Church Advertising is a Waste of Time

April 3, 2006 by

Here’s a confession: I’m not a fan of big churches, and by “big churches” I mean weekly attendance over 20. I think that churches should meet in homes and that “ministry” means helping a guy replace his broken water heater. Also, I think church advertising is a waste of time.

I recognize this is narrow and even a little hypocritical since I currently do communications full-time for a church of 700. I’m always butting my head against my own lack of enthusiasm for big events and organized ministries. But every few weeks I hear about something that gets me really pumped (usually a bunch of guys fixing cars for widows and single moms) and reminds me of a concept I consider to be at the root of church marketing:

The most powerful apologetic for Christianity is a local church body living the way it should.

See, even churches who try to advertise to unbelievers instead of to church people usually still fail. I speak even for my own church. Our thinking generally seems to run like this: “We must advertise so that people will perceive us in a favorable light and thereby be drawn to our Sunday morning services, where they will meet God.”

This is nonsense.

We spend most of our time trying to “clever” people into the kingdom with advertising, when in reality they will more likely be drawn in a powerful way by the love we have for one another, the open confession of our sins and the compassion we show to those in need. This is what will awaken the desire in unchurched people to become part of the Christian community.

Advertising in itself doesn’t make this happen. It’s a means, not an end. Our goal is not “Let’s have really good marketing.” Our goal should be “Let’s show people God and what he is doing in our church.”

Advertising simply points to what is already happening. And if nothing’s happening, then you’re in trouble.

Post By:

Ryan Stauffer

Ryan Stauffer works in media and communications for Christ's Covenant Church in northern Indiana. He spends much of his time obsessing over institutional Christianity and its role in the postmodern world.
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41 Responses to “Church Advertising is a Waste of Time”

  • Dan Erickson
    April 3, 2006

    I work in marketing at a church of about 3000 and Ryan has it exactly right. It doesn’t matter how slick and beautiful and clever our advertising is. It’s all about the community. If the community is there and working and loving each other, you couldn’t pay people to stay away. We’re still learning that.

  • j truitt
    April 3, 2006

    so when you say “church marketing sucks,” you mean “church marketing sucks!”

  • Gene Mason
    April 3, 2006

    Ryan, you are dead on right. I’ve always believed our promotional efforts are more about making our own body aware of what God is doing in through the church and how they can be involved, and giving them tools to extend an invitation to friends and neighbors. If the church (=people) is not ready to get their fingernails dirty making an impact for Christ in others’ lives, then all this “marketing” is just painting over rotted wood. At its best, promotion in the church is simply a reflection of what God is doing. Don’t get discouraged–our mission as the body of Christ is TOTALLY WORTH IT. Keep it up!

  • Karen
    April 3, 2006

    This is absolutely correct. Advertising and marketing comes in many colors…not just on postcards, door hangers, etc. What normally brings people to church is by word of mouth from a trustworthy friend or family member that displays the love of Jesus Christ. Our identity is not in our logo, our pantone colors, format standard, but in the love that each of us displays using our God-given gifts as a team to share the love of Christ. Nothing is wrong with having a marketing campaign or an identity package that is of excellence, but it doesn’t grow the church. Truth and love does.

  • Nathan Colgate
    April 3, 2006

    Good word. In a church of several thousand, we try and drive that principle home in small groups. We have a dedicated pastor to encouraging small groups to fellowship together and reach out together.

  • nuff
    April 3, 2006

    While I think I understand what you are saying, I would challenge the (admittedly narrow) position that churches over 20 people seem to missing out on “true ministry”. I’m part of a church of 200 people that consistently ministers to our community (with little marketing to boot). Just this past week we moved two families into homes who otherwise would’ve had no help. Having a broad base of people only makes ministry activites like these more successful (provided these people “get it”).
    While I think house churches can be successful, I would be careful in thinking that they are the only (or even best) way to make an impact.
    Marketing should grow out of a church that seeks to establish community. Churches that try to establish community through marketing fall short.

