Forget Marketing, Christian Living Sucks

March 11, 2008 by

A recent report from Christian pollsters the Barna Group, summed up in the book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman, has some bad news for churches.

Today’s young people, ages 16-29, have a more critical view of Christians than previous generations. Specifically, they think Christians are judgmental, anti-homosexual, hypocritical, too political and sheltered. And that’s not just a minority viewpoint–it’s an overwhelming majority who say Christians are …

  • Anti-homosexual: 91%
  • Judgmental: 87%
  • Hypocritical: 85%
  • Old-fashioned: 78%
  • Too involved in politics: 75%

And those negative perceptions aren’t simply perceptions:

“Going into this three-year project, I assumed that people’s perceptions were generally soft, based on misinformation, and would gradually morph into more traditional views. But then, as we probed why young people had come to such conclusions, I was surprised how much their perceptions were rooted in specific stories and personal interactions with Christians and in churches.” -David Kinnaman

So what does this mean for churches?

It means our problem goes much deeper than Comic Sans. To use marketing lingo, Christians and the churches they attend have an image problem. But this goes way beyond marketing. This goes to the root of the Christian faith. Are we actually living out what we say? Today’s young people (young Christians included) say no.

Forget polishing up that web site, planning your next series or training your greeters. Because if we can’t effectively live the gospel, how can we hope to communicate it?

Certainly we’re all broken people and we’ll never perfectly live out the gospel. We’ve said all along that our communication should reflect our brokenness. But I’m not sure we understood how broken the church is. All our well-laid marketing plans, all our stellar designs, all our clever copy are just noise if we don’t have the love we claim to have.

It’s time for the church to be the church. And I’m not talking about better sermons or finely tuned worship sets or snazzy videos. I’m talking regular pew-warmers like you and me actually living our faith and over-turning these negative realities. That won’t happen through brilliant projects and new ideas. It will happen one tiny act at a time. It will happen through daily, mundane, boring acts of love.

Post By:

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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30 Responses to “Forget Marketing, Christian Living Sucks”

  • Chris Robinson
    March 11, 2008

    Amen. All the marketing in the world won’t help if we don’t have the right gospel. If its authentic then we should just trying to get people to buy it.
    This is good stuff.

  • Tim Cote
    March 11, 2008

    Who gets talked about in sports? The steroid user, the illict filmer of practices, the criminal. Who gets talked about in business? The theif, the sexual harasser, the overpaid executive. Who get talked about in the church? The fallen. People in today’s culture rarely remeber or speak of the honest and true to there word, they remember the fallen because it is a better story, more interesting. As Christians we are told to be humble, which means the good works of the church are often never heard about. Only our fallings get publicized.

  • lynse leanne
    March 11, 2008

    I am in the process of reading unChristian right now and it is rocking me a bit.
    I am 22 and it is very true. I am around people who all the day have the exact opinions that the book says we have.
    i agree with Tim, it is true in the sense that only the faults get the news…but how do we gear what we are doing to a generation that is so skeptical of us and who we are and what we do…and dont forget that the book also states that the same age group of people in the church also have the same skepticism those outside of the church.

  • Jermayn Parker
    March 11, 2008

    Keep agree with comments, get the gospel correct and then revival and peoples opinion will be changed. Problem is not them, its us!

  • Don Record
    March 12, 2008

    Maybe the answer is (from a pastors viewpoint) to realize that instead of preaching the “message” of the church…our job is to inspire the messengers. Instead of teaching biblical “information” we should focus on biblical “transformation”. Marketing is not the problem…our focus is.

  • Greg Simmons
    March 12, 2008

    Wow. What a great article on a problem that I fear too many churches want to face. Sadly, we as the church have generally forgotten our primary mission which is to “GO” and reach those for Christ. We spend a lot of time in our protected environments at church ready to minister to anyone that “COMES” to us. Then the church wonders why people view it as a segregated, elitist group of hypocrites.
    From a marketing standpoint, I worry that churches are becoming over-focused on the production of a service instead of remaining focused on the message or those they are trying to reach. Is the message we are supposed to deliver so weak that we believe we need to support it with media fests, etc? I say no. People are seeking simple truth to fill the empty hole inside of them. And sadly, the church, IMHO, is beginning to resemble the overly-complex yet shallow society that people are sick of.

