Churches are a bit pushy when it comes to the ways they market themselves. This pushiness often makes people uncomfortable and is intimidating for newcomers. If this kind of marketing was applied to businesses in the secular world, it would certainly fail. Check out the video below to see one church’s take on what Starbucks would be like if it was marketed like a church:
While perhaps a bit outdated, this video epitomizes the how uncomfortable church marketing can be. While “church marketing” has become its own separate entity from the marketing of the secular world, its important to note that it still stems from the marketing within the secular world. In her book Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, Mara Einstein discusses how marketing became so central in church culture today:
In aggressively entering the market for leisure time activities (because that is really the category we’re talking about), religious organizations find themselves having to take on more and more of the marketing elements used by the culture at large2.
Why are churches marketing themselves?
Churches find themselves in competition with “better options” in the marketplace. Therefore, they try to fill their churches with new things that attract people to them. Mara Einstein argues that “to compete against the ever-growing array of more fun, more entertaining, and less guilt-ridden discretionary leisure time activities, religious institutions have to match their message to the marketplace6.” As culture has continued to evolve, “Marketing [has become] a necessary evil3.” As such, “Marketing [is now] the means to attract new parishioners as well as retain current ones4.”
Marketing has certainly become a successful aspect of church culture, but what actually happens when churches buy into the consumeristic mentality?
In our consumer culture we have been trained through years of advertising and marketing messages to think in terms of planned obsolescence. This has led to the prevailing belief that for every possession there is something to replace it that is “new and improved”. There’s always a better iPod, a better microwave, a better husband. Why shouldn’t there be a better church, or one that better suits our needs at a particular point in life? Thus it is not just that we can choose our belief system, but that we have a propensity to leave it the minute it doesn’t suit our needs5.”
This could be why people find it so easy to get up and leave churches for “better” ones, and why people think that church shopping has become a superficial act. Over the years, marketing in churches has become so significant that “the line between the [religion and marketing] has become increasingly blurred. Evangelicals are marketing by using demographics and psychographics; marketers have learned the value of creating…users so enthusiastic for a product that they become product evangelicals. Religions and brands create myths for understanding the world…now, religions are faith brands7.” Branding has become a norm for churches in the competitive religious market. Notice, I do not mean all churches. Certainly many do not use the typical marketing strategies. But faith branding is a widely known and practiced method churches use to reach people in the secular world. But what exactly are these faith brands? And what exactly are their function within the church marketplace?
Faith Brands and their Function in the Church Marketplace
According to Einstein, “faith brands act like other consumer products. They are repackaged and retooled to appeal to consumer tastes. This means changing the product as well as the packaging 8.” Churches market themselves towards what consumers are looking for. In many cases, this means contemporary music, lights, fog, and stadium seating. Churches abandon what they’ve known for decades for the new and “culturally-relevant” fads. As a result, they “take on the ultimate goal of all marketers—growth. Growth is measured in terms of attendance as well as in terms of the number of products sold9.” As mentioned on the previous page, large churches making use of their resources and participating in the church marketplace are focused on growing their congregations. In fact, for these churches, failing to grow means stagnation. So, in their efforts to remain relevant and promote growth, large churches are likely to participate in the church marketplace.
The Results of a Growing Church Marketplace
In any kind of marketing, “People are lured to [a]… product or service, with the promise of something in return… Ultimately the marketer must deliver on its promise, which is something that most religion providers have been unable to do10.” Churches are promising things that they are failing to deliver. Ultimately, they are using their marketing to get people in seats, guaranteeing things and experiences that they can’t really provide. Instead of “deliver[ing] [the things they promise]… they give people a feel-good moment while rhapsodizing about it. In doing this, religious marketers have made their products ones that consumers want, not necessarily what they need11.” Ultimately, this works to get people through the doors of the church, but it runs into issues when trying to get them to stay. “It is easy to lure people in with music and happy faces. The problem is, life isn’t like that all the time. Eventually people are going to feel disappointed and betrayed12.” People want church life to be as happy and inspiring as the advertising makes them feel. They don’t want to go through the challenge that comes with achieving the things they desire. Unfortunately, “all products—religious and otherwise—are presented to us as quick and easy fixes. The [unfortunate] reality is that most things…are not quickly and easily achieved. Moreover, religion isn’t supposed to be comfortable, and it is through discomfort that we find new parts of ourselves13.”
Church marketing has certainly boosted church attendance and filled more seats. To some degree, if done correctly, it does promote healthy growth, but its important to remember the dangers that lie just below the surface. By buying into a consumeristic society, churches risk becoming consumeristic themselves. The reality is that such marketing brings in new members, helps more people hear Gods word and his good news. But if marketing becomes the forefront of the church, the church becomes centered around consumer-based ideals. “There’s a reason why Jesus flipped over the tables when the Pharisees tried to turn his church into a marketplace—he was furious at the commercialism and the idolatry of the market14.” We as a christian society need to check ourselves. Its so easy to become caught up in the ideals and mentality of the secular world. Yes, bits and pieces of the secular world can belong within the church if they are used for the glory of God. But when those secular pieces become more important than the mission and role of the church, the church no longer functions in the way that God calls it to be.
So how can church shoppers pick apart the marketing messages churches are throwing at them?
- Ask questions! Don’t let the marketing speak for itself, talk to real people about their experiences in the church, get to know the pastors and the staff behind the marketing and don’t be afraid to talk about things you’ve encountered in their marketing.
- Ask yourself: How realistic are the messages they’re sending? If you find that people buy into big ideas that the church couldn’t possibly deliver, many will be in for a rude awakening once they become apart of the church.
- Don’t buy into a product, buy into relational experiences. Churches aren’t products, they’re communities of Christ-followers. The products are simply means of getting people into the door. Its okay to be excited about these products, but know that when you’re joining a church, you’re investing in the community, not the product you have set your heart on.
When done intentionally, church marketing is a useful tool. But as a church shopper, its important to be aware of the implicit messages behind that marketing.
1. BeyondRelevance. What If Starbucks Marketed Like a Church? A Parable. YouTube, YouTube, 30 Oct. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7_dZTrjw9I.
2. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 36.
3. 2. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 207.
4. & 5. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 35.
6. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 65.
7. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 92.
8. & 9. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 93.
10., 11., & 12. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 208.
13. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 210.
14. Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Routledge, 2008. pg. 209.