  • Carlyle
    April 3, 2006

    Yes, there is definite, undeniable truth to this line of thinking, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (and I don’t think that’s actually what you’re advocating, Ryan).
    Like it or not (and I don’t), we live in an information and media-saturated culture. There is so much information available to us every day – too much, if you ask me – but turning our backs on it and ‘refusing to play’ doesn’t actually address the root problem.
    At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, we also live in a broken, self-serving culture. It’s part of the very sin nature that plagues us so – Christian or not. What addresses THAT problem – and I think this is likely a core challenge for every church that wishes to be an authentic representative for Christ – is getting people to truly realize and embrace their their own brokenness, God’s redeeming Grace in the face of that brokenness, and the realization that we all need help.
    As Christians God has chosen us to be the vehicle through which that help comes (or at least one of the vehicles), and that requires our ongoing, active participation in the lives of those around us – in many different ways, large and small.
    That can’t be accomplished by an ad or a brochure, I don’t care how clever it is, but I believe it can facilitate the church and it’s ministries as they seek that goal.
    Beyond that, when it does happen, and people ‘get it’, I certainly think there’s merit in letting that be known.
    I am in total agreement with the statement ‘advertising is a means, not an end.’ I pray constantly for God’s guidance in my own full-time communications position at my church…

  • Paul Nielsen
    April 3, 2006

    It’s already been said, but:
    right on. I think I feel every sentiment you wrote out (hows that for a mushily written sentence), but also think that you’re right on.

  • RC of strangeculture
    April 3, 2006

    This past sunday we talked about the woman at the well (John 4) and one of the things that struck me was…
    (1) Jesus didn’t need to ask her for water but because of interdependent relationship she felt comfortable w/ Jesus because she was able to give to him, making her more willing to accept from him…
    (2) Thinking about how she ran into the village, even as a less-desireable they listened to her when she said she met the Messiah “a man who told me everything I ever did.” and it wasn’t long before they were listening to Jesus…
    The most powerful marketing device for churches is allowing people to experience God in worship and community…
    If God is at work they will speak of God and market God and your church will grow.
    Just my thoughts and what I’m learning at church.
    –RC of

  • Ryan Stauffer
    April 3, 2006

    I appreciate everyone’s response. And for the record, I agree with nuff that tiny house churches are not the only way to impact; they merely represent my personal leaning.
    This is a great topic for ongoing dialogue, both at this site and in our own local church bodies.

  • Dan
    April 3, 2006

    I agree on the advertising thing (of course, we still gotta do it, I guess). The real “sellling” point is Christ in us.
    John 13:34-35 to me covers it. It covers how we conduct ourselves within the body and includes a church growth strategy.

  • Anne Jackson
    April 3, 2006

    I realize there is importance in naming the local church – a local body of believers whether 20 in size or 8000, but from a more general standpoint the only way you can market the church (ie – the only one Church) is by actions, by the way we represent ourselves and love and live like Christ would. It’s that simple.
    That they will know us by His love…

  • Paul Armstrong
    April 3, 2006

    I don’t think the term “marketing” is the correct term, as Jesus (and ultimately) salvation isn’t a product or commodity, but an ideal and faith. What we’re attempting through “marketing” is merely the means that soceity today knows of something. 100 years ago everyone lived in the same house, same neighborhood, same town their entire life. You went to the same chuch your entire life. Today, we move here and there and are fickle. If we don’t “understand” it in 5 seconds, then we move on. As much as that sucks, that’s the way it is.
    Christ called us to be “salt and light”, and to me that means being in the community. The means in which the church is effective in that community is multi-faceted. But the first effort for any church is making people know you’re there – if no one knows you’re there, in the community, then no one will come and your ability to be “salt and light” is inconsequential and non-existent.
    How does someone know a church is “there”? Word of mouth? Yes. Ads? Yes. Does just being there means people know? No. “Build it and he will come” does not work.
    Church needs to understand that the “means” of delivering the message of Christ to today’s world is different – and it needs to catch up or it becomes ineffective. The means to deliver varies – and depends on the community and the means to effectively minister to them.
    Wow, that was ramble. Sorry about that.

