Jesus, the marketing specialist


Jesus Christ was a marketing specialist. (George Barna1)

Recently, a thoughtful Christian blogger raised the question of why a lot of pastors are so suspicious of marketing and are reluctant to use congregation members with professional skills in the area (whereas we are happy to use the plumbers, IT guys and musos).

I sympathized. In the past, I have been grateful to have graphic designers (some within our congregation) design a good website for our church, as well as brochures and invitations. But to answer the blogger’s question, here is why we are suspicious.

Last week in my local paper, a new church plant took out a full-page special—half ad; half advertorial. I have nothing against this; we did it for our cathedral’s 150th last year. But get this: the church is called “Lifestyle Church”. (Any clues yet?)

The advertorial’s first paragraph (which generally leads the key idea) said,

The work was birthed out of a desire for the local community to benefit from enhanced lifestyles through principles contained in the Bible.

And that was as close as we got to God. What followed was lots of talk about enhancing our lives. There was:

  • a vision for the community, and information about how to make friends;
  • a fun program for kids (which included a bouncy indoor jumping castle);
  • insightful seminars to inspire you to “embrace life” from local businesses (in the wealth and health industries);
  • back-to-school scholarships, financial hardship donations and fundraising for the surf club;
  • “Lifestyle Groups”, where people meet in homes to share life’s experiences over a coffee; and
  • a grand opening “with all the glitz and glam of the opening night of a Broadway play, from the red carpet to post-ceremony canapés”.

Here is a new church that is being positioned carefully and marketed vigorously. Indeed, one of the sidebar congratulatory ads was from the pastor’s wife, who is a graphic designer.

This church plant comes from a denomination that claims to be firmly based on the Bible. They would be offended if I said they were distorting the gospel. But in their full page of advertising, no mention was made of the one whom we worship! Neither God nor Christ were named anywhere.

The marketing push was all about your lifestyle. Furthermore, what you are attracted by is what you will be converted to—the spirituality of my wellbeing. God—if we get to him—is a servant of my needs.

Christians who want to market the church must heed the Scriptural warnings—for example, 2 Corinthians 4:2:

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

and 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5:

For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.

In our desire to present a positive face to the community and attract people so that they will hear about Jesus, we would do well to (re-)read David Well’s modern classic God in the Wasteland. In chapter 4 especially, he observes the dangers of marketing the gospel in a consumer society.

To contrast with Barna’s quote, Wells offers this snippet from Karl Barth:

The word of God is not for sale; and therefore it has no need of shrewd salesmen. The word of God is not seeking patrons; therefore it refuses price cutting and bargaining … The word of God does not compete with other commodities which are being offered to men on the bargain counter of life. It does not care to be sold at any price. It only desires to be its own genuine self, without being compelled to suffer alterations and modifications … Promoters’ success are sham victories; their crowded churches and the breathlessness of their audiences have nothing in common with the word of God.2

1 Unreferenced, quoted by David Wells in God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 60.

2 ibid. Unreferenced. It can be found in A Karl Barth Reader, edited by Rolf Joachim Erler and Reiner Marquard, and edited and translated by Geoffrey William Bromiley, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986, p. 50.

10 thoughts on “Jesus, the marketing specialist

  1. Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for this.  I was wondering though.  You have given an example of how not to market a church – and I agree with this – but surely there are ways – God-glorifying, Christ-centred ways to professionally market a church?  If I were a professional in the marketing industry, I’d like to think that my skills could be useful to the church without compromising the gospel or the vision of the church and without falling into the traps that Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 4:2.  Just a thought.

  2. Hi Andrew!

    Just letting you know that Sandy is away on annual leave at the moment. He will respond to your question on his return.



  3. Sandy, I think you’ve confused the issues here.

    I think the issue you describe is not so much with the use of good design but concerns a misunderstanding of the gospel. Barth’s quote, it seems to me, is about changing the content of the message. To be sure there are congregations which are guilty of this (such as the example you mention), but this is not the same as making things look good visually, which seems to be the concern of the original blog post you’re responding to.
    Like a minister shaves his face and puts on a crisp shirt before Sunday morning so as not to distract his congregation, so it’s also worth investing in good design.

  4. Hi Sandy

    It would seem to me that being suspicious of “marketing” because of an example such as the one you have cited is akin to being suspicious of all preaching and evangelism because of certain US TV-evangelists. Let us not shoot the messenger because of the message.

    Like any tool – marketing can be used for good or ill – dependent on the user (their skills and intentions). It would seem to me that ignorance of what marketing is (and is not) along with its limitations.

    May I suggest TV show “the Gruen transfer” as an excellently informative deconstruction of advertising as a starting point. It is interesting to note how frequently what is “good” advertising accords with “the truth”.

  5. G’day everyone. Thanks for commenting.

    I will try and respond in reverse order.

    Tony and Martin, thank you for your comments. I may well be confused at points!

    One of the problems with my post, and possibly the material I originally responded to is that there has been no definition of marketing supplied. What exactly is it? Is it just the same as advertising? Is it just about good design? Are we all talking about the same thing?

    The reason I responded to Steve’s post was he especially asked pastors to explain the suspicion and I actually have a sympathy for people with gifts and training in these broad areas. I agreed that we should want to encourage and use their gifts and abilities.

    But I think people immersed in that industry need to understand why pastors (wrongly and sometimes rightly are a bit wary about advertising/marketing and even just great design).

    But I think I undermined my basic desire to encourage affirmation for people with gifts in these areas of design and promotion etc, because I was also quite overwhelmed by the horror example.

