Does Sharing the Gospel Justify Any Church Marketing Means Necessary?

Does Sharing the Gospel Justify Any Church Marketing Means Necessary?

July 14, 2014 by

Editor’s Note: We’ve been talking church marketing for 10 years. Back in 2004, whether or not churches should even be doing marketing was the question. But today we’re no longer questioning marketing. In some cases, that leads to some questionable practices. Is any kind of marketing acceptable for a church? Is manipulation OK as long as people come to Jesus? Church marketing pro Len Wilson dives deep on this issue and explores how your church can decide if your marketing is slimy or legit.

The Merchant and the Pastor: Driscoll, Furtick and the Question of Whether the Ends Justify the Means

Recent controversy over Mark Driscoll’s publishing promotions and Steven Furtick’s baptism BOGOs (Buy One Get Ones) have brought frenemies “church” and “marketing” to the same party again. Is what Driscoll did to promote his book or what Furtick did to enhance his altar call legitimate? Or is it slimy and manipulative?

Both issues beg the question if good ends justify any means; in other words, are any marketing means legitimate? Should the church be into marketing?

The issue has been debated vigorously for years here on Church Marketing Sucks—what is marketing, is marketing a dirty word and is marketing in the Bible, just to name a few. I even address the issue on my site in my Jesus Marketer series. Two sequential comments from the what is marketing post summarize the fight succinctly. In the no corner, from commenter Phillip Ross:

“Where does Christ tell us to lift ourselves up, which is what marketing is? No, we are not to lift ourselves up (not even our various churches, denominations, associations, etc.). Rather, we are to lift up Jesus Christ and/or Scripture.”

And in the yes corner, from commenter James Dickerson:

“Church-centered marketing and Christ-centered marketing are the same. Last time I checked, the church was still the body of Christ. Christ (the head) is exalted when we (his body) lovingly function in his name… Ultimately, every prospective lost soul will encounter the church first. The church will then introduce them to Christ.”

Is church marketing fundamentally…

  1. a mandate of the church,
  2. a neutral tool for the church, or
  3. anathema to the nature of the church?

Understanding the relationship of church and marketing is a necessary prerequisite to more advanced questions such as the ethics of Driscoll and Furtick. It requires a peek into the minds of the merchant and the pastor.

Marketing = Activity That Creates Markets

When I was a kid, I used to troll flea markets for baseball card deals. I’d flip through hundreds of individually wrapped photos of Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt looking for a rookie card that everyone else had somehow miraculously missed. I was too busy chomping at my card collecting bit to realize I was not only a fool with my money, but I was sustaining a local, low-dollar version of a market, a millennia-old social environment where businesses and people gather to buy and sell stuff.

This is the first definition of the word “market,” used as a noun: the physical place where merchants exchange goods and services.

Markets aren’t just direct money exchanges; they can also serve as idea factories. The apostle Paul operated in an idea market called the Areopagus, aka Mars’ Hill:

“They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’” -Acts 17:19

Whether baseball cards or Epicurean philosophies, a market exists to sell and acquire things. It’s the place where stuff happens.

A market exists to sell and acquire things. It’s the place where stuff happens.

In modern settings, markets are measured in percentages, and merchants measure success by increasing their ownership of the market. The biggest business in my region is Coca-Cola. Their goal is to acquire an ever-higher percentage of the cola market, so they ceaselessly promote and sell themselves.

This is the second, verb definition of market, also known as “marketing”: the actions by which a business acquires market share. Marketing is action that creates markets.

Can a Church Create a Market?

I worked at and was part of a church that created a market, so to speak. The church, named Ginghamsburg in Ohio, grew from 1,000 to 3,000 in worship from 1995 to 1997. Some of this growth is universally attributed to what we might now call “church marketing.” Most of this growth wasn’t transfer from other churches. It was due to new believers.

At the time, I wasn’t asking a lot of deep questions about what we were doing. I was just trying to keep up from Sunday to Sunday. All of us were—perhaps just like Driscoll and Furtick are now. But what happened, unintentionally, was that while we focused on the worship experience and bringing in new attendees, we lacked adequate discipleship systems to deal with their spiritual development once we had “acquired” them. So we ended up with a big front door and an equally big back door.

The challenge and holy grail of church work is to be amazing in all three areas—evangelism, discipleship & mission.