  • Tuck Ross
    April 3, 2006

    Interesting discussion. It seems like the term ‘marketing’ is still raising hairs in the context of this discussion. Look at the consumer marketplace today. As much as we don’t want to ‘play the game,’ there are tools of the game that are neutral. It is how you use the tools.
    Currently, the consumer marketplace is saturated with media and companies are starting to realize that the best way to reach people is through relationships (look at the blossoming of blogs, social networking, mass customization). Look at cult brands like Apple and Harley with a fanatical following. Just like the comment from Dan about not being able to ‘pay people to stay away’ – these brands have evangelists and a strong following that will do anything because they believe in what the brand stands for.
    The church marketing, as said previously, is about reaching people through actions (and truth – a little 1 John reference). It is termed in the marketplace as relationship marketing. As long as the church is enabling outreach and evangelism, let the people do the work! They are more believable than advertising and other tactical marketing we do. Consumers today (church and otherwise) take action and personal relationship over advertising, but tactical methods such as advertising are merely for awareness. Belief in the ‘brand’ happens when people see something to believe in – faith in action. MySpace has a value proposition that the community believes in. We have a value proposition beyond belief – we aren’t going to talk people into it. The power of actions through relationships and the consistency of the value proposition is what will draw them.

  • greg
    April 3, 2006

    at risk of running down a rabbit trail, is salvation ultimately what we’re marketing? this probably wouldn’t have struck me if it hadn’t been phrased, “Jesus (and ultimately) salvation.” i suppose the real question is WHAT are we marketing then?

  • Paul Armstrong
    April 4, 2006

    The marketing is to reach people (in the community), get them to know 1) about the church (if they don’t have one because they’re new to an area, or aren’t going to one), 2) get to the church and learn about Christ and the life of the Church body. Christ’s message is salvation. I wouldn’t say we’re marketing salvation only, but at least the end goal of reaching anyone is for salvation, is it not? Why tell people about Christ if you don’t (eventually) tell them about salvation?

  • alex prose
    April 4, 2006

    You’re artical is just silly. It might have been practical if we were living in the middle ages – but come on. This is the age of advertising. We rely on what we hear and see to influence us and make decisions for us. If we don’t hear about churches – how the heck are we gonna know where to go?
    Without proper marketing, we are simply allowing people to decide about Christ by looking at our lives. This is really a big mistake. I know I don’t want people making that kind of decision by looking at me or my friends. That’s why I have a lot of bumper stickers talking about God on my car – and I always leave a track instead of a tip when I eat out.
    Face it – with out marketing, we are forced to rely on conviction and God’s working on a person’s heart.
    And who wants that? Certainly not me…or my ideal home church of 20….

    • A Pastor's Wife
      October 8, 2012

      I think it is wonderful that you leave tracks when you go out to eat, but you are reaching out to a service worker who relies on tips as their reward and livelihood…therefore might I suggest that to not offend someone who hasn’t reached the point of appreciating Christ yet, that you not turn them off from Christ (through the action) of not leaving a tip. My best friend and I also leave tracks, but with a tip. It’s a good idea that you are practicing, but a track should not be an excuse for not leaving a tip (or you will have muttering amongst against Christ..and your efforts will be futile—not fruitful)…be cognizant of this and leave both next time (a fair tip and a track) and by the way: the service industry does not like Christians generally because….they are cheap! Again, your effort is noble coming from the silver and gold I have not with Peter and James with the beggar… unless you plan to perform a miracle, don’t leave just a track. My father always said uncivilized people do not compensate for services rendered…he is not a Christian and he understood this concept very well.

  • carl
    April 4, 2006

    Love it or hate it, a good add in the yellow pages and a slick website helps gain visitors. That is a fact that really cannot be argues. Everything else is absolutely correct.

  • Jeremy Scheller
    April 4, 2006

    In three years, our church has gone from a conversation about the pastor’s vision, to a weekly attendance of 800 including children.
    As the Communications person, people always ask me what type of advertising we’re doing.
    I always say that we don’t, we won’t, and we wouldn’t have time to do it even if we thought it might help get more people in the door.
    The buzz created around our church is that people spread the word because we at the very least look like were trying to live out the vision we’ve been given. Sure there’s compromises, but people keep talking and doing the advertising for us because of a certain level of authenticity in the way we live out the mission.
    We make mistakes, but we have a policy of openness and honesty when we do. That’s a bit of fresh air for people who are used to Christians talk the talk and don’t walk the walk.
    It draws people in.

