Marketing is a funny thing. It requires a particular amount of spin that we have all come to live with, whether you notice it or not. Let’s be honest. Coca-Cola will never bring world peace, a MacBook won’t make everyone cool, and eating at McDonalds is hardly a healthy choice. There is a gap between marketing and reality. It is a reality we live with every day and hardly notice at all. We are sold promises that we will be prettier, happier, and healthier. But is any of it really true?
When marketing meets church we have an interesting intersection. We see leaders and ministries understandably vying for the constantly decreasing attention of the people they are trying to reach. The Gospel has not always been an easy sell and our current culture is certainly no exception.
Are we telling lies with church marketing?
Some of the buzzwords used for Christian book titles, sermon series, and/or for recruiting potential church softball team members can sometimes be laughable if not disturbing. Do the spiritual ends justify the means or at some point do we realize our marketing might just be false advertising?
So for ministries and their leaders marketing or not marketing may seem like the question du jour. However I would submit that it does not need to be an either/or choice of whether or not to “sell” your ministries. Instead I’d say it’s a choice of making sure you are presenting them with integrity.
Choose Your Words Wisely
People know Apple, Inc. for cutting edge, well-designed, high quality products. It may seem like Apple is trying to sell computers, but what they are really selling is a concept and a culture which—unlike the iMac—is something that can never be booted up. Is Apple telling lies?
You could say the same thing about church marketing. Listening to a sermon series on ‘Five Steps for the Perfect Marriage’ will not “transform your marriage, give you victory, and revolutionize how you navigate your renewed blessings.” The sermon series will be, however, full of Gospel truth that can afford you the opportunity, if you are willing, to work hard and make the difficult choices to enrich your marriage. In a world full of shiny, pretty objects, plain truth has a hard time looking sexy.
Image Is Everything
Looking beyond the words we speak and print, images and videos play a huge part in marketing. If we are honest with ourselves, everyone is marketing. Who would want their drivers license photo to be used for their blog, the front cover of a published biography, or even Facebook?
At a young age, we learn the value and importance of first impressions and putting your best foot forward. You would never arrive at a job interview in sweat pants, nor would a realtor want to list your home with photos of an unkempt yard, cluttered laundry room, and a sink full of dirty dishes—even if it usually looks like that.
Churches are no exception. The church website and highway billboard will always have smiling faces with nice teeth and shining eyes. It is the church’s first impression; it is the first foot forward. These images reach out and say:
- We are warm and friendly.
- We have the answers.
- We meet needs.
- We are happy.
- We are fun.
Truth be told, these could be seen as lies; no different from commercials promising that the latest toy will be what brings your kid true happiness this Christmas.
Avoid Cognitive Dissonance
If we are careful to steer clear of the pitfalls of marketing, we can find ways to connect our ministries with the people we are trying to reach. We have to be what we say we are. Cognitive dissonance is a term in psychology and marketing that refers to “someone holding two or more conflicting attitudes or beliefs about one product or service.” Does your church website, billboard, or ministry pamphlet truly reflect the church or ministry it showcases? Will those who have never visited your church before experience what the billboard promised when they walk through the front door of your church? Or when someone shows up at an advertised event will they wonder if they got mixed up and went to the wrong place?
Remember though, that cognitive dissonance does not only occur because the messaging and marketing is overreaching but can also occur because the product is falling short. Visitors to your church may experience this cognitive dissonance because the church members need to be friendly, not because the photos on the website are too happy. It’s important to set our standards high, both in the quality of our ministries and the marketing of them.
Avoid the Reality Distortion Field
Another aspect to keep in mind in your church marketing approach, is avoiding the Reality Distortion Field. The Reality Distortion Field was coined to describe the effect that Steve Jobs had on his developers while they were working on the Macintosh project. It was his “ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement, and persistence.” It is similar to cognitive dissonance, except it feels good when it happens.
A church may want to communicate to potential visitors that they celebrate diversity, so they include images of all sorts of races. Meanwhile, the congregation demographic is one race. Just because your marketing communicates diversity, it doesn’t mean you have it. Every ministry and every leader should strive to be genuine. The consumer or churchgoer should get exactly what they were promised by our marketing.
The most valued form of marketing is word of mouth. Nothing can match a positive personal testimony and glowing endorsement from a person who experienced something our ministries have to offer. Those stories passed from person to person are worth more than anything we can create, and they are only positive if we are being real. Authenticity has to be our first step in marketing our churches or ministries. Our authenticity will capture the hearts and minds of our target audience far better than the best Photoshopped images or funniest sermon illustration videos.
Let’s make sure we are not selling lies to bring the crowds. The true value of marketing in our churches can only harnessed if we are willing to be honest, clear, and authentic.