Creative LeadershipEngaging CultureChristian Media

The "Ministry Marketing" Conflict

Are we losing our moral authority in the culture, by trying to reach a larger audience?  In my book “Unique” I talk about what I call the “Marketing Conflict.”.  We can plead a life of poverty, until we realize that reaching a mass audience through the media costs millions of dollars.  We can make a hard stand for an issue, until we
realize that without some negotiation, we’ll never have much influence in government.  We can be strident about public morality, until we come up against other belief systems who want equal voices in the conversation.  As Walter Brueggemann points out, the Jewish nation wrestled with the divisive issue of cultural accommodation thousands of years ago, so this is nothing new.

That doesn’t cause us to stop, but it does make us aware of the tension involved in presenting our message to a 21st century audience.

Financial challenges are a great example.  Pastor Gary Keesee in Columbus, Ohio was a financial planner before he was called into ministry.  From that unique perspective he likes to say, “You’ll never achieve your destiny until you get the money thing fixed.”  For instance, just try to walk away from your job and be a missionary with a huge financial debt hanging over your head, or attempt to go into fulltime ministry with a poor record balancing a budget.  Without a miracle, you’re in for a real challenge.

Life happens.  As fallen creatures we live in conflict everyday.

But many refuse to accept the conflict, and on the one hand, some Christian marketing “experts” relentlessly extol the virtues of marketing churches and ministries with little regard for the damage it can cause.  But on the other hand, academics and ministry leaders have written carloads of books decrying marketing as the end of the church as we know it.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle, I wrestle with the task of getting the Christian message to as many people as possible, and at the same time, keeping the church distinctive and unique, without making us look weird and crazy.

The conflict will always be there, and our goal is to seek balance.  Getting people into the seats without harming the integrity or perception of the church as a life changing entity, and yet extending grace to those who walk away in spite of our best efforts.

Academics or critics can sit at a distance and make their pronouncements, but for those of us in the trenches, wrestling with that conflict is a way of life.

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  1. I've never understood the problem that people wrestle with…. it's the nature of all Christian ministry – keeping the balance of what some deem the spirit and flesh, and of course utilizing every avenue and vehicle given to minister the Gospel to the world.

    Your writings and peoples perspective reminds me of the great debates of televisions, radio, movies, the internet, etc. Some argued about electricity too, and now their way of life is completely out of touch with society, and they are left literally in the dark and considered a tourist attraction in the Northeast United States. Which is the way if people don't understand the times, and utilize the tools they have.

    Great post Phil!

    Chris Vaughn –

  2. The whole idea of marketing is to cater to what the customer wants.

    It seems the conversation goes back and forth on how to get the message of the gospel out to the masses. Balance is a key issue. For a long time the emphasis was on doctrine (get the message right) to the detriment of producing works of quality and excellence. (Although there are exceptions to this phenomenon – just read the book, Roaring Lambs.) Then the pendulum swung to the other side and much of the emphasis is on method (tools to use – tv, internet, radio etc…) to the detriment of doctrine. Which yields a “happy-feel good” religion in favor of high attendance and high profile publicity. But balance is critical.

    Jesus says, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me.” Acts talks about how the Holy Spirit draws people. This is a third emphasis that doesn’t get as much play as it should in the balance equation: the Holy Spirit. We need solid beliefs. We need appropriate tools. And we most certainly need the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to empower the works that we do in order to make an impact beyond the temporary. Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing.”

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

  3. I struggle Phil because I am the lead pastor of a church that is soon to be 4 years old located in the 2nd poorest county of Indiana.  We rent a local sports complex (gym with one other room) that was recently flooded so we are now meeting in the middle school until the complex is available.  We tried the school last summer and after 2 months they said we had to vacate.  We went quietly and it paid off for us in that we were able to use it without hesitation because of the flood.  But we do need to find something for ourselves in a town that is low on places available.  And even if we find land, where in the world would we have the money to build?  My struggle is debt.  I am following Dave Ramsey's plan personally and find it hard to say, "I am trying to get out of debt but it is okay for the church."  See where my dichotomy is?  I know a balance is needed but how do you find it?  

  4. Marketing is

    the total of activities involved in the transfer of goods from the producer or seller to the consumer or buyer, including advertising, shipping, storing, and selling.