  • Ryan Hartsock
    April 4, 2006

    OK…this is an argument that has no end. Certainly different aspects of the original entry are interesting yet filled with idealism.
    Barna’s “Revolution” only echoed what many had been saying…house churches are the wave of the future. But then again we have the Hartford Institute of Religion saying so-called mega-churches have never been so bountiful. So who’s right? Neither? Both?
    Regardless, the idea that one can say with certainty that this is the future is foolhearty as is the argument that marketing for a church is wrong. Just as in education…people respond to differently to different stimuli.
    Certainly word-of-mouth is our strongest asset…can’t be argued with. But isn’t that the adage of every business. To rely strictly on that…I think Jeremy and Ryan are giving people too much credit because at some point some people stumble and fail to live up to what people believe church should be.
    Marketing (if we use that term can be debated in another post) is a reality of the world we live and can’t be demonized simply because it’s the currency of information. Let’s not try to make this debate a black and white issue…

  • Jim McGee
    April 4, 2006

    Love Greg’s question about what we’re marketing. Let’s go there. Is it really salvation?
    I love Andy Crouch’s words in his essay For People Like Me:

    For surely one of the scandalous things about the gospel…is that it does not fit the marketer’s (or the Pharisee’s) formula “for people like me.” It is in fact for people not like me—unless they are “a wretch like me,” and wretchedness was never the basis of a successful marketing campaign.

    Marketing salvation is tough. Do we accept the challenge? Do we market something else (marketing a Kingdom to a culture steeped in throwing off authority isn’t any easier)? Do we market nothing at all?
    Let’s push ourselves and our churches to find the places where the truth and life we know as insiders can intersect with the perspective and needs of outsiders.
    Yes, people will see Jesus in us and our church communities, and be attracted to what they see, but let’s go beyond just offering people the opportunity to become like us. The value of the conversation on this site is in striving to understand the dynamic. Yes, it’s foolishness to those who are perishing, but we’re talking about those who will come with us. What does it look like from their perspective?
    I think I’d start with hope, and the conviction that a hopeful journey is best undertaken with friends. That’s a point of connection, and not inconsistent with good theology (see John Piper’s Future Hope.
    What else?

  • Karen
    April 4, 2006

    If you are just leaving a track and not tipping the waiter/waitress (who is trying to make a living on the tips – they only make $2 something per hour), what kind of message are you leaving with the waiter? Why not leave a fantastic tip and a trac with information about your church/ministry? Then, you are not only “advertising” your church/ministry, but you are are also using relationship marketing to leave a good feeling with the waiter. Just a thought.

  • Darrell
    April 4, 2006

    I once had an employee who hated the style of everything we did ~ it wasn’t “him”. One day I told him, “How long should I pay someone who hates what we do.” It’s a good question.

  • Sam
    April 4, 2006

    I agree in spirit…most church advertising is absolute bullshit. Sorry for the common speak (not swearing….the word “promise is swearing”), but it really is the only way to put it. The only thing we should advertise is this: “Come learn from Jesus how to say, “God bless you.” From your heart to those who call you an asshole.” Or “Come learn with us from Jesus how to hug a homeless person.” Or “Come learn with us from Jesus how to NOT get anything done in a day.”

  • alex prose
    April 4, 2006

    If I leave a super good tip – what kind of message am I sending? “Silver and Gold have I none – but such as I have give I thee…” I refuse to contribute to this materialistic society by continuing such a pagan tradition as carnal as “tipping.” Didn’t Jesus tell the rich young ruler to give away all that he has to the poor and follow him? What good is my $2 tip doing that waiter’s soul in the light of eternity?
    Better they take a quiet moment and read that track and ponder their eternal soul – I say.