  • Lex
    March 12, 2008

    I just finished unChristian and it definitely changed me.
    A month ago I would have agreed with the comments about how outsiders only see the bad Christians, but those stories never came up in the book. People interviewed talked about personal encounters they’ve had with “Christians” or local churches that turned them away from Christianity. It’s really sad.
    And I used to think the solution was to just go out there and preach on street corners. But apparently that annoys non-Christians as much as it annoys me, and more often than not it just leaves them further from Christ.
    Relationships are key (friendly relationships, not “you-protested-my-friend’s-funeral” relationships). Highly recommend the book.

  • geoffreybrown
    March 12, 2008

    One solution is to judge less and help more. Do what Jesus said: “Love your neighbor as your self” and never cast the first stone.
    If we show to the world a church that vilifies sinners and indulges in pious self-congratulation, why should we expect that the world will not see us as we are?
    It’s never easy to accept criticism from “kids” — but they have a way of seeing the world as it is, not as we remember it or as we wish it would be. Someone said recently that young people are not the future of the church; they are the present. Amen.

  • Michael McGough
    March 12, 2008

    I read “unChristian” between reading “The Revolution” by Barna and “Pagan Christianity?” by Viola/Barna. After 11 years in music ministry, I’m having a pretty big crisis of conscience trying to figure out what it is that we as the church are supposed to be doing to reach my generation and the countless others that are not Christ-followers. Definitely highly recommend it, but it may be painful to read.

  • Julian Richter
    March 12, 2008

    Chris Robinson says As Christians we are told to be humble, which means the good works of the church are often never heard about. Only our failings get publicized.
    I don’t think it’s biblical to hide our good works. Paul wrote quite a bit about the good works being done by individuals and congregations in the early church, commending the doers. I take that as a model for the articles I write in our church newsletter and the news releases I send to local newspapers. When our church held a community-wide clean-up/fix-up day called ‘GraceWorks’ we had it on TV and in the newspapers.
    If the good news isn’t getting out, we have only ourselves to blame.

  • Jay
    March 12, 2008

    i know that i’ve spent too much of my life worrying about making conversions instead of making disciples, hopefully that is beginning to change

  • brad
    March 12, 2008

    Thanks for this, Kevin. This resonates deeply. While the church looks increasingly hip, slick and savvy, there is a true crisis under the surface. May your words be a catalyst for the change you’re inspired to see.

  • jon
    March 12, 2008

    soooo, this means that luke 9:23 shouldn’t be translated…”if anyone wants to be my follower they just need to look good and talk good, but can go on living life however you want.”???
    interesting concept…
    good post!

