Same Song, Different Verse
Back in the 1990s, I was sitting in a chiropractor’s office patiently waiting my turn. I grabbed a magazine off of the little table and started to scan through the contents. I don’t remember which magazine it was, but I do remember the article that caught my interest. It basically argued that the profession of marketing actually had its roots in 19th-century evangelism.
To be honest, I had little to no interest in marketing at the time, but the concept intrigued me. As the article went on, it certainly made sense. Effectively, evangelism was all about telling people about the stain on their souls and how the church had the cure. Marketing pointed out the stain on their shirt and then sold them the cleanser.
It’s literally the same thing. The only difference is the context.
Parishioners No Longer Want Anything to Do with Evangelism
Let’s turn the clock forward to the early 2000s. It was an interim associate pastor at a larger urban church. They had invited a congregational redevelopment specialist to come in and talk with them about church growth. She gave a presentation that could be summed up like this: people sitting in the pews need to start inviting their friends and family to come to church.
Yes, the answer was simply “friendship evangelism”.
As a Gen Xer who did not grow up in the church, I admit that the whole thing made me cringe. I had been on the receiving end of invites to church, and each time I experienced one I felt uncomfortable. I felt like my friends were judging me as a human being.
As a follow-up to the presentation, I caught a young couple, approximately my age, in the hallway. I asked them what they thought about the presentation. Interestingly…
They both voiced their displeasure.
You see, they believed asking friends and family to come to church would put a strain on their relationships. They didn’t want to be seen as “those people” who were trying to save others, like the door-to-door fundamentalist evangelists they had encountered in the past. No, they weren’t going to do it. Instead, they would protect their relationships.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to discover that they felt the same way that I did. But there it was, right out in the open. The word “evangelism” left a bad taste in their mouths, too. And I think we can safely say that the sentiment is the case for most people who sit in the pews today.
If Old-School Evangelism is Out, Let’s Bring in New-School Evangelism, or Marketing
First, let’s start by admitting an obvious truth: marketing works powerfully in today’s age, especially digital marketing.
The problem with marketing, however, is that it has a very bad rep. The term is used derogatorily as people say things like, “Oh, that’s just marketing” or, “they’re just trying to market to you to get you to buy something.” The word in our culture often brings to mind images of the sleazy used car seller who will say anything and do anything to get inside your wallet.
Is it any wonder why churches—which already have a cultural reputation of being money-grubbing themselves—want to distance themselves from anything that sounds like “marketing”?
Still, I think churches recognize that one of their greatest needs is more butts in the pews. Membership is falling fast. They have to get more people into their congregations or they won’t have the income to maintain their ministries (or even their church buildings).
Deep down, they know they need conversions, which is to say they need people to attend their church.
By the way, did you know that “conversions” is what marketing is all about? Marketers are all about getting people into a marketing funnel in which they “convert” a target audience first into potential leads, and then convert those leads into clients. I don’t know for sure, but I really don’t think that the word choice is an accident.
If we think of evangelism as Conversion Model 1.0, then today’s digital marketing is Conversion Model 7.0.
Congregations need to learn how to leverage marketing as their new approach to evangelism. But in order to do that, they must first get past their hangups about marketing, which are really grounded in a pessimistic cultural myth.
How Marketing Works Just Like Evangelism
Since “marketing” is a bad word in many churches, I want to take a moment to talk about how it’s really a good thing. In fact, whether congregations realize it or not, they have been doing many of the techniques for years without knowing it. So, let’s quickly walk through the entire marketing process.
1. Know Thyself
All marketing begins here. You have to know who you are and what you bring to the table. You have to be able to identify clearly how you can help others with your products and services.
For congregations, this means identifying the values that bind them together as a community, what they do best, and what they could be known for in the wider community.
Once you know this, you start to find ways to wrap your marketing message around that identity. For example, if your congregation is a strong proponent of welcoming LGBTQA people, then maybe part of your slogan is to say, “Making space for the marginalized to find their Divine Center”.
The trick at this stage is to be accurate in identifying who the congregation really is, rather than feeding into some fantasy that just isn’t true.
Identifying an Ideal Audience
Once you know who you are as a congregation, now you need to identify the ideal audience that would be the best fit for your congregation and enable it to grow.
In the case above, since one of the things the congregation does best is welcome the marginalized, especially LGBTQA people, then the ideal audience would be those who are sympathetic to that cause.
This is where the messaging comes in. Now, you can take the message you created earlier on, “Making space for the marginalized to find their Divine Center”, and get that out into the community.
