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Church Marketing – Pleasing the masses (part 2)

Filed under: God's movement,leadership — 11:03 am

Last week I mentioned that Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Daniel Pink all believe(d) that “asking your customers what they want and then giving it to them” is a flawed, short-sighted business strategy.  Unfortunately, many churches still seem to see themselves in the “pleasing our customers” business.  And every time I hear about church surveys or marketing campaigns, something in me gets really sad.  A couple thoughts…

First of all, how dare we reduce the beautiful, epic story of God’s redemption of all things into a product to be marketed and sold?  And how dare we reduce the Church – the bride that Christ gave His very life for – into a venue to sell these spiritual goods and services?  Maybe it’s time for a new cleansing of the temple.

Secondly, wouldn’t this business strategy create consumers of the Church instead of servants of God….reinforcing the dangerous idea that church is something we go to instead of something we are?  And it could confuse us into believing that the church exists to serve our needs, when the scriptures clearly teach that “we exist AS the church to serve the needs of the world“.  This is more than mere semantics.

These thoughts are not yet well-formed, so I beg for the grace to wrestle.  And more than grace, please help!  What do you think?  Am I over-reacting?  Over-simplifying?  What ideas, books, and people have helped you grapple with this?  Let the messy conversation continue…

To launch us further, please watch this teaching from my friend Chris Seay.  Even though it’s 19 minutes long, PLEASE watch until the end.  The last five minutes are the big payoff and I’d LOVE to hear what you think!

Watch “The Irony of Church Marketing”

(and another great perspective is the blog post:  “Scratching Where They Itch?”)


  1. Great Post! Thanks Aaron. You might like the video on “What is the Gospel posted two days ago on my blog. Great Interview, Great Book.”
    See you around.

    Comment by A.M. LaMouria — June 25, 2010 @ 11:12 am

  2. Good thoughts. I’ve wrestled with this myself. Especially the part of Seay’s talk about using tithe dollars to buy game systems.

    Firstly, I was say Marketing is not a sin – it’s a skill. And if God has given believers this skills, I believe it is for them to use it to further His Kingdom.

    That being said, not all marketing is good, wise, and Kingdom-minded. It’s this type of marketing that I take issue with.

    Most of the “Christian” marketing that rubs me the wrong way is either 1)trying to get people what are already Christians to buy ‘Christian’ products to “further their spiritual growth”. I remember the whole Prayer of Jabez craze (I worked in a Christian bookstore then) and we sold the book, the prayer journal, the mug, the bookmark, the tea bags…. everything. This was offensive to me. 2) The second type of marketing that is inappropriate in my mind, is when we use gimmicks to get people through the doors of our Churches on Sunday’s with give-a-ways and spectacle.

    However, the type of marketing that intentionally cuts through the noise of culture, grabs ahold of a persons heart who has no interest in the things of God, and raises a question in their mind that maybe something really is missing…. this Marketing I have ZERO problem with.

    Comment by JOxford — June 25, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  3. After Rob Bell saying ‘everytime I hear the words church and marketing together in the same sentence it makes me feel sick’ I felt insanely bad for sending out 600 leaflets to our small village to advertise our Christmas services.

    Hearing that church’s are giving away Wii’s as a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to salvation has put Rob’s feelings and the feelings of peoples dislike toward church marketing in perspective.

    As myself and a team are planting a new church, its helpful to know how to preach instead of sell.

    Cheers Aaron! Blessings from a potential church in South Wales, UK.

    Comment by Dan Smith — June 25, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  4. Great thoughts, guys! Jesse, thanks for bringing a little balance. I’m in danger of swinging the pendulum all the way to the “church marketing = wrong” extreme…so I appreciate your words. Tony, I’m interested to check out the “what is the gospel? video. (It’s SUCH an important question these days). Thanks!

    Comment by aaronieq — June 25, 2010 @ 11:47 am

  5. Dan,

    Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you’re also wrestling with these questions…it’s tough stuff. By the way, almost all my favorite music is from the UK, so many blessings to all that you’re doing in South Wales!!!


    Comment by aaronieq — June 25, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  6. Hey Aaron,

    Here’s a book that’s been helpful to me. I read it last year as part of a class, and while it has a fairly obvious agenda (and one I’m not completely sure I’m sold on), it takes a look at church marketing through a few different lenses.