  • mike hosey
    March 12, 2008

    Lets also keep in mind that these “young” people may not yet have the wisdom to interpret correctly what they are seeing. Even though their perceptions may be “rooted in specific stories and personal interactions,” the experiences may still be just perceptions and thus not wholly accurate — or even remotely accurate. As a statistical group, “young” people lack refined discernment. And lost people are stumbling around in the dark (cf the epistle of John) and don’t recognize the light.
    I can remember when I was in my twenties (a mere 10 years ago) and how backwards and mean I thought some people were. Now that I’ve lived a little, and learned a whole lot more about God’s word, I have a different (and hopefully) more accurate perception of those people.
    Let’s take a look at some of those perceptions.
    Anti-homosexual: I know very few people (and I’m a conservative Christian) who are actually anti-homosexual. And most people are able to recognize those folks as crazy. Even though its cliched, the truth is that most christians are anti-homosexual intimate behavior. A lot of animus from the christian community is aimed at a minority of militant homosexual groups who happen to be vocal and influential. There is a fear, real or not, that these groups want to shape the culture in such a way that critisizing homosexuality or calling it sin is abolished, and that promotes homosexual behavior as acceptable. “Young” people, or unsaved people, may not be able to recognize these distinctions.
    Judgmental: Here is an easy case of lack of discernment. Judging others is necessary. How would anyone ever pick a spouse if they didn’t judge? How would anyone discern bad behavior? How would anyone ever tell a friend that they were doing wrong? Notice that Jesus didn’t say not to judge in Matt 7. He said to first remove the plank, then go remove the speck. You can’t remove that speck without first judging that its there, and that its bad and needs to be removed. Christians should — they must — judge evil and point it out, then show how God has made regeneration, or restoration, or forgiveness, or repentance possible. I’m not sure that “young” people are always able to see this. Lost people can’t see it because they have a different measuring stick for right and wrong, and so all judgements are mean spirited. What people really mean by judgemental is the next category – hypocrisy. Oh and for a good example of necessary judgementalism see John Piper’s sermon on the health and wealth gospel:
    Hypocritical: Now this perception must certainly be skewed. Individual christians, being human, are no more hypocritical than anyone else. That is to say that they often hold themselves to lower standards than they hold others. Or, they masquarade as holier than thou. This tendency exists in all groups, all religions, all organizations. From a pulpit perspective, this requires preaching that may sound judgemental, that requires people to live what they believe, and holds people to a higher standard. My guess is that this isn’t going to be a popular style of preaching in today’s churches where numbers, seeker sensitive philosophies, cultural relevance, and, alas, secular marketing reign as most sacred.
    Old-fashioned: How come nobody ever complains that the wheel, or the ice cream cone, or fire being old fashioned? Besides, it seems most of the “attractive” churches could hardly qualify as old fashioned — and that includes those have remained theologically conservative while still being cutting edge. Again, this is a discernment that might be lost on the “young” and will certainly be lost on the lost.
    Too involved in politics: Now here is the one perception that may be quite accurate. While christians IMHO should be involved in politics, they should watch how they do it. They should vote for individuals that share their value system. Too often, however, we as Christians vote for and push legislation that seems to attempt to force our values on others in a free society at a national or non community level. Instead, we should offer the gospel, and let that do the transforming. While freedom does allow for true evil, it also allows for true goodness. Regulated goodness is almost always feigned.
    So there.

  • geoffreybrown
    March 12, 2008

    Mike —
    You have some very good points, but I thought I would take issue with others.
    First, I think the generation in question has been educated to understand that “anecdotes are not data” — and while I agree that young people lack the discernment that age brings (at least at age 66 I hope it does), they have at least been exposed to analysis rather than depending upon gut reactions.
    Your anti-homosexual point may be a sound one, but I am hard pressed to name any of these influential gay groups that Christians do not like. Also, I suspect that young people today (and here I partially refute my earlier point) all know peers — often friends — who are “out of the closet” and few find them even mildly alarming. Almost any traditional view the church takes of homosexuality sounds anti-homosexual to young people who know and accept homosexual peers as friends.
    Re judgemental: I think that if we emphasized the Christian virtues of forgiveness and mercy instead of being judgemental we would do far better with this demographic. Anyway, the poll used the word “judgemental” — which is definitely a pejorative term. Although it has its root in “judge” and “judgement”, it is not the same word.
    Regarding hypocrisy, I think you are spot on. What I think the young people are reacting to are the occasional very public examples of those in the church who do not practice the morality they preach and get publically caught.
    Regarding “old-fashioned”, I’ve detected in working with Episcopalian kids that they have a great preference for King James language over more contemporary translations, in serving as acolytes, and in doing other very traditional church things, like performing in Christmas Pageants and making palm crosses. Maybe it’s the subset of kids I see, but I think I see some sense of appreciation of the old verging on antique. I wonder if “old-fashioned” in the poll didn’t get inflated due to a halo effect (so-called).
    Again, you are spot on with your point about politics.
    In all, a thought-provoking post! Thank you.

  • Joe
    March 12, 2008

    Would it be too much to ask if the CMS bloggers would backlink to books available from first so that a Christian based business is supported? If it’s not available, then link to Amazon.
    Great article. I’ve bookmarked it to purchase/read.

  • Carl Bliss
    March 12, 2008

    That is a good reminder Kevin.
    I am just finishing up Godin’s Meatball Sundae book and it reminds me that ‘Marketing’ is not JUST the website, postcards and yellowpage ad.
    Our marketing needs to take place at the core of who we are. (and I am sorry… I do also have a hard time using the term ‘marketing’ where Evangelism and Discipleship is concerned… but the principle works here).
    I am willing to bet that more of us were drawn to the cross by the life or lives of His disiples, than a clever campaign.

