Is Marketing a Dirty Word?

September 10, 2004 by

Marketing gets a bad rap. With telemarketers, pushy sales people, and lousy marketing tactics it’s no wonder people bristle at the word. But the concept itself isn’t the problem. Marketing happens whether you plan it or not.

It gets especially tricky when you start talking about the church and marketing. People tend to get up in the arms at the idea of a pastor as salesman. Perhaps it’s a bit too close to home.

Maybe you think the church shouldn’t market itself. And if by that you mean the church shouldn’t use deceptive tactics, shouldn’t use dishonest methods, shouldn’t misrepresent itself to get people in the door, then you really mean the church shouldn’t use poor marketing efforts.

Marketing is the process of promoting, selling and distributing goods or services. It’s a business concept, but something very similar happens in the church. As much as we bristle at comparing evangelism to a sales pitch, there are certain similarities.

Of course if you picture the very worst salesman on commission, then that will negatively influence your impression of evangelists. But the best salesman is a far cry from our stereotypes. Frankly, we have to have sales people, and they’re not all jerks.

Likewise, the process of marketing happens no matter what. We can either realize that and make sure our marketing doesn’t suck, or we can ignore it and live in ignorance.

Remember that the goal here isn’t to introduce slick and polished business marketing that ruthlessly targets pockets and cashes in on souls. That’s marketing that sucks. Lousy clip art and typos are just as bad as glossy photos of people prettier than your congregation. The goal is being authentic and effective.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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21 Responses to “Is Marketing a Dirty Word?”

  • Pat Loughery @ Mt. Si Vineyard
    September 18, 2004

    Church Marketing Sucks

    I wrote a little while ago about my challenge understanding how to market the church – or even whether it should be done. In that context, I found a website with a pretty decent take on the issue. It’s called…

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  • mark greer
    January 16, 2005

    Hi guys, I found your site really helpful. I thought I’d draw your attention to a short reflection that i just wrote about church branding and a critique of megachurch and emerging church attitudes to issues around marketing etc. Read it here.
    Thanks again, Mark.

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  • frank mcclung
    May 3, 2005

    I’ve been really struggling with the whole concept of church using advertising, marketing and branding techniques to promote the Gospel…even really good marketing techniques. Something just doesn’t sit right in my spirit with the whole thing and I can’t put my finger on it.

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  • kevin
    May 3, 2005

    As I’ve said before, I think you’re focusing on poor marketing techniques, Frank. Certainly manipulative, lying, cheating marketing and advertising is lame and the church shouldn’t be doing it. But we still need to communicate. We still need to get our message out. And marketing is one way to do that. It can be done poorly, or it can be done well. But I think you’re condemning the entire approach based on a few bad apples.
    Based on what you’re saying any form of communication becomes manipulative and suddenly we’re paralyzed and can’t communicate. Yes, it can be done wrong, but the solution isn’t to not communicate at all.

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  • chuck
    June 13, 2005

    I suppose to really get after this, we’d have to do some linguistic analysis on the term marketing to see how it is actually deployed, not just what the “textbook” definitions might be. I share the concerns of those who have a general discomfort with the term. I wonder, if one did some research on the origins of the use of the term “marketing” how much would we see an interconnection between things like “manufactured consent” and “creating demand.” I suspect if one looked at the overwhelming deployment of marketing concepts in the US, at least, we’d find the efforts are expended to create a desire for something unnecessary, superfluous. The Gospel does not fit here. I think the question is not: Can marketing be understood in such a way as to make “marketing” the gospel acceptable? but rather: what notions does one, in our culture, immediately attach to the concept of “marketing” and how does that impact the perception of a gospel being “marketed”? And this question runs much deeper than whether marketing is done well or poorly, but gets to the underlying question of the perceived purpose of marketing something. So, getting our message out? Absolutely! Does this involve communication? Of course! Might this involve some similarities to some kinds of marketing? Probably. Ought one consider this marketing or ought one use that term? I’m inclined to think not. I think the far superior category to use to think about how the Gospel ought be communicated is the notion of “witness.”

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  • Norman Prather
    August 31, 2005

    Is marketing a dirty word? Maybe, but sales certainly is. I shudder when forced to use or see “sales techniques” used by churches. Personally, if I feel I’m being “sold” I’m more likely to walk out of the store than buy anything.

