind in everything.
    We just need to keep accountability and balance their ideas against God’s word and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
    Should work out fine that way…

  • Ray R. Harris
    November 28, 2006

    Churches speak about engaging their culture but many are just preaching to or against it.
    Engaging culture means a two-way dialogue … and that includes the business of marketing.
    Marketers would be intrigued with a church that listens more and before it speaks. Better yet, so would the culture we address.
    Ray R. Harris – Lead Pastor, The Pointe Church … and CEO of an Online Marketing Firm, SitePropeller, Inc.

  • LaTanya
    December 17, 2006

    You never know how God will use people. That non-believer can learn a lot from real christians. I mean the church do have a say if the marketing is not what they bargain for. I see nothing wrong with using non-traditional outlet to market churches. Sometimes that is where the people who need to be steered in the right direction. Even if they don’t jump at the opportunity instantly, planting seeds can be the very small thing to bring non-believer to a church/congregation. I am not a marketer, but I market my church everday I can. The word is what will keep them there. The congregation’s job is to get them there. (I was just doing some research when I came across this lovely forum. Thank you for allowing me to state my opinion as well. (Greater Imani Family Worship Center, Kansas City, KS. “Moving by faith, not by sight!”

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