  • melissa
    April 6, 2006

    Do you not believe that we are all made in Christ’s image? If so, then who are you to judge the waiter. He/she is no different than you or I. Having served in the service industry for several years before joining a terrific staff at my church, I have been in the place of the waiter. Being “stiffed” is only showing that person that you could care less about who they are. This person could be someone that is struggling to take care of their family.How are you ever going to get him/her to darken the door of a church if all you leave is the “Church’s Name” on a track. This not only leaves a bad taste towards the church, but it will probably turn him/her off to ever thinking about visiting the local church. Great Marketing Skill….You made the comment–(We rely on what we hear and see to influence us and make decisions for us. If we don’t hear about churches – how the heck are we gonna know where to go?)If you don’t show Christ’s love through your actions, how will he/she ever come to know the grace of God?

  • Jim McGee
    April 6, 2006

    Here’s a tip: be on the lookout for sarcasm.
    (Meanwhile, no indignant posts about bumper stickers?)

  • suzieq
    April 7, 2006

    Paul Anderson,
    I am not commenting about you’re opinion of Ryan’s article. I am commenting about your statement that you always leave a track instead of a tip. Shame on you. You’re actions are one of the reasons Christians get a bad name. That single mom working so hard to provide for her children -sure, I bet she is excited that the track is going to feed, clothe and provide shelter. Next time you are in a restaurant – try this. When the waitress/waiter comes, tell them that in a few moments you will be praying for your meal and ask them if there is anything you could pray about for them. And be genuine. Then, when your meal is over, leave a generous tip. You will have MUCH more an effect as a Christian than leaving a track. Tracks are the chicken christian’s way out from doing true personal, servant evangelism.

  • suzieq
    April 7, 2006

    Whoops – I meant Paul Armstrong.

  • kate greenaway
    May 7, 2006

    guys, this whole thing has been something which has been playing on my twenty year old mind for a small time. i am facinated by marketing strategies and things, but draw a line at having to market salvation, or Jesus.
    remember, marketing has to do with target markets, etc, but we want to reach everyone… i have decided that marketing events and services is great, but draw the line at several things.
    this week the communications pastor was directing my team (stage design) that she wanted branding on the stage to destinguish footage which will be taken from a concert we are running for a Rewandan cause. i almost screemed.
    my opinion, and i know it is only an opinion- is that marketing should stop where the word begins. don’t bring marketing to the pulpit. that stinks so bad of hipocresy i can’t breath. however, it’s not my call. God can work with everything, Him, i can trust.
    have yourselves a great day.

  • Dan Brinson
    June 4, 2006

    Here’s a radical thought to throw in the mix: if God is the author of our little or big ‘church’ communities, small groups, home-grown church groups, and the like, then let HIM do the advertising. No one can come to the Father unless the Spirit draw him, and so perhaps trying to coerce people to come to our events is the actual waste – however we may go about it. If God wants to prosper in numbers whatever we are doing, perhaps we should step aside and let Him be the Draw.

  • Matt Larson
    June 15, 2006

    True, if we try to “Madison Avenue” people in the doors, they will go right back out, but that isn’t an indictment of marketing as a whole, just of those who don’t understand what marketing is.
    “nuff” was right on in his comment.
    Successful marketing is about creating a dialogue to find out how we may best serve the market. Slick ads are not dialogue. Successful marketing morphs into sales and the two become entwined. Yes, we do have a market, customers, and sales – it’s just the world, people, and souls to heaven.
    The weekend message and main church activities are a delivery system to get a message consistent with God’s word thrown into the “hopper” of small groups to then be distributed and worked out.
    Nearly every one of those “big church gripe pieces” really comes down to them having ineffective small groups, not an ineffective “big church” or “hollow marketing”.
    Last comment on Dan’s comment (“Let HIM do the marketing”)
    Lazy thinking! Of course God will get them to the right place, but did the servant with the talent bury it because he knew that God would end up blessing his master if he really deserved it? Nope!
    Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time (market and serve)? Quit both! Marketing is dialogue with the customer to find out what they need. Sometimes you need some evil ads to engage the customer. Without engaging the customer, we’re just serving ourselves.

  • shawn
    October 20, 2006

    I think you are merely stating the obvious. If the church is not being the church then marketing is a waste of money.
    But….. My wife came to church because she saw a mailer about Patience. She gave her life to the Lord that very weekend.
    I think the tendancy is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    As for your view of the church….. Well it seems you are more of a reactionist that a realist. If I were to base my experience with home church’s the same way you do with larger churches I would have to say that “House churches in America are for burned out Christians who just want to hide from the world. I have not seen much evangelistic fruit from them. They are usually people who are pissed off at the corperate church.”
    Now I know that is not entirely true and I say that to make a point. When you make assumptions based soley on experience you can tend to be jaded.