    “Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing” by Kenneson and Street.

    Comment by Ryan Roberts — June 25, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

  7. I am a marketing person, but I think we make a mistake marketing THE CHURCH instead of Jesus. Jesus did not die on the Cross so that we could have religion, nor did he send his only begotten CHURCH. The best church marketing tool is a friend, sharing faith with someone who does not know Jesus. Moving people from one Church to another is not doing God much good.

    Comment by Bill Catchings — June 25, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  8. This is a big topic Aaron! I know the tensions. What we have to remember is that “marketing” is far more than just advertising. Markting, in its most simple form is “telling your story” and the tools and media you leverage to communicate that story. “The church” has the greatest story on the planet to tell – yet sadly, we are some of the poorest story tellers I know. All churches are markting in some way or another the question is are they telling a compelling story that people want to listen to?

    Regarding your quote “wouldn’t this business strategy create consumers of the Church”. People who are not going to church are consumers. If and when they come to a crossroads of life and begin to ask spiritual questions they look at “religion” as having many choices. Christianity and hence you church and mine are merely one choice for them in their evaluation of the options.

    Comment by David Tonen — June 25, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

  9. I think very few people are ‘wanting’ what they need most . . . To die to themselves on the cross with Christ every day. The minute we stop inviting people into the freedom of death and new life we might as well become life coaches or motivational speakers or entertainers. (all good things, none of which will further God’s Kingdom)

    I also feel queasy about saying, “Hey come look at us we are a great church”.

    Comment by Shane — June 25, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

  10. More great thoughts…thanks for the comments! Ryan, I’ll definitely check out that book. Bill, I couldn’t agree more. The subtle shift from primarily focusing on God to primarily focusing on church is dangerous. David, thanks for pushing my understanding of marketing. I need to keep thinking about that. And Shane, amen. Well said.

    Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about this and he said “I guess I’d rather have Christians spending their time embodying the message than marketing the message.” That was helpful to me.

    Thanks so much for being a part of this conversation!

    Comment by aaronieq — June 26, 2010 @ 7:19 am

  11. Shalom Aaron and All,

    It’s evident Willow has actively wrestled with the question, “what does Kosher church marketing look like (yeah I know, a mixed metaphor to say the least)?” The result of that ongoing wrestling has been much like that described in the story in Genesis 32 of Jacob’s confrontation with the unknown “man.”… Willow has been blessed in a way that it’s humble leadership has always acknowledged with two very powerful words: “only God.” The proof is in its fruit, to paraphrase Jesus.

    Wholeness to all of us,

    Comment by Jordan — June 26, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  12. Here’s an insightful comment from my friend Steve:

    “…I read your latest blog and have a ton of thoughts or
    shall I say question.

    Obviously we believe the church is people not a building; so how do we
    individually market ourselves to the church world (that might never be
    free wii’s) but at it’s root has the same values?

    Where is that line?

    For instance, watch Chris’ video again…why does he mention Thomas
    Nelson as he reads his version of Pauls writing? Help me understand
    how it’s not the same thing?

    Twitter, facebook, becoming a fan of…isn’t it whether we admit it or
    not just a tool to enhance? It is our blue pill…

    So I struggle with this because it’s all around us; not just in our
    church (which my church isn’t perfect at) and also in our leaders.”

    Comment by aaronieq — June 26, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

  13. It’s soooooo hard not to want to slip into a “whatever it takes” mentality when it comes to marketing. Sometimes, it’s when I am most freshly blown away with the Gospel that I find myself throwing myself at any gimmick or ploy just to get people “in the door” to hear the good news. However, at the same time, this boost of Gospel enthusiasm also launches my desire to share personally with other individuals into hyperdrive. Is there a “Both / And” understanding of marketing for the church (or Jesus)? I have to be honest that it’s hardest for me to ask this question now in my ministry than ever before due to the fact that I am serving the smallest community I ever have. It’s hard to express the depth and confusion of righteous longing for more opportunity and selfish ambition for a crowd (not bigger crowd, just a crowd at all). Just being honest.

    Thanks for the disruption.

