by George Clifford
Occasionally I read books on business management. I read these books partially out of my continuing interest in the subject and partially because I learned much about people and organizations through my undergraduate degree in economics and graduate degree in business administration. Although marketing was never a special interest of mine, I recently read two books about marketing. That reading prompted two lines of reflection about the Church.
First, the Church spends too little on marketing. There are some exceptions, e.g., some megachurches. But in general, the Church spends very little money or time on marketing, an activity which in ecclesiastical language broadly connotes telling the church’s story and evangelism in particular. Businesses, by contrast, routinely spend ten or twenty percent of revenue on marketing.
The history of Christian marketing is familiar to many of us. In the beginning, the Church focused on marketing. Even before the Church existed, Jesus devoted a substantial portion of his three-year ministry to forming twelve disciples committed to perpetuating his mission. After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples’ primary focus became proclaiming the good news of God’s love in Jesus through their deeds and words. The Apostle Paul had a similar focus in his ministry. Consequently, the Church enjoyed several centuries of spectacular growth.
Then came establishment. For centuries, the missionary impulse largely waned. To be born in Christendom was practically synonymous with becoming Christian. Instead, Christians sporadically struggled amongst themselves over the correct definition or formulation of Christian identity, struggles that sometimes erupted into open warfare. Those struggles intensified as some Christians began to question how many of their baptized contemporaries truly believed and practiced Christian teachings. Still, the normative myth endured until at least the eighteenth century: to be born in Christendom meant being born into a Christian identity.
Today, Christendom is dead. To be born into a Christian family is no longer tantamount to becoming Christian. The average age of Christians and their clergy in the US and Europe is increasing. The number of Baptisms is down. Practices such as friendship evangelism in which one shares, as opportunity allows, one’s Christian faith with friends and family have obviously proven insufficient to reverse the outgoing tides of attendance, belief, and membership. Few grandparents who live in geographic proximity to their children and grandchildren can realistically expect to see those family members in church.
We Christians need, along with the Church, to return to active marketing.
Most basically, prioritizing marketing means investing time and money in telling Jesus’ story through deeds and words. Deeds may include feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, housing the houseless, participating in healing the sick, caring for the lonely, and so forth. Words connotes explaining our motivation for performing those deeds, motives rooted in our Christian identity.
A parish with an average Sunday attendance of 100 probably has at least 300 hours per week of paid and volunteer time. Paid hours include those of the rector, sexton, musicians, administrative staff, etc. Volunteer hours include time spent in worship, education or fellowship programs, outreach ministries, and other activities. Such a parish, committed to marketing, would therefore choose to redirect 30-60 hours per week to marketing. Furthermore, if that parish had revenues of $150,000, then the parish would devote $15,000 to $30,000 to marketing. Similarly, if The Episcopal Church (TEC) prioritized marketing, TEC would realign its triennial budget of approximately $129 million to spend $12.9 – $25.8 million on marketing along with a comparable realignment of staff and volunteer time, including all time now spent on General Convention and other governance processes.
The parish numbers are hypothetical, but their import is clear. No Episcopal congregation (or diocese) of which I am aware devotes twenty or even ten percent of its time and money to marketing. Prioritizing marketing obviously entails costs for the parish (or mission or diocese) that many organizations struggling to survive would deem excessive. However, one lesson I’ve learned from the business world is that if a business fails to market itself successfully, it inevitably goes bankrupt and disappears.
Congregations struggling to pay a priest and to maintain their building may postpone the inevitable by not marketing themselves. But the only realistic chance that those congregations have for longer-term survival is to market themselves aggressively, even if that means mortgaging the building or replacing beloved ongoing ministries that cater to members with marketing initiatives.
How can a congregation (or a diocese or TEC) market itself successfully? Or, in theological language, how can God’s people through their deeds and words tell the story of God’s love manifest in Jesus in a way that attracts people who want to experience that love personally? Or, in even more conventional theological language that often leaves Episcopalians feeling vaguely uncomfortable, how do we engage in effective evangelism?
No single set of answers will fit every context. Thankfully, multiple answers are readily available. Among many helpful authors are Diana Butler Bass, James R. Adams, Michael Curry, and Kennon L. Callahan. We should also not hesitate to hire public relations firms and consultants to help us strategize and develop our marketing.
In our increasingly internet centric culture, the Church needs websites focused on newcomers and searchers, expanded reliance on electronic communications (resisting this step because current members prefer paper deemphasizes marketing), and beneficial ways to exploit social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc.). TEC and dioceses can leverage their geographic reach to support congregations by making Episcopalian Christians a constant presence on broadcast and cable TV as well as radio.
Underlying every marketing effort is the question of why anyone would choose to attend, participate in, and belong to a Christian congregation. Grappling with this question was the second set of reflections triggered by my reading on marketing. Businesses without a clear understanding of their product(s) or service(s) cannot market themselves successfully.
Historically, the Church’s answer to the question of why anyone should become a Christian was that unless a person obtains remission of her/his sins through belief in Jesus the person, when s/he dies will go to hell instead of to heaven. Today, belief in heaven and especially in hell has waned sharply among Americans and Europeans, including among Christians. In the absence of an alternative credible answer, many Christians lack clarity about their motive(s) for attending worship, participating in a church, or believing in the gospel. The good news is no longer good or news.
Decades of ministering to mostly secular adults in their 20s and 30s, reading in spirituality and psychology, and personal examination have convinced me that twenty-first century people seek at least four things that the Church is uniquely positioned to provide.
First, a large number of people seek to experience God or a deeper spiritual reality. Well done worship services using liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer and other authorized sources can draw some people deeper into the mysteries where we believe people can experience God’s presence and love. Too often, however, our worship consists of poorly read lessons, hymns sung half-heartedly, prayers read mechanistically, and a sermon that at best offers yesterday’s answers to today’s real-life questions.
Second, many people want to know the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of their individual life. This desire is closely connected to the search for God. In this secular, scientific age in which life is frequently viewed as a product of opportunistically driven evolutionary processes, finding the meaning of one’s life can be very challenging. Whether we agree with the material, discussion groups based upon books by popular authors such as Bishop Spong, Barbara Brown Taylor, Neale Donald Walsch, Lauren Winner, Karen Armstrong, and the Dalai Lama afford individuals an opportunity to explore life’s meaning. Conversely, many post-moderns have little initial interest in the Bible.
Third, individuals frequently share a commitment to make the world a more loving, more just place. The Church, when not preoccupied with its own existence, frequently offers excellent opportunities for persons to join with like-minded people in working to make a more just, more loving world. Meaningful opportunities to serve one’s neighbors may be a first step in person’s spiritual journey as s/he discovers the church strives to incarnate God’s love for others with integrity and purpose.
Fourth and finally, humans flourish in community and Christian congregations ideally are communities in which a person may safely seek God, explore life’s meaning, and work with others to bring the world closer to God’s vision for it. Sadly, I commonly hear of churches that unintentionally have become closed or broken communities. Members of twelve step groups frequently tell me that their groups embody more genuine caring for each other than does any congregation with which they are familiar.
The time is long past for Christianity to from defense to offense. This requires our regaining clarity about why anyone might choose to attend, participate in, or join. Then TEC – its congregations, dioceses, and national structures – must actually prioritize marketing the gospel, creatively adapting proven business practices.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He blogs at Ethical Musings.