  • Drew
    December 23, 2006

    All I can say is: The guy who wrote this 1. Doesnt know how to evangelize. and 2. Never has.
    No matter how much you love people in your own church more people will come to your church from buying a few commercials. Doesnt mean to stop loving or stop helping others… But Marketing brings people to all kind of bad thigns, why not draw people to christ instead… And dont dare me it doesnt work, because you obviously havent done it/done it right…

  • Chuck Donald
    December 25, 2006

    I suggest that Ryan go back and read the book of Acts. The early church met in small groups and large groups –where Luke explicitedly reveals attendence numbers. Also, The Apostle Paul –fanatical about traininng –exhorted Timothy to equip from what Timothy learned in the presence of “many witnesses”.
    Why do Christian leaders tend to absolutize their experience for everyone else? The fact is –God can use churches of all sizes -and He does.

  • Anthony Ingram
    January 2, 2007

    I do volunteer marketing for my church and I do not beleive that it is wrong for a church to engage in advertising or marketing.
    The Word says that “there is nothing unclean of itself….”.(Romans 14:4) In this case, advertising or marketing is not wrong – IF – our hearts and methods are not wrong.
    I well imagine that “word of mouth” advertising helped to let people know about Jesus and His ministry….people telling other people about His teachings and about the signs and miracles.
    What we must watch against is 1)relying on marketing/advertising to the exclusion of the presence and power of the Holy Ghost, 2)using less than scrupulous messages or methods, 3)not being excellent in what we do, and 4)being mere copycats of what the world does.

  • Anthony Ingram
    January 2, 2007

    Correction: the Scripture reference should be Romans 14:14

  • Dai Thao
    February 21, 2007

    i hope you folks understand marketing is about bringing the audience to your doorstep, it doesn’t mean you will sell Jesus. Marketing does not sell.. what sell is the experience your church promised in your advertising message. if you promise community, worhship, blah, blah, and if you can’t deliver my friend, your marketing campaign is wasted, in fact it’ll have the reverse effect. True and effective marketing starts from within your church, the people, the sermon, the program, the diversity, the community, the MEANINGFUL EXPERIENCES with GOD becomes so powerful and wonderful that it ripples to the outside the church – marketing’s job is to share the experience with the outside world incase the outside world might be longing for the same powerful and wonderful experience.
    if you think marketing will bring people to God, keep praying my friend. but if your church has a wonderful & successful relationship/story with God and you want to share it with others and you want to shout it from the mountain top – marketing help you shout louder.

  • Pudge
    February 22, 2007

    People want to be amazed and in awe of things. The church has to do this to attract them to it.
    Does this mean only marketing? No.
    Does this mean we throw church marketing out the window? No.
    The best marketing tool is the body reaching the body. However, to say we want churches of 20 and no more seems insecure and shallow. Not to mention “a personal agenda” and not God’s. Remember, the church is HIS bride, not ours. We don’t get to chose.
    I do believe that the larger a church gets we must find ways to make it smaller. This is why we must implement some sort of “GROUP” structure. We have to build the community and the community will reach the community.
    However, I also believe that we must create BUZZ about our church and our vision! And believe that in the BUZZ we must make sure that our approach is excellent in graphics, video, communication, etc.
    If “the world” is our competitor…why would we let the enemy do a better job at reaching people than the churches?
    Also, I believe this formula works:
    Create buzz that casts vision.
    Motivate the church to reach/invite community to church.
    People know about church due to buzz.
    People give it a shot.
    People are awed and amazed when they come (by our love, creativity, relevance and excellence)
    People come back.
    Side Note: To everyone that thinks this means “we don’t preach the word of God”…STOP! All the while I mean preaching the WORD OF GOD. Both can be done excellently & Biblically.

  • church advertising
    November 15, 2009

    Well I do agree on some points. I think we have the thought of advertising all wrong. It is not about being sly… it is about bringing people to God. The thing is we should do that in every way we can.

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