    Comment by Jeremy — June 26, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  14. Shalom Aaron and Steve (via Aaron),

    Aaron wrote in his original post, “And every time I hear about church surveys or marketing campaigns, something in me gets really sad,”

    When Willow took a deep and painful look inward a few years back, it was only because of surveys that it was able to determine what was necessary to move the congregation toward better understanding the nature of spiritual growth and what church members as well as staff needed to do to change themselves and the Willow community for the better. “Reveal” was/is a Godsend that was/is the result of the use of very human social technology in the service of furthering Willow’s Godly mission to “reach seekers and build believers.” Subsequently it enabled other churches to do the same. This is an example the use of human learning and technology toward the most noble and Godly of purposes.

    Steve (via Aaron) wrote/asked: “For instance, watch Chris’ video again…why does he mention Thomas Nelson as he reads his version of Paul’s writing? Help me understand how it’s not the same thing?”

    The difference is intent. My sense of Chris Seay’s attributing the Biblical translation/interpretation was not to sell
    that particular translation over the NIV, but to let his audience know that there is (if they choose), an accessable (to to nonbeliever and believer alike) alternative to some of the more “word for word” translations available. If I know the source of a quote, I’ll always give the credit to that person. This is not marketing; this is nothing more and nothing less than the common courtesy and respect of acknowledging the work/intellectual property of another.

    Re Chris Seay’s remark in the video (in the last 3-4 minutes) that “marketing is the pornography of consumerism:” Not necessarily! Martin Buber (1878-1965) a Jewish philosopher once wrote,”It is the fate of every great idea that no sooner does it come on the stage of history, that it is accompanied by its caricature.” Marketing (as is technology) is morally neutral. How people use it, is what will determine its moral category.

    I see nothing wrong with a church being intentionally culturally relevant (not free Wii’s which would be Dr. Buber’s caricature) as a strategy to move people from the “street to the seat” (thanks to Pastor Kerry Mackey of for this phase). 1 Corinthians 9 is loaded with teaching from Paul re being able to meet the folks where they’re at IN ORDER TO GET THE MESSAGE OF THE GOSPEL TO THOSE PEOPLE, who otherwise may not be receptive. Willow is an example of a local church that has always seen cultural relevance and the Arts as necessary tools ALWAYS USED IN THE SERVICE OF DELIVERING THE TIMELESS MESSAGE OF THE GOSPEL. And as I wrote above, “Willow has been blessed in a way that its humble leadership has always acknowledged with two very powerful words: ‘only God.’ The proof is in its fruit, to paraphrase Jesus.”

    Thanks Aaron and all for this truly important discussion.
    Wholeness to all of us,

    PS perhaps my words above in # 11 “Kosher church marketing,” might better be described as an oxymoron rather than a mixed metaphor. But as you can see my POV is that marketing the church can indeed be Kosher.

    Blessings on your week,

    Comment by Jordan — June 26, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  15. Shalom All,

    And I almost forgot the informal door to door survey done about 35 years ago by a band of young believers with a God and Community honoring vision before launching what arguably has become the most successful local church on the planet.


    Comment by Jordan — June 27, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  16. Jeremy,
    Thanks so much for such an insightful and honest comment. Very helpful. I share your desire for a “Both/And” answer (but get discouraged that we’ll never find it). I’m really glad you’re a part of this conversation.

    Comment by aaronieq — June 27, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

  17. Jordan,

    two thoughts:

    1) regarding intent…if you quote someone else and have the integrity to give them the credit (that is marketing). If people you respect say, I’m listening to this band or reading this book and it’s amazing; won’t you be intrigued to go check it out? The tough part is that Chris wasn’t hyping someone else; he was informing people of his project. Again, I don’t know Chris and everything I know from afar says his intentions are for the marginalized and those away from Christ…but I struggle with this and believe it is marketing.

    As for your point about “intentional relevance” I’m not sure you can make the case that Paul was doing this in Corinthians. Much more was going on…random; I picked up “in the name of Jesus” by Nouwen and the whole book seems to center on some of these questions like “from relevance to prayer”, “from popularity to ministry”, and “from leading to being led.” really insightful stuff.

    Lastly, what did you mean by most successful local church on the planet? I’m trying to not read into things; but at face value there is something that really rubbed me wrong about that…a little clarity would be helpful.

