Article Published in Ministry Today
by Richard L. Reising
About twelve years ago God called my wife and I out of our comfortable, upwardly mobile lives in corporate marketing into a full-time pursuit of serving churches. At the time, to say that it was an uphill battle was an understatement. We left two executive level salaries and a new house that we had just built in Scottsdale, to sell our house and a car and move in with relatives just to make it. We saw our financial livelihood drop by 90%, while we were working hours and hours for churches that sometimes asked for everything for free. I did not blame them nor resent them, it was all they knew. We were a challenge to their status quo in every way. We were broke, passionate and completely insistent in our pursuit to help the church—who often times mistook us as an agent of hypocrisy.
So why did we do it? On a volunteer mission trip, in 1996, I received a calling. A soft, inaudible, still, small voice that I can only describe to church leaders as the voice that spoke to them the moment when they first knew—when they first knew their lives would never be the same—that they were being called out by God to do a work for Him. There I was, sitting on a smelly bus in West Mexico, receiving a life’s calling. At the same time, my girlfriend (soon to be wife) was thousands of miles away receiving similar words. We had both volunteered in church and worked in marketing for some time before the week that we began to see these worlds collide—yet we had never imagined what God was bringing together.
Since that time, we have been honored to work with thousands of churches of every shape, size, background and denomination. We have seen struggling churches grow again, plateaued churches reach new heights and growing churches strategically manage their climb while assimilating more people into a deeper walk with Christ. To the church out there that is looking to find your way, I would like to offer you some thoughts on marketing that might just change your perspective on… well… everything.
What every church needs to know about marketing…
Marketing is everything. The box many have placed marketing within is generally only a slice of it—or is not even marketing at all. If you see it as door hangers, direct mailers and billboards, you are thinking about advertising—a slice of the marketing pie. I remember when I told my mother-n-law that we were starting a marketing firm, she responded by saying, “Yikes! Marketing! I hate it when those people call my house at night.” This is not marketing. It is tele-marketing—an aspect under the marketing umbrella, but marketing is so much more.
Marketing is everything you do that creates the perception of who you are and what you value to your community. How well you maintain your campus—marketing. The name of your church—How your greeters greet—How your ushers ush—all marketing. If your message is aimed at the choir or to the lost—Even how your congregants live their lives—all marketing. All of these things affect how people see your church. The reality is, that even churches that do not believe in church marketing are currently marketing—perhaps just not doing it well.
In the corporate world, the scope of marketing spans from market research where data studies produce insights into buyer behavior, through decisions that define the very details of the product, it’s pricing and how and where it is sold. It likewise includes the packaging, branding, advertising and client experience. Marketing drives everything. It is the ability to define whom you are trying to reach, how you will reach them and what they will do with you after they have been reached. Have you ever developed a message to connect people to Christ? Then you have marketed—you simply just called it something else. The heart of marketing is managing the connection between you and the people you are called to reach.
Many think it is about getting people to your church. I challenge that it is equally about getting them to come back; to get in a small group; to volunteer; to lead. Marketing is everything. If you are not getting the results you desire, you have a marketing problem. Everything you do speaks. What are you telling us?
Marketing is about people. It is about learning what makes people tick and then shaping your communication to them in such a way that you create a bridge to their hearts. Paul understood this. He told us, “To the Jew, I will become as a Jew…” He went on to say that he would become all things to all men that he might win them. Paul was a master marketer. He studied people, reflecting back to them their values in such things as idol worship, poetry and philosophy—all with a single pursuit of winning them for Christ. Paul knew what made people tick. He used those things to lead them to Christ.
In the corporate world, they know this. MTV has declared that the winner of the next generation is “the one who speaks their language the best”. They spend 20% of their budget learning the teen language and connecting with it. They are successful too often. How much of your budget is committed to understanding people? Hanging with them? Learning their hopes and needs? Do you know what makes them tick?
Jesus hung with sinners. The disciples left their comfort zone for a world of non-believers—pursuing them to believe. In the average church today, as leaders, we hardly leave the comfort of our cohorts—those who share our heart for Christ. Yet we have a marketing (advertising) mandate don’t we? To go and preach (publish and promote) the Gospel. To whom? To those who are lost.
I am an advocate for the lost. I once was lost. I work hard to remember what that felt like in spite of my current knowledge that I need God and His presence every minute of every day. My wife has had five strokes in the last seven years. I cannot imagine going through things like that without Him—yet most people do. If I were lost would you reach me? Would you understand where I was and reach me where I lived? Would you make clear to me the profound simplicity of the Gospel and tell me what the next step in my walk towards Christ is?
I sat as a consultant in a service of a strong preacher, who had crafted a message so complex that I, myself, felt discouraged in my Christianity. He coupled it with a charge of those who did not like it: “If you do not like it, there’s the door.” Several visitors took him up on that. In our debrief, we asked him how he had come to know Christ. He began to weep—remembering back to his childhood, when he had been so confused by people talking to him about God, until one VBS where a gracious volunteer explained the simplicity of God’s love and He accepted Christ. He wept for how complex he had made it. The Gospel is profoundly simple. Our labor of love is to learn how to connect others with it. Our ultimate charge is to be simple enough to be understood and powerful enough to change lives.
If you do not pass the people test, nothing else matters.
Promotion without connectivity is destructive. I often share with church leaders that most of the churches in the United States should not promote themselves. Why? Simple. If your current membership is not actively inviting people or visitors are not staying, there are reasons why. If you do an advertising campaign, you are asking people to come in your doors only to realize why no one wants to invite anyone to your church. They never come back and leave to tell all their friends what they did not like about your church. This is not good marketing.
If you are connecting with people well, your membership will validate this by bringing their friends. If you are not, they won’t. The problem with your church-goers not inviting people is not their problem—as church leaders, it is our problem. It is not time to craft a message to get people to invite their friends. That is the equivalent of preaching a message on not falling asleep in church. It is our responsibility to want to make them want to bring their friends just as it is to keep people awake.
It is a sure truth that any person who has had a life-changing experience with Christ wants everyone they know to experience Christ. The problem? Most people are not ashamed of Christ, they are ashamed of their church. Having said all this, I am convinced of one thing. If members walk out of your service saying, "I wish my unchurched friend had been here," they will start to think about inviting their friend. If a member walks out of your service three weeks in a row and says every time, "I wish my unchurched friend would have heard that," nothing will stop that member from dragging that friend through your doors.
The heart of marketing is people. Don’t start with mailers. Start with people. Ask yourself, “What am I doing this week to learn how to reach people more effectively? It's time to evaluate. Are we creating an atmosphere that fosters growth or are we ministering unto ourselves?
Our love for the lost is found in how much we value them—in the time we devote to them in our sermons, in the signage on our campuses, in the red carpet we roll out to them on our websites, in the way we communicate and maximize the one opportunity they generally give us. Great marketing is founded on a heart that desires to connect to people right where they live, and loves them too much to leave them there. Ask yourself, “How can we enhance our reach this month without advertising? How can we be more about connecting with people right where they live, in everything we do?” That is where smart marketing begins.