Thursday, May 26, 2016

Marketing Jesus

This article about effectively marketing the church was forwarded to me by a reader along with a two-word review: “fantastically misguided”.

“Misguided” is a good way to put it. I think Cameron and Tara from Christ & Pop Culture are well-intentioned. They contend that Jesus must be the focus of all attempts to promote a church and that “church marketing strategies applied without guidance from Scripture undermine the kingdom of God by causing Christians to alter their identities”.

So with Christ as the focus and scripture for guidance, what could go wrong? Lots, it seems.

So much, in fact, that fisking the article in its entirety might require a twelve-part series and would cover plenty of ground already covered here in other posts about the church. Instead, I’d like to single out a couple of things Cameron and Tara take for granted about the local church and analyze them in a little more detail to see if we’re really using the scripture for guidance on the subject of “marketing”.

What Are Churches Selling Anyway?

One unfortunate feature of the article is that it’s all about how to sell something that the writers never bother to clearly define. In fact, they deliberately avoid doing so:
“Church marketing is mostly about promoting and creating awareness. We won’t go into the details here of what churches ‘sell.’ ”
Too bad. A study of how the Lord and his apostles “marketed” the gospel might have been instructive.

To Cameron and Tara, the importance of finding, maintaining and marketing your peculiar “church identity” is paramount. This is more than a little wrongheaded. In fact, the versions of Jesus Christ being presented and the panoply of emphases already being promoted by churches and denominations today are so vastly different from one other as to be unrecognizable in many cases as the same “product” at all.

Consider, for instance, the lavishly packaged ‘prosperity gospel’ promoted in some megachurches, and set it alongside the minimalism and austerity of Sunday morning in a Gospel Hall. The same God is (allegedly) worshiped in each case, but the features of his character to which his disciples call attention and the sort of lifestyle one may expect from following him are near-polar opposites.

“Identity” and the Gospel

I would argue that to promote denominational distinctives, scriptural hobby horses or lifestyle tics as our church “identity” is to miss the point of preaching the gospel entirely. I would also argue that churches and denominations are not in the least danger of losing sight of such “identities” (in the rather secular sense the word is being used here), though it might be better in some cases if they did. Rather, they are in imminent danger of losing sight of their core message, which ought to be exactly the same message regardless of the individual Christian or church group that happens to be sharing it.

Good marketers know it is impossible to consider methods of promotion independently of the product being promoted. Thus the inability of a marketer to distinguish product from packaging may be considered a big problem.

Here’s another:

Who’s the Market?

Cameron and Tara assume the church’s “target market” is the community that lives around the church building:
“It’s essential for the church to respond to its congregation’s needs. Indeed, the gospel is for everyone, but your church’s niche is what sets it apart in the community. For example, if your church is in a low-income neighborhood, your main niche should be related to the needs of the people in that community.”
Now of course if most of your congregation live within walking distance of your church building, there may be some basis to assume the surrounding neighbourhood is your primary target for evangelism.

But is this actually the case? It’s a question that is never asked.

The Commuting Church

The idea that the people who worship in any particular building are primarily local residents is a holdover from Little House on the Prairie, where the whole town walked or buggied down the road to the combination church/schoolhouse. It just ain’t so anymore in the Western world. Transit infrastructure, the ubiquity of vehicle ownership among the middle class and the increasing tendency of young couples to abandon their inner-city apartments and condos for more affordable housing in the ’burbs the moment their first child is on the way all make the “community church” a much less likely proposition.

In my entire life I’ve never been to a church where the majority of Christians who attended lived close enough to walk to services when they felt like it. Not a single one.

But that’s me. I’ve had little luck in finding accurate statistics on just how many Christians commute to church these days, but a quick Google search shows many of us are at least asking the question. David Trauffer says the average is a 15 minute drive. As an inner-city churchgoer, I’d estimate sixty or seventy percent of our congregation drive or transit at least that far, and many drive half an hour or more.

Does it make any sense for Christians to consider as their primary target for the gospel an area of town in which they do not make their home and in which they only appear once or twice a week for the purpose of worship?

Not really.

Corporate Evangelism and Church Growth

Further, there’s a second largely false assumption embedded in the first one, and that is that a church’s corporate witness is the primary means by which the church grows. Again, I find this to be untrue, and I’m far from a lone voice on that front.