    Thanks Jordan for helping me think more through this and force me to discover what I think and believe…

    Comment by Steve — June 28, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

  18. Great conversation to watch from afar 😉

    I’ve never been a part of a big church, but I have always struggled personally with the questions of evangelism… which is ultimately what I think this is.

    I think when you peel the onion back you have to ask, why? Why do we want to market our church or ‘share’ our faith?

    Is it to fill more seats, to recruit more hands and bodies to fill the volunteer needs of the church? To have the momentum and energy that come with a crowd? To say we have x many members? Is it because we are instructed by the Bible to make Christians and to evangelize?

    Or is it because we are so in love, and experience such gifts from our life as a part of the body of Christ in community with our church that we want others to experience that gift as well?

    What do we have to gain from church marketing? Who are we serving?

    I know when I see a great movie, hear a great song, or try a great new restaurant I want to share that with my friends. I have no problem telling friends about these things. I have nothing to gain from telling my friends about these things (except perhaps a reputation of someone who knows the great food joints in town ;))….

    But when it comes to telling someone about my church I clam up a little. Why is that? Partly because I want to ensure that they know I don’t want anything from them. I’m not trying to con them, or win them, or proselytize them. What I really want them to know is the pure joy and love I feel from living in community with church. I believe God longs for us to be a part of the community called church- though I believe that can mean very different things for different people.

    Ideally I believe church growth should be organic and authentic. If as a church we live the gospel, we create space for the Holy Spirit, we provide opportunities for people to experience God, then individuals in the church will feel called to share their experiences of transformation and life.

    We can’t really capture that in a marketing campaign.

    But at the same time- the conversation of how to share our experiences needs to be had. I believe in a world where ‘Christian’ can mean so many different things in the media, it is helpful to give people the tools and freedom to share about their experiences of transformation and life. Perhaps it is about helping the ‘body of Christ’ to recognize the gifts of the church in their lives so they may be inspired to share.

    Really- I don’t know what I’m talking about- just guessing, wrestling and flailing. That’s just what my gut says.

    Comment by amanda henderson — June 30, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

  19. amanda,
    thanks so much for this freight train of goodness and wisdom and helpful questions. I love how you pull us out of the what and into the heart of “why”. It’s really challenging and motivating to me, personally. Thanks. Preach it!!!

    Comment by aaronieq — July 1, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  20. Shalom Steve,

    Sorry for the delay in my response. You wrote/asked, “Lastly, what did you mean by most successful local church on the planet? I’m trying to not read into things; but at face value there is something that really rubbed me wrong about that…a little clarity would be helpful.”

    A successful church is both measurable as well as not measurable. Here are a few categories of measurement that
    if the graphs of the data are up and to the right, the interpretation would be success:

    1. Number of members.
    2. Sunday School enrollment #’s and weekly attendance #’s
    3. Attendance at worship services
    4. Youth group membership #’s and program participation levels
    5. Participation in small groups
    5. Enrollment/participation #’s in adult education
    6. # of volunteers serving the congregation and out side of the congregation
    7. Financial generosity
    8. # of people accepting Jesus as their Savior
    9. # of baptisms

    On the non measurable side of the ledger it’s about changed/transformed lives which is measurable to some extent by the categories above. Check out Amanda’s response just above to know what isn’t measurable/quantifiable but yet is the wonderfully authentic, heartfelt expression of a transformed life. I’ve heard many such stories around Willow over the past nearly 17 years. My personal favorite is when I was coming to a weekend service and weather was cold, wet and windy with rain falling as well. I passed a traffic ministry member and thanked him for being there. His response was, “It’s an honor and privilege to serve.” For me there is no more powerful statement of the Truth of what can and does happen at Willow.

    Re my statement about Willow being “the most successful local church on the planet,”: I have no empirical proof,
    though when taking all of what I wrote above into account when defining success, I believe it to be accurate. To be sure my statement falls into the category of opinion. And of course opinions are like belly buttons, everyone has one except perhaps Adam and Eve.

    I hope this clarified my thinking for you Steve. If not, please feel free to email me off blog at:
    Or phone me at 847 212-2653.

    Wholeness to all of us,

    Comment by Jordan — July 1, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

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