  • Carl Bliss
    March 12, 2008

    That is a good reminder Kevin.
    I am just finishing up Godin’s Meatball Sundae book and it reminds me that ‘Marketing’ is not JUST the website, postcards and yellowpage ad.
    Our marketing needs to take place at the core of who we are. (and I am sorry… I do also have a hard time using the term ‘marketing’ where Evangelism and Discipleship is concerned… but the principle works here).
    I am willing to bet that more of us were drawn to the cross by the life or lives of His disiples, than a clever campaign.

  • mike hosey
    March 12, 2008

    Hey Geoffreybrown-
    thanks for the response. Let me say on the issue of homosexuality that there are individuals and groups that do promote radical ideas. The unfortunate business is that the zealous among us try to link these individuals or groups (who are probably a minority) to the overall gay population. The complicated part is that even though these individuals or groups represent a minority view, they are influential. And like all radicals, they have a tendency to mold the opinions of the larger group. One that comes to mind is Paula Ettelbrick, the former director of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, she has been the family policy director at the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and I believe that she currently is the Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She is a popular lecturer, and holds considerable sway in the legal fields of family law. Here’s an interesting quote from her that is sometimes unfairly applied to all of the homosexual population but that really probably only applies to the more radical elements:
    Being queer is more than setting up house, sleeping with a person of the same gender, and seeking state approval for doing so. It is an identity. A culture with many variations. It is a way of dealing with the world by diminishing the constraints of gender roles which have for so long kept women and gay people oppressed and invisible. Being queer means pushing the parameters of sex, sexuality, and family, and in the process transforming the very fabric of society.
    There are a host of others like Paula whose intent it is to change the fabric of society. This is something that naturally scares Christians who have had all the cultural influence since the inception of the country until the 1960s.
    At any rate, my original point is that the ire of the Christian community is really aimed at this kind of activism and not at homosexuals individually. Again, most christians — and I know a lot — have a problem with the behavior, and not the person.
    Regarding judgementalism. I understand that the word is a perjorative. But my point is that “young” christians sometimes don’t have the wisdom necessary to differentiate between judgement and judgementalism. This is especially true for those who are unsaved, and don’t have the Holy Spirit as a guide for and measurement for discernment.
    For instance:
    Homosexuality is sinful. Leave the gay guy alone. You’re just being judgemental!
    Hey Billy, your drunkeness is a danger to your family, and to your health. Leave billy alone, you’re just being judgemental.
    And yes, you are right, mercy and forgiveness should be emphasized, but they simply cannot exist apart from judgement.
    Again, thanks for the great conversation.

  • Nathan Timmons
    March 13, 2008

    Julian, I think your comments are spot-on. One of our congregation members is a newspaper editor and constantly gets onto us for not doing a better job of telling the media about what we’re up.
    It seems that we tend to do a poor job of telling the media and the community about things they might really be interested in. Of course “newsworthy” means something different everywhere, but helping those less fortunate in our community tends to be an idea that interests persons from all different faiths and backgrounds – much more so than if we were to advertise a Sunday School or worship schedule.
    Irrelevancy in church sometimes has nothing to do with style and everything to do with the fact that it confines itself behind its own walls.
    I wonder if there is a fear of trumpeting the good we are doing in our communities (service projects, benevolency, etc) for fear that we would be calling too much attention to ourselves and confusing our motives? While I recognize the danger, it seems that this might do a better job of advertising the concepts that were more-central to Christ’s message and closer to what we would really like Christianity to be known for.

  • Brice B
    March 13, 2008

    So if we as believers were doing things the “right” way or the “Jesus” way, the world and young people would love and accept us and think we were all great?
    Seems like it didn’t work out that way for Christ.
    (Sarcasm intended…)
    The world kills and hates true Christianity, not embraces it. When is this site ever going to learn that.

  • Ben Birdsong
    March 13, 2008

    unChristian is an excellent book that is definitely something that every Christian should read. The difference between words and actions which is being perceived by young people both inside and outside the church is something that must be addressed. We need to come back to a place as Christians where we are willing to be authentic by admitting that we are broken people who are seeking to follow Jesus. This means that we are not perfect, but through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, we are being transformed into people who look more and more like Jesus each day!