Cameron and Tara talk about ‘Beach Baptism Blasts’ and other somewhat-flaky public events as standard church practice these days. In Canada, some churches do Saturday afternoon community barbecues in the parking lot, themed dinners with a well-known Christian speaker, concerts and so on. Then there’s the traditional gospel meetings and “Family Bible Hours” many churches promote.

Special events generally cost money, and some quite a bit of it. It’s reasonable to inquire whether they actually work.

So what’s the return on such efforts? It’s hard to say. They are certainly visible, they create awareness and they mobilize Christians and make possible contacts that might not happen any other way. I’d be reluctant to say they should be entirely abandoned. But such corporate events are not patterned on the book of Acts nor do we find directions in the epistles to engage in the them. In practice, rarely do they produce any significant, measurable long-term effect.

Who’s Actually Getting Saved?

What does? The Adventists tell us the two most significant factors that influence people to join their church are (1) being brought up in an Adventist home, and (2) a friend or relative (at 59% and 58% respectively, far eclipsing public evangelism meetings at 36%).

They’re not alone. A Pentecostal church in Indiana cites a survey of 8,000 American churchgoers that produced the following results when they were asked, “How did you come into the church?”
“6-8% — said the minister was the reason. His personality or reputation brought them to that church.
4-6% — were walk-ins. One day they decided they needed to go to church, so they did.
2-4% — said they were attracted by the church’s outstanding program and facilities.
1-2% — said it was because someone visited them or knocked on their door.
0.1% — said that it was through a radio or T.V. program that they had been reached.

However, 70-90% replied that their conversion was the result of the witness from a family member, friend, or work associate.
That last bit is critical. If these numbers have any basis in reality (and in the churches I know well, this is very much the case), church growth is primarily a result of sharing a message over time through established relationships: family relationships, relationships with neighbours, friends and people at work.

The New Testament Pattern

This is a pattern we find in the New Testament, isn’t it? The sharing of good news is primarily an individual rather than a corporate responsibility. It is the word of the individual that is emphasized and that was ultimately most effective.

When Jesus healed someone, it was the neighbours who noticed first. The Samaritan woman’s testimony about Jesus to those in her hometown was effective because the townspeople knew who she was. In Acts, people got saved and their first testimony was to their immediate households. Paul’s pattern when he traveled was to go first to the synagogues, where the Judaism in which he had been raised gave him an automatic “in” and a hearing for the gospel. He traded on the existing relationship of a common religious background.

For the most part, the spread of the gospel in scripture hinged on one person with something important to share going first to his family, friends and neighbours, and then often out into more hostile territory with the very same truth. The church grew because its members took the gospel seriously as individuals, and made it a real and living part of their daily experience.

If we expect our churches to grow without doing the same sorts of things, I think we will find ourselves greatly disappointed in the results. Holding public events and promoting them on social media is certainly one possible way to share the gospel, but it is far from the most effective one.

Hitting the Target

Back to the “target market” for a moment. There’s nothing wrong with caring for the community in which one has built a church building. It would be odd and inappropriate if Christians didn’t. But if I live 15 minutes or more from where I go to church as most Christians seem to these days, my primary “mission field” or “target market” is likely to be my workplace (which may well be a fifteen minute drive in the opposite direction), or across my own backyard fence, or the neighbourhood Bible study a Baptist friend has down the street from me, or the people I meet in the businesses I frequent every day. The guy who gives me my haircut. The waitress who brings my lunch to the table twice a week. My son’s English teacher. My mom’s care provider.

These are the people who know me. These are the people for whom I have opportunity to do good things on a daily basis. These are the people who see me in good situations and bad ones and get to decide whether what I believe has any substance to it or not.

Nine out of ten times, if your church is growing it is because Christians are cashing in on THESE sorts of opportunities. It is these sorts of people who are getting saved, being discipled, and telling their friends and neighbours about Christ. By the grace of God there may be others reached through their testimonies, people with whom you or I would never have opportunity to establish relationships.

“Marketing Jesus” (if we must call it that) is not about whether our church uses social media effectively, or about making sure the big corporate events we plan accurately reflect our denominational peculiarities, or about the elders having a correct read on the demographics of the neighbourhood where our church is built. It’s about you and me day by day taking the opportunities that exist right in front of our faces.

Wherever we live.

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