    The thing is that so many Christian people would see that example and hardly notice the problems. Even people in ‘good churches’. I am 100 percent certain that the people in that church plant would subscribe to an evangelical basis of faith, and would be deeply offended if I said they were not being Bible-based. They might point out that nothing they advertised as being part of their ministry was wrong in itself. I am sure they would be wanting people to come to Jesus.

    But I think I am right that marketing has been tremendously influential in not just their advertising but their whole model of ministry and approach. And it is an approach which is in grave danger of distorting or marginalising the biblical gospel, and turning God into a servant of our aspirations (in this case for lifestyle).

    But maybe that drowns out my affirmation that it is possibly to advertise or market in a profoundly Christian way, and that good design can be very helpful. Sorry to the Christian marketing people I have discouraged.

    I am trying to help you see what to avoid, not to tell you never to offer your skills to your churches.

    Dave Clarke said it well on Steve’s post – come to my church and give us a hand!

  6. Andy, my old friend and youth leader, thanks for persistently commenting on my posts. It means a lot to people who write blogs that people bother to interact and even more when it is an old friend! I praise God for you Miller boys!

    Back to the topic at hand: <quote>God-glorifying, Christ-centred ways to professionally market a church?</quote>

    Good design is tremendously helpful. This can include:
    * helpful informative bulletins & brochures;
    * powerpoint designs that are readable, easy on the eye and help rather than distract;
    * clear signage at the church and elsewhere;
    * helpful colour schemes in buildings, if the budget allows;
    * helpful church website in terms of design and info.

    Sensible, quality advertising, e.g. in newspapers, press releases, postcards for letter box drops and personal invitations:
    * truthful information is a must;
    * excellent design, photos, concepts:
    * showcasing things that are true to your (or rather God’s) church’s message and methods, but are also likely to be relevant to people in your community.

    In practical terms, I have gladly learned myself as an amateur from professionals with skills and by reading about good design for brochures and data projection; and also from people like our diocesan media officer in terms of relating to and using the media.

    But more importantly I have been so glad to find several graphic designers at my current church, who have designed a logo, Christmas and Easter postcards. In addition, we have used photos taken by an excellent amateur photographer. We have been glad to get some professional help on our website.

    At this and previous churches, I have been glad to have people with interior design experience and eye to improve colour schemes of church foyers and halls as finances allow.

    More broadly, people like OTs with skills in the area of disability access means we can (gradually) say another point of marketing is being more accessible at least to some people with disabilities and so on.

  7. I write letters to the editor of the local paper (much easier to get published than in the big city papers) and part of that is to raise awareness of our church and the sort of place it is, hopefully that people in the community might hear that an openly Christian and biblical worldview on things can be sensible and thoughtful. I hope this means that if they ever think of coming to a church, they might be more likely to keep us in mind.

    I guess that’s marketing of a kind.

    Ditto with our changeable sign – we try to be witty and interesting and topical where possible.

    When we have advertised, we have tried to think of clever angles (some have failed), but we never try to hide what we are on about. We make it clear if there will be a talk on Christian things etc.

    When we think about photos I have no problem with saying to the people tasked with the job to make sure you include photos of men (and not mostly women), and that represent the diversity of our people in terms of age and ethnic backgrounds. But that’s because we do have a good number of men as well as women and different ages and people of a number of different ethnic backgrounds and I don’t want to inadvertantly fail to make that clear to people. It would be perhaps a bit dishonest if our church was only full of seniors but our website was full of photos of the one family that attends.

    I get very irritated when my colleagues (or I) put up sloppy powerpoints or there are typos in the bulletin or basic (or intuitive) design rules are ignored.

    I much prefer it if people advertise our activities in ways that are truthful and accurate but that make sense to the plausibility structures of those we hope will attend.

    So we do think about those we are trying to reach. And I am delighted when people could help us do it better.

  8. But the power is not in the design.

    The power is not in the cleverness or wittiness.

    The power is not in the correct targeting.

    The power is only in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    And to honour his gospel, we must never distort or hide the truth. And we must never ‘bait and switch’ by attracting people with one thing but then really supplying another.

    And we must remember that if we appeal to people’s needs and wants that their sinfulness and ours will tempt us to centre ministry around those things rather than calling people to submit to the truth of the Lordship of Christ – like it all or not.

    All right, I better stop now.

  9. Hi Sandy

    Marketing has been a professional interest for some time for me in my Christian work role. So maybe I can add something to the discussion.

    To the professional marketers I would say this: you know that the most important thing for the marketer is “know thy product”. You’ve got to understand it, what it does, who needs it, what it is, what it isn’t, why it’s different/better than the competition, etc. SO… don’t rush in. Appreciate that there are some real subtleties to this “product”. Theology is displayed in even the smallest detail: a word here, an image there. You need to understand it. If you want to be a good contributor to your church marketing, first become a solid theologian.

    To the nervous ministers I would say this: You are right to be nervous; marketing is a significant platform. OK, maybe it’s not as significant as your preaching pulpit, but it’s heaps more significant than the flower roster. You don’t want to hand it over to people who don’t understand it. SO… like most areas of ministry, work alongside someone who has potential, training them to think theologically about church marketing (see above), and gradually hand over responsibility to them as you grow in confidence that they ‘get it’.

    Hope that is helpful.


  10. Ian,

    I waffle and rave. You sum it up so pithily!

    Of course, training is the long term solution, and we keep thinking short term.

    Thanks for your comments

Comments are closed.