by George Clifford
During the course of my internship in a downtown Nashville parish, tasked to expand the congregation’s ministry to the needy and the homeless, I met a man baptized four different times, each one in a church of a different Christian denomination. A homeless alcoholic, he kept hoping that baptism would “take,” i.e., miraculously free him from his addiction and restore him to pre-addiction health and relationships.
However, sacraments are not magic. Whatever happens in a sure and certain means of grace, it is not a technique for manipulating God and producing guaranteed benefits. Preachers had oversold or misled this man with respect to God’s power; he then used God’s alleged failure to heal him as an excuse for remaining ill.
Pastoral ministry as selling connotes inviting people to share in opportunities to love their neighbors, care for creation, and encounter the living God. With proper pastoral concern and respect for the dignity and worth of others, we solicit commitments to the Church and to opportunities to serve and to participate in experiences that some people find helpful in experiencing the living God’s presence and love.
Integrity requires selling the Church as an imperfect institution, a community of broken, hurting people who join in worship, ministry, and mission. I’ve learned to suggest approaches, techniques, and perspectives on the spiritual journey, helping persons learn and practice what they deem best suited to their needs and situation. I’ve discovered that people need, even want, to commit to a community, spiritual practices, and ethical living. But I never promise what God will do in a person’s life, constantly surprised at what I discern as the moving of the Spirit. God is management; the rest of us are in marketing and sales.
Over the decades of my ministry, I’ve read several dozen books on evangelism written by authors, some Anglican and some not, ranging from conservative evangelicals like Paul Little and Michael Green to more liberal like Richard Armstrong and James Adams. I’ve explored friendship evangelism, the church growth movement, the Alpha course, the effective church, and others. In general, I’ve found them to be better sources of ideas and encouraging anecdotes than systematic thinking that resonated with me.
Instead, I have found a set of four basic marketing criteria that I learned in my MBA studies far more helpful. Known as the four Ps of marketing, these comprehensive, flexible, and easily remembered criteria are product, price, place, and promotion.
Product connotes the service or product that one offers. For the Church, what is our product? Who wants it? Why do they want it? (NB: The latter two questions demand practical, real life answers.) I find that thinking about product helps, even forces, a shift from vague platitudes (e.g., our product is relationships with God) to the specific (e.g., an opportunity to experience God through participating in a contemplative Holy Communion service or to feed the hungry by packing 10,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now). If an activity, regardless of what it is, is not part of the product we want to offer then it has no place in the institution. Facets of a product important for thinking about what the Church provides include its features, packaging, and branding.
Price connotes the product’s cost to the consumer. The cost may be time (time spent in worship represents an opportunity cost because the person could spend the time in alternative ways), money (the cost of getting to the proper location, of food brought, or even of making a pledge), or effort (using one’s talents). When I served in Hawaii, the value of Sunday morning worship to various attendees was obvious on Super Bowl Sundays. Attendance annually plummeted at late morning services, regulars opting to make party preparations or to watch pre-game TV instead of attending.
Place connotes how, when, and where the product is available. As a seagoing chaplain, I quickly realized that in port sailors wanted to get off the ship as much as possible. Sailors considered their ship, even for those who had no other place to live, primarily as a workplace. Underway, sailors would attend worship aboard the ship; in port, even the most devout on their duty Sundays, unable to go ashore to worship, would rarely attend a shipboard worship service. Likewise, mid-week noon services in suburbia may not make sense while noon services in downtown parishes may be very popular. Contemporary Ash Wednesday distribution of ashes on street corners is one highly visible attempt to find a better placement for the Church’s product.
Promotion connotes communicating information about the product to potential consumers and includes both publicity (free) and advertising (paid). No longer can the Church reasonably expect potential consumers to seek out the nearest parish and automatically become active participants. We need to reach out to our communities in appropriate (Does anyone still consult printed yellow pages? If not, why buy an ad?), multiple media (Twitter, Facebook, Internet, mailings, perhaps radio or TV, etc.) with repeated messages about products they want/need, at an acceptable price, and at an agreeable place.
Many parishes have marketing pros among their active participants. These persons, with their practical knowledge of selling and marketing, are a rich resource for institutional transformation. Building a better mousetrap (or ball field, if you prefer that metaphor) is not enough. People no longer will come just because the Church is there. Instead, we need to develop an intentional ministry that highlights who we are and what we offer, communicating that message to those for whom it is appropriate (aka target marketing).
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently commented on H.A. Dorfman’s The Mental ABC’s of Pitching, a book on the psychology of pitching:
Others are eloquent about courage and creativity, but Dorfman is fervent about discipline. In the book’s only lyrical passage, he writes: “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.”
His assumption seems to be that you can’t just urge someone to be disciplined; you have to build a structure of behavior and attitude. Behavior shapes thought. If a player disciplines his behavior, then he will also discipline his mind. …
A baseball game is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. But Dorfman reduces it all to a series of simple tasks. The pitcher’s personality isn’t at the center. His talent isn’t at the center. The task is at the center.
By putting the task at the center, Dorfman illuminates the way the body and the mind communicate with each other. Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.
And by putting the task at the center, Dorfman helps the pitcher quiet the self. He pushes the pitcher’s thoughts away from his own qualities — his expectations, his nerve, his ego — and helps the pitcher lose himself in the job. (“Pitching with Purpose,” New York Times, April 1, 2013)
The path out of the Episcopal Church’s numerical decline is for us, laity and clergy alike, to return to the business of selling, i.e., pitching with a purpose. You can call this evangelism if you want but, I, for one, find that term too encumbered with unfortunate cultural baggage, often implying that humans are responsible for converting the world. God’s graces changes people; people can also change themselves. Being a change agent means helping people have opportunities in which they may recognize the experience of God’s grace and then to discern those moments of grace.
Ultimately, we’re in the business of selling God. But in practice, we’re in the business of selling a wide array of products to help people grow in love for God and others. Like any large, multi-faceted organization, accomplishing that mission requires people performing a wide variety of tasks that includes leading worship, preaching, teaching, pastoral caregiving, organizing, etc. However, selling is arguably the most essential of those tasks, one that only we can do and one too often undervalued and neglected.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.