    Its not about catering to what a customer wants – its identity, and presenting that identity to others so that they can make a decision about the product.


    Just a thought…

    Chris Vaughn –

  5. In your post you state that, “Life happens."

    Here’s a corollary – marketing happens.

    Every organization is marketing, even those who are positioning their brand with un-marketing.

    So we are all marketing. But only a few seem to have a coherent strategy. And often it’s there where I discover the chafe with churches. It’s not really about marketing, it’s about the rightness or wrongness of having a strategy that directs marketing and communications.

    Many want to be “led by the Spirit” and it seems that in their theological context adopting a strategy can nullify that leading. It can. But, it doesn’t have to.

    There are also situations where it’s not about the strategy or lack thereof, but it’s really about who controls the strategy and the direction. Some leaders use bad marketing strategy and woeful management principles just to stay in control. It may not be the outcomes that are important, but protecting position that ultimately motivates and animates decisions and direction.

    But really, the question is not whether churches should practice marketing. They already are. The question is more of a cultural issue. Will marketing be planned and strategic or will it be more "from-the-hip" and whimsical? Or even the “We don’t do marketing” strategy of marketing.

    Then there’s that question of motivation.

    I’ll leave that one for Phil to tackle.

  6. I think Gary Keese is right. The quickest way to kill anything is to kill it's finance.

    I had to swallow that bitter pill years ago when an Easter TV special I produced generated an unprecedented (but not unanticipated) response – more than our call center could handle.

    All the back slapping counted for nothing when no-one was prepared to finance the thing – or even permit me to raise my own finance for the next one.

    In the end, I simply had to accept that theres no point doing things that people don't value – even if it's more cost effective than other forms of evangelism that ARE valued with money. 

    Its just another road paved with good intentions.

    And we all know where that leads. 

  7. I wrestle with a great deal of the idea of more formal, mass media marketing.  Not because I think there is anything inherently wrong with it, but because I think there are organization that have honed and studied the impact of it to where they are relying upon the methods and the providen percentages to achieve predictable results and over time, it simply becomes self-perpetuating and repeating.  There's not necessarily any real faith at work, because they've studied the numbers.

    Then I see some non-traditional type approaches that just floor me in terms of their success.  In the publishing realm recently, a book by William P. Young, entitled "The Shack" recently hit the New York Times bestseller list where it has been now for one month.  It reached that level of success with $300 of marketing for a book that was floated to the Publishing houses both religious and secular who turned it down.  It wound up being published privately and just recently was entered into a partnership with Hachette, to help with the distibution.  It's sold almost 2 million copies since it hit the market with no publisher, no traditional marketing and no distribution network except out of the garage of one of the publishers.

    I know that's rare, but there's something in me that just warms to the idea that some things have elements and life to it that aren't predictable and lack the studies approach that focuses on packaging, image and the science of marketing that leaves you wondering if God is in the midst or it's just a predicatably, studied approach that relies on past track record and conventional wisdom.

    As an aside, Phil, I understand The Shack is repidly approaching a movie deal.  I'd love to hear your take on the book and possible movie in a future blog if you are free to do so.

  8. Chris Vaughn, thanks for the clarification about the definition of marketing. While I agree with your definition, there is an aspect of marketing which is about catering to what the consumer wants (in order to get them to buy the product). That’s why agencies spend so much money on focus groups to find out what the consumer likes and dislikes in order to better “package” the product.

    What I’m getting at is that when it comes to marketing, I think in our society, in general, it has become something more manipulative and coercive. Aspects have been perverted in order to make a profit at the expense of the customer.

    I was at a health product demonstration a few weeks ago and the sales person spent most of the time talking about what we wanted and how their products would help us get what we wanted. It was all about trying to cater to us… using their high- priced products of course.

    I’ve also worked in sales and a lot of time is spent training people to cater to customers’ wants in order to get them to buy the products and get repeat business. It would seem that catering to the customers’ wants is one of the central focuses of today’s marketing tactics – in order to sell products.

    Phil asked at the beginning of throughout this post how ministries can get the message of the gospel across to this 21st century generation without losing our moral authority and integrity. I guess part of the answer would be for ministries to not adopt certain aspects of the negative marketing trend where “sales,” “products,” or “seats,” are the bottom line. Not many people like to feel like they’ve been “marketed” to.