  • Tim Cote
    March 13, 2008

    Reminds me of a great bumper sticker I was shown by the young woman who brought me to the Lord in 1981 that went something like this: Christians are not better, just forgiven. Being forgiven does give Christians a certain confidence about eternity that can easily be interpreted as arrogance.

  • Joshua Cody
    March 15, 2008

    @Joe — Currently, we link to Amazon as we receive part of the proceeds for each purchase originating from here. It’s not much, but it helps pay the fees we incur from providing free services.

  • Marek
    March 23, 2008

    I’m not a Christian, in fact, I’m an atheist.
    Since I’m not a Christian, I’ll give you my viewpoint, such as it is. In interactions with Christians, the worst thing that can happen is me being preached at. I think this is the #1 biggest reason for the bad public perception of Christianity.
    Since we are talking in marketing terms, consider this: Being preached at in public, at your door, etc, is like the most obnoxious of marketers. Nobody likes to simply to TOLD that they should buy something. Worse, imagine if a marketer told you you would be damned eternally if you didn’t buy their product. That is essentially how being preached at feels to me.
    Now, I respect the right of Christians to spread the gospel 100%, but I think it’s being done in the wrong way. I think looking at corporate sponsorship. If a corporation sponsors an event, people appreciate that they did it.
    So imagine a religious group sponsoring something like a gathering of serious scientists. To everyone who knows about the sponsorship, it says “here we are. Maybe we don’t agree with you on everything, but we respect you, and are willing to support discussions on these issues.”
    I think only a few things like that would, for instance, change the impression that religious groups only sponsor “bad” science.
    I hope what I’ve said has made sense to you, and have a happy Easter!

  • Thomas C
    April 7, 2008

    Thanks for the insightful information as a future minister and past marketing, corporate type; I believe there is a message here not for Christianity as a whole; but for the local congregation. I have not quite figured out how a local congregation can change the preception of the “whole.” (probably one of the reasons for this post)
    Mother Theresa said, “Let them know us by what we do.” Can a loving caring congregation be enough to attract young people into the church?

  • Sara
    April 7, 2008

    Marek: I am in 100% agreement with you. I work at an executive recruitment firm and I see the exact techniques used in the corporate sales and marketing world used in the church. Small c.
    “Believe in Jesus. Our Jesus.” The Catholic Jesus. Lutheran Jesus. Evangelical Jesus. Buddy-buddy, saved your life-died for you-loves you always. Please pass go, please collect $200, go straight to heaven, bypass hell. And so what do you do while you’re here?
    We missed something, kiddies. Christ didn’t talk about heaven as we know it — the castle in the clouds. He said “Follow me. Go and make disciples. The Kingdom of Heaven is NOW. Love your neighbor. Serve G-d with everything you have. Stop committing idolatry by serving yourself and making yourself god.” He didn’t talk about sitting around in a pretty building, singing songs, twiddling your thumbs until you kick the bucket and trying to get other lemmings to do the same thing.
    No wonder everyone thinks all religions are the same thing. If we think all that there is is life after death, we completely missed the Gospel. What about life before death?

  • JohnR
    May 27, 2008

    Do you think this is being overdone (and tasteless) or a legitmate way to attract potential followers? According to a report by IBISWord, while evangelical churches have long been on the public relations path, “traditional” faiths will need to do the same to stop their members defecting to a younger, more modern congregation, or leaving the church altogether.
    While this uses Australia as in example, it is relevant to the US.Pentecostal churches have enjoyed phenomenal growth of late in Australia on the back of their massive popularity in the US, and increasingly prominent members making their attendance know.
    But better branding and a snappier image comes at a price. “Church groups need more members to raise contributions, but hiring professionals to promote them doesn’t come cheap,” warned Mr Baker, “so financial management needs to be tight. Still, we believe the larger Christian churches particularly will employ more marketing and PR staff in years to come in a bid to recruit a younger audience.”
    Australia usually follows the US and traditional churches there have begun to promote more heavily in recent times– there have even been billboards erected calling the priesthood “awesome”.
    Here is the full article – I can’t write a full link on here so I copied some parts of the article. Please read it through – it is quite interesting
    Here is the full article

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