Sometime after I left, Ginghamsburg plateaued in numerical growth. The congregation shifted its emphasis to discipleship, then to mission and for a period grew again. I think what happened was they did a better job of shutting the back door.

The challenge and holy grail of church work is to be amazing in all three areas—evangelism, discipleship and mission. (This is the answer to the “attractional vs. missional” debate, which I think is a false dichotomy. The best church is both. But it’s hard to achieve.)

At Ginghamsburg, we created a new market of believers, however we might define that. Certainly more than the church who does nothing with market appeal and rides a slow decline, as most churches do. I am proud of our work and the growth we experienced.

But on the other hand, there are limitations to adopting a purely market-driven approach to the work of the church. American church history is full of people who focused more on adding people to the congregation rather than building the faith of the congregation. Many of these churches grew, for a time. But their success as disciple makers is less clear.

That begs a third definition of marketing, which can help us better understand how to think about the Driscoll and Furtick stories and the ongoing question of church marketing.

Creating Markets Requires Understanding Your Audience

There’s a third definition of market that’s not market place or market action, but the people to whom a merchant hopes to sell. We also use the word “market” to refer to audience.

Assuming People Are Listening

In the old days, most merchants didn’t pay much attention to the people they sold stuff to. They focused mainly on making their wares look good and assumed that if they built it, people would buy their products. They accepted whatever customers came their way.

There is even a theory by a guy named Jakobson that describes this straight-line approach:

Sender —> Message —> Receiver

Most of us have at some time or another made this assumption when we market a product or an idea. We’re the sender. We have a message such as a product or an idea, and we want to send it out. Most of us don’t question how communication works; our focus is on clicking send, and we just assume there’s a clear path to the destination.

But if we’re honest, we know it doesn’t always work like that.

If you want to tell someone something, make sure that they are first in a position to hear it.

Understand the Audience

I experience this phenomenon every night when I go home. I have something important to share, but with four hungry children, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. I walk in the door and start describing something of importance to my family but watch in frustration as my words fall on the floor. For a while I developed an annoying technique where I would repeat the first part of my lead sentence three of four times to get everyone’s attention. My wife rightfully hated this. She’d say, “I’m listening, just tell me already. I have to do this other thing too!”

Then I read a Facebook status that helped tremendously. It said, “If you want to tell someone something, make sure that they are first in a position to hear it.” Of course! What I needed to do was to understand her world. So I’d help her out. Ask questions. When I reconnect, she is in a better position to hear the thing I need to say. And this reconnection needs to be done daily.

Just because we send a message doesn’t mean other people get it. In order to create markets, you have to understand the world of the people you’re trying to reach. What modern merchants have learned is that marketing is more than just the place to go and the action of selling. Marketing is fundamentally about understanding the audience. Marketing is context.

The gospels, of course, are contextual. Matthew wrote to the Jews and the physician Luke to Greco-Roman Gentiles. Paul acknowledges how vital context is in his letter to the church in Corinth:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” -1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV

Most of us understand that messages don’t live in a vacuum—they require context to be fully understood. So, at least according to one of my definitions of marketing, the gospel writers were engaging in marketing when they wrote to a specific audience.

Marketing is fundamentally about understanding the audience. Marketing is context.

But here lies the rub. Not all audience interaction is the same. Because audience knowledge may be easily corrupted, the way we communicate makes a big difference.

Self-Oriented vs. Kingdom-Oriented

What to do with context is where the goals of merchants and pastors diverge.

Self-Oriented Marketing

A merchant engages with the audience, and savvy ones want to understand them. Not for the sake of helping, but for the sake of exploiting them. OK, so maybe exploiting is a harsh word. But a merchant’s motive does include separating customers from their money. To a merchant, marketing is a form of selling. A merchant’s relationship with an audience is self-oriented.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of corporate marketing that benefit people. The water billboard is a great model of this. But marketing that benefits the social good is secondary in most companies’ eyes. Most executives in boardrooms can only feel good about such efforts if they don’t contradict the bottom line. Corporate marketing may respect people, but in the end a merchant’s goal is to build markets for the sake of profit.