    Hopefully, I’m making some kind of sense here. lol. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to respond.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

  9. How about this for an idea. NO MORE marketing churches. No marketing money. No TV. No Internet. Just word of mouth branding. Hey, I know a place where the sick get healed, where the poor are fed, where hurting people are ministered to and taught the living word of God. I know a place where people from the community come together and praise God so sincerely that I can't even describe the feeling. It's like my heart is exploding with love and everything that weighed me down is lifted away. I know a place where a living God resides and His presence saturates everything. I know a place where the people are so real and sincere and willing to help those in need. It's this amazing thing Jesus called "The Church." And I'd be willing to give ten percent of every dime I make to nurture and grow that place so everyone could experience this phenomenon we call being a Christian. 

    Oh wait, we live in America. So LET'S SELL IT BROTHERS. Come on down to The Staples United Christian Congregation in Association with Bank of America and, now serving Starbucks at our coffee bar and Burger King in our Youth Center. Make sure you bring your KidsCard and get 50% off child care with your tithe. YEEHAW! Sign me up!

  10. Bart Breen's comment on The Shack is well taken.  The success of Young's book, at least in my estimation, is attributable to two things, only one I can really identify.  That's simply viral marketing.  He originally published 15 copies of the book for family and close friends.  As more people became familiar with it and read it, the buzz began to grow, which led to the indie publishing deal and now, over a year later, the amazing response from the broader public. 

    The second attribute is one I can only identify as a "God thing".  It happens all the time, with books, music artists, ministries, speakers and teachers.  They're just in the place where God has them, faithfully doing what they believe He's called them to do, to the best of their ability, and BLAM!  Something huge happens, something they did not anticipate nor plan for.  Call it a move of the Spirit, divine timing or whatever you will but it's something far outside the realm of what any marketing plan could have conceived.  It's like unexpectedly hitting an oil well and now the professionals are trying to cap it and market it.  But they didn't create it and they couldn't bring it forth on their own; it didn't originate in a marketing concept or plan – it was, simply, a God thing.

    I did a 30-minute interview with Paul Young last week and he's surprised and delighted by the success the book has found thus far.  He's enjoying the controversy it has generated in some evangelical circles too because it's causing people to think and interact.  There are always the polarizing naysayers but there is so much good conversation happening in the broad middle ground that he is grateful the book has, unintentionally, found a wide audience. 

    But to Phil's point, my take is that the conflict of marketing is just part of the process of trying to do God's work in a fallen world.  The best marketing enhances the work God is already doing. 

  11. Mike, I agree with your last paragraph, it has gone overboard and there is nothing of spiritual life left.  I also believe we do not need to loose sight that we do live in America in the 21 century and we need to be aware of how to communicate to the people around us.  

    So, imho, out of a heart to heart relationship with our Lord, we get direction from the Holy Spirit, look at the funding God has provided and procede.  Then we get to see God build his kingdom.  We know it is God doing the work because we know there is no way we could have accomplished the results on our own efforts.  Then things like Young's book "The Shack" happen.  As aweaver3 stated, we need to be balanced.

  12. Several years ago I was asked by a client to write a monthy appeal letter. In preparation, the client and I would talk on the phone about what God had done recently – lives changed, marriages restored, people saved. As I began incorporating these stories in to the copy, the tone of the letters took a different turn. No longer were we trying to manipulate readers, but motivate readers [partners] to take action, based on the tangible results. The days of "our research says": circle this word…underline this phrase…use red ink here…blue ink there…need to end. Time for some integrity and honesty in marketing.

  13. Chris,

    One shouldn't judge a community with the values of an outsider.  There are advantages and disadvantages to the use and adoption of technologies.

    I use a horse as my primary means of transportation, I do not have, nor desire, to have a cellphone.  I use the internet, but not to a point of addiction.

    Those whom you label " tourist attraction in the Northeast United States" are the Old Order Amish.   Take a look at Howard Riengold's Jan 1999 article in WIRED

    The Amish are not perfect, as a community they have their own unique issues and problems, but they also are the strongest church in the Americas.  I know of no other denomination that has the retention rate of youth that the Amish do.


    For a view of a low tech life, I recommend  The Gift of Good Land and the Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, or the Plain Reader edited by Scott Savage


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