Strategy & Marketing

Church Marketing: Going Past Scratching Where People Itch

In the religious and non-profit worlds, we often struggle with the concept of “marketing.”  Certainly our message is worth sharing, but unlike most products, Christianity is often a message people simply don’t want to hear.  Worse yet, because of situations from their past, they hate the concept itself.  In that context, it’s a lot easier selling Coke or BMW’s than it is sharing the message of the gospel.  Recently, pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City was asked a similar question in Christianity Today magazine.  His response was worth considering:

Question:  You reject marketing apologetics like, “Christianity is better than the alternatives, so choose Christianity.” Why?

Marketing is about felt needs. You find the need and then you say Christianity will meet that need. You have to adapt to people’s questions. And if people are asking a question, you want to show how Jesus is the answer. But at a certain point, you have to go past their question to the other things that Christianity says. Otherwise you’re just scratching where they itch. So marketing is showing how Christianity meets the need, and I think the gospel is showing how Christianity is the truth.

C. S. Lewis says somewhere not to believe in Christianity because it’s relevant or exciting or personally satisfying. Believe it because it’s true. And if it’s true, it eventually will be relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. But there will be many times when it’s not relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. To be a Christian is going to be very, very hard. So unless you come to it simply because it’s really the truth, you really won’t live the Christian life, and you won’t get to the excitement and to the relevance and all that other stuff.

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Brilliant statement.  Had this advice been followed a few decades ago, Christian TV’s perception in the culture wouldn’t be in the sad shape it’s in today.  Tim is right on, however he doesn’t mean to cancel the need for marketing and branding altogether.  In a media-driven culture where there’s incredible competition, we still have to get their attention first.  Without that, they’ll never be in a position to make a decision about anything.

But the important issue is that the decision they make has really serious implications.  We can’t “sell” them a shallow version of the faith, hoping they’ll bite only to discard it later.  We have to tell the truth, so they make an informed and eternal decision.

Otherwise, it won’t be a real decision at all.

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4 Comments

  1. I believe that many people who come to Christianity with an unfulfilled need may be sorely disappointed by an approach such as Mr. Keller’s. When a person is grief stricken or abused, when they have lost their job and home, when a spouse has been unfaithful, when a child has rebelled and become estranged, an answer like “Christianity meets the need” and “Jesus is the answer” hardly suffices.
    Now, applied in a practical sense, with a loving caring Christian giving comfort to such a person, or directing them to appropriate resources and following up to address the need beyond “where they itch” would certainly be an effective marketing strategy. I’m thinking that Jesus would probably call it something else.

  2. Tim,

    I think you are right that we need to avoid trite statements like “Jesus is the answer” and instead ask ourselves a few questions like:

    1. How is the unchanging message of God’s Love relevant in today’s hurting world?

    2. What is the church’s (and specifically my church’s) unique calling to bringing God’s love to life in a real and tangible way?

    3. How are we “re-presenting” Christ in our marketing, activities and daily actions that is in alignment with God’s unique call?

    It is our job to be able to make God’s unchanging message meaningful, relevant and actionable in today’s world. We need to express it with authenticity, integrity and relevance.

    The bottom-line is that it is about “loving God and loving our neighbor” as articulated in the Great Commandment and Great Commission. That “love for neighbor” is not telling them some vague platitude, but meeting their real needs and introducing them to a real God.

  3. Great post, and it rings true. I have been thinking about this statement:

    “In a media-driven culture where there’s incredible competition, we still have to get their attention first. Without that, they’ll never be in a position to make a decision about anything.”

    While I agree with that statement as presented, I don’t know if I agree with the premise. It seems the presupposition is that introducing people to Jesus is primarily an attractional, marketing-oriented task (or maybe I am entirely misreading, in which case, ignore the rest of this post).

    It seems from everything I have read and experienced that genuine, lifelong disciples of Jesus are most often not attracted to a program, church, or promotional material but instead come in contact with other genuine, lifelong disciples of Jesus and are forced to deal with the truth of the transformed life they are witnessing first-hand.

    I’ve often said that many of the things we do as church leaders are “the donkey Jesus rides into town on.” Promotion, marketing, branding – even many of our church programs and events – are simply an attempt to get people into the same room with followers of Jesus, becuase in that interaction, a powerful influence is exerted.

    If only we didn’t have to build such elaborate “donkeys” to get that connection happening :-).

  4. I work in the field of church marketing. Not some hype ad agency model, but a calling to help churches with little experience in external communication avoid the kinds of mistakes that turn people off or cost wasted dollars.

    Our belief is that every church has a local ministry signature. A purpose for which God placed it in that community. That is the focus and purpose of communicating to our local area. It is to allow a church to have a personality as well as a mission.

    Some people just aren’t going to feel comfortable in certain churches. Our energy and focus should be on being exactly what God had in mind for us when we planted the church. This will give the people He had in mind an opportunity to experience God while in the comfort of an environment that is attractive to them.

    It probably shouldn’t matter, but it does. Great article 🙂

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