This identity then becomes known in the community, and it starts to attract those who want to promote that.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that there are going to be those who are opposed to what the church is doing. As a result, they are going to be repelled by that message. Bonus! After all, they would not feel welcome in your community, and they might make others feel unwelcome. That’s a dynamic you want to avoid.
Get the Message Out
One of the most important functions of a pastor in a church is to preach a sermon regularly. Why? From a practical perspective, that is the one time during the week that the pastor gets the ear of the largest number of people in the community. It is during that time that the pastor has the opportunity to invite everyone to embrace a greater vision, pursue a common mission, and make personal commitments.
Marketers have pulpits, too. They come in the form of blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, etc. This is all about content creation and dissemination.
The content that marketers send out through various media streams and advertising, is all geared toward telling a story of meaning that invites people to respond and buy into what they are offering.
In other words, it begins with an invitation, followed by a message, and ends with an altar call.
In other words, it’s nothing different than what the church has already been doing from day one, only in a different form.
Yes, I know, that sounds bad. Very bad. But is it?
How many churches have newsletters? The point of the newsletter is to inspire readers and help them feel connected even though they aren’t currently at church. In other words, the goal of the newsletter is to strengthen and facilitate the relationship between the individual reader and the church that sent it.
How did it get there? By mail. It was sent through a system with a targeted recipient. In other words, the newsletter is an example of a relationship that has been automated.
Nowadays, many churches use email to send out their newsletters. This is an excellent example of automating a relationship.
But from a more evangelistic perspective, we have other ways of automating relationships. For example, in marketing, there’s a thing known as a “lead magnet”. A lead magnet is a free downloadable that people can receive for their email address so that they can learn more about how the business can help them. Once they have given their email address, the business sends a welcome sequence. This welcome sequence gently thanks them for signing up, tells them more about the business, and shows them more about how the business can help them. And then, anytime the business sends out promotional emails, like links to blog articles or special offers, the people on their email lists can get that information and do with it whatever they want.
Churches could learn from this. Imagine someone downloading something from a church website for free in return for an email address. The church can then send a welcome sequence to give them vital information about life in the community. Keep in mind that this person has never set foot in the church. Still, the church is able to paint a picture of what life might be like for them if they were to attend. On top of that, the church can send out an email that lets them know when the next chili supper is coming up. Even if they aren’t showing up to worship services, they might show up to that. After all, they’ve received several emails and updates, and it’s not like they’re complete strangers anymore. Thanks to the automated relationship, they now have an idea of who you are.
Again, never underestimate the power of marketing, especially when it comes to automated relationships, which is something that the church has been doing already for a very long time, just in a different form.
Okay, this is really related to automating relationships, but I wanted to highlight it.
When people feel a stronger connection to each other, they end up with a stronger sense of community. Emails, blog posts, Facebook posts, etc, all of these strengthen the connection between people and their church throughout the week.
And maybe those are the times are when people need to hear most that the church is walking with them through life. After all, life is hard. People struggle with finances, relationships, employment, and a whole host of other issues. That gentle reminder that “we’re here for you” can make a huge difference in the lives of those the church is able to touch through digital communication, whether they are active members or not.
The reality is that people need to feel like they know who the church is and what it stands for, like who the church is and what it stands for, and trust the church before they will ever “join”. And that’s the purpose of evangelism/marketing: to help people move from being strangers to feeling like they belong enough to “convert” to becoming a member of the church community.
Hopefully, you will see how marketing (when done well) takes people on a journey from A to Z (stranger to member) through a process of continuous connection. It can be amazingly efficient when it comes to time, money, and resources, and it can be incredibly effective.
Marketing Can Work for the Church
I understand the hesitation. I really do. Years ago, the word “marketing” also left a bad taste in my mouth.
But I have seen the light. Now that I’ve been working in the field for a few years, I’ve come to see how it can become a powerful tool to help proclaim the gospel in a world struggling with alienation and isolation.
And this is why I am helping to bring the power of marketing to progressive Christian congregations, as well as progressive Christian spiritual directors and spiritual entrepreneurs. I want to be able to amplify a spiritual voice that I believe can bring the reconciliation and healing that is so badly needed in this world.
Would You Like Me to Help You Learn How to Do Digital Evangelism and Get Your Message Out to Your Audience?
I would be glad to talk with you about what I can do to help your progressive Christian ministry thrive like never before. All you need to do is pick a time on my calendar for a phone call, and I’ll give you a buzz at the time selected. Just make sure you have coffee ready!