Kingdom-Oriented Marketing

Like merchants, savvy pastors have come to realize that understanding audience context is crucial. They work to create a good environment where they can share the good news of Jesus. But rather than being self-oriented, a church’s intentions are usually kingdom-oriented. Their goal is to help the audience they engage with. To a pastor, marketing is a form of strategic caring.

When it’s done right, a pastor’s relationship with an audience is not exploitive. It’s sacrificial and loving. We in the church engage with people for the purpose of helping them, not helping ourselves (though we end up helping ourselves along the way). The call to follow Jesus is a call not to self-actualization but a call to self-sacrifice.

“Jesus came to serve, not be served.” -Matthew 20: 28

The missionary movement is a wonderful illustration of understanding an audience for the sake of serving an audience. While some early missionary efforts ignored audience and focused solely on conversion, later efforts began to understand the holistic nature of integrating social and personal piety. The people involved worked to build schools and hospitals, even as they proclaimed Jesus.

Strategic Caring

Understanding the audience for the sake of loving them, not exploiting them, is what I call Jesus Marketing, or strategic caring.

So how does all this apply to Driscoll and Furtick and other tactics that may seem questionable? Do the ends justify the means?

To a pastor, marketing is a form of strategic caring.

Here are two tests to ask yourself as you’re considering a marketing move:

1. Is what I am doing motivated by the heart of a merchant or the heart of a pastor?

Having worked in publishing, I have sympathy for Driscoll. The entire publishing industry is trying to game the system. What may appear to be neutral best-seller listings are bought and sold on a regular basis.

While working at a publishing house, I heard a tale that Zondervan sent free copies of Purpose Driven Church to thousands of pastors, which in turn seeded the market for the success of Purpose Driven Life. Whether true or not, the business model is. People spend money to make money. It’s how the market operates.

Of course, it’s well known that Rick Warren, the author of both books, gives away almost all of his book royalties. By giving away his royalties, Warren’s motives are pretty irrefutable: his is the heart of a pastor, not a merchant. I am not saying you can’t make a wage or living in ministry. But when evaluating the goals of any marketing venture, a good first accountability check is to follow the money. Its path makes motivations more clear.

2. What am I doing with the markets I create?

Is what I am doing pandering to an audience for the sake of market-building, or am I challenging them with the full measure of the gospel? Caring for people is more than just taking care of their needs. It’s also calling them to the rigorous life of discipleship. This is the prophetic part of gospel work. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Our goal is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Does my knowledge of audience and use of marketing techniques just serve to achieve growth metrics, or does it serve as a launch point for a strategic and sacrificial expression of love? Am I exploiting the audience with easy answers to life, or am I giving the audience the full weight of a counter-cultural Christ who calls us to lose life to gain life?

As Charles Spurgeon said, “Our goal is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Is My Marketing Manipulation?

The next time you’re wondering if your church’s marketing is self-oriented or kingdom-oriented, ask these two questions:

  1. Is what you’re doing motivated by the heart of a merchant or a pastor?
  2. What are you doing with the markets you create?

When asking whether your marketing efforts are manipulative or legitimate, these two questions may help. We’re communicating the greatest story ever told, and it’s crucial we serve that story with consistent integrity and grace.

Photo by marcp_dmoz.
Post By:

Len Wilson


Len Wilson loves to both tell stories of changed lives and create church strategies for better storytelling. His day job is creative director at Peachtree Church in Atlanta and he blogs at lenwilson.us, where he will soon launch his new book on creativity, Think Like a Five Year Old.
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3 Responses to “Does Sharing the Gospel Justify Any Church Marketing Means Necessary?”

  • Possibly one of the best articles I’ve ever read addressing the issues that emerge when the words “church marketing” are simply uttered, never mind acted upon. Thoughtful, well-written, comprehensive. Thanks for this, Len. I’m planning to share this widely and often.


  • Melinda
    July 16, 2014

    Thanks for this article, Len. You cleared the air over the endless debate over ‘is there a need to market the Gospel.’ Marketing has been viewed to a certain extent, an unnecessary evil as Christ is sufficient and doesn’t need to be marketed. I was sent this article on Facebook http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/07/10/have-churches-become-too-shallow and read the comments, but none hit the nail on its head like your well-explained article. Tq.


  • Julian Richter
    July 16, 2014

    The words “marketing” and “brand” are land mines in many churches. Your article will be very helpful in defusing them.



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