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  • Brian
    September 12, 2005

    I think that our society’s conciousness has come to accept “marketing” as promoting a product for profit. It is inherently a business term, and the purpose of a business is to make money. Any business activities are nessisarily linked to its purpose and I don’t think we can escape that. Meanings of words are in people not dictionaries.
    I think a better illustration or comparison for what we as believers should focus on is perhaps that of a newspaper. A newspaper’s purpose is to communicate news. Jesus said that HE would build His church… (Matt 16:18) but we are the ones who deliever the message. In fact, the word evangelize (euaggelizo in greek) literally means “to announce good news” (see The New Strongs Dictionary of Greek and Hebrew Words). Newspapers ideally seek to communicate news in a accurate, clear, concise and visually appealing way. I think we need to get past the idea of sales, and understand that (at least on this website I think) the communicative element of marketing is meant (in the same way that a newspaper will put a good photo and graphics with a story both to communicate and draw attention to the news item).
    Having worked for several years as a graphic artist and now being on staff as an assistant pastor I’ve been really blessed with a unique perspective. As a pastor, I understand the revulsion against the idea of marketing. We are not selling a product, we’re introducing a person. We want the relationship to be real and personal, not forced and contrived.
    On the other hand, the graphic artist in me looks at the vast majority of church communication materials and says, “Oh Lord have mercy on us ahd help us!” We serve a creative God! He MADE BEAUTY! He communicates VISUALLY through His creation (see Romans 1:20). When we settle unnessisarily for mediocrity, we misrepresent the creative beauty and perfections of our God. When we neglect a means of introducing Jesus, we veil our message like Moses coming down from the mountain. From an artistic perspective it is not about the people hearing or seeing the message so much as it is about communicating the best one can for Jesus. It is worship. We do it in preaching… hours of study and honeing the point to as J. Vernon McGee put it, “Take the cookies off the top shelf and put them down where the kiddies can get em.” We want to do our best and be faithful to our calling. A skillfuly designed flyer created for the glory of God is worship just the same… Ah but the pastor half of me comes out, and you can go to church for a sermon… Hope maybe these thoughts help someone be free to creativly communicate in Christ… (and maybe just substitute that when you hear “marketing” used in reference to Christianity… it will keep your blood pressure down)
    Ultimately, I suppose the easiest thing would be to leave “marketing” to the world and we can focus on “communicating”. Again, we are about a person, not a product. There is a difference in how you deal with the two.

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  • sharpanne
    October 24, 2005

    As an independent publicist who is also a Christian, I assist church and para-church organizations market and promote themselves in the media. And I agree, the issue is one of communication in terms of whether the church should be involved in such activities.
    Jesus was a phenomenal communicator, as was Paul. They both used regular language that people could understand. Jesus rarely even mentions God in the parables– they are full of references to very mundane things like soil, vineyards, produce, money, etc. Yet very spiritual concepts were communicated. And Paul quoted secular philosophers without apology and was the greatest evangelist of the early church if not ever.
    We need to strive to be such clear communicators. Manipulating the message or people is wrong, but using our God-given creativity to get the message out is not.
    What bothers me is when I see a lack of good communication hindering the gospel. It’s as if the gospel is hidden behind layers of “Christianese” so that believers can communicate to each other in code, but meanwhile the very people the church is called to reach would never understand a word that’s being said (I also used to be an atheist before I came to Christ ). It’s one thing if Christ crucified is a stumbling block, but we should never be, nor should our words.

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  • Danielle
    November 5, 2005

    Commodifying Christianity is a dangerous thing. In my opinion, it cheapens the Gospel of Christ. Inherently involved in the idea of marketing is having a target audience or a group that you’re trying to reach. Churches that market to certain groups inevitably leave people behind who don’t fit in their intended audience. Groups of people will miss out on the saving message of Christ as a result. That should scare you.

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  • anonymous1
    December 29, 2005

    Some people think that “sucks” is a dirty word for a Christian.

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  • Paulette
    March 8, 2006

    Danielle, I think this site makes the point that “commodifying Christianity” is pretty much all that the church has managed to accomplish thus far.
    Now that is scary.
    For the most part, there’s been mostly a very superficial approach of “monkey see, monkey do” to grow congregations, instead of actually following Christ’s example to help each other grow spiritually.
    Of course, the former is much easier.

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  • Daniel
    April 10, 2006

    The Holy Spirit is how the truth is heard. When miracles, signs and wonders along with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, are coming out of a church then you won’t need to advertise, the intervention of the supernatrual in the natrual will draw people, and if it’s happening in a local church then it will grow, without having to use business marketing methods etcetera.

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    • Jesse
      June 11, 2013

      I disagree with you. Jusus said “Go” not let them just be drawn in.

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  • Jeff Courter
    April 27, 2006

    As an elder at our Presbyterian church in suburban Chicago (where the majority of the population is Roman Catholic), we have what I would call a marketing problem: our membership is declining, and we don’t have many new visitors. In short, we need to advertise.
    Advertising is a business term; in the church, we use the word “evangelize”, but it pretty much means the same thing. We are spreading a message with an intended purpose: to gain a commitment (for a business, it would be a commitment to buy). Using business terms does not mean we share the same objectives; it simply means we have found a useful term from an outside source and are appropriating the term for our own use. We do this all the time in the English language.
    Speaking of business, as a church elder, I regularly attend church meetings where we discuss the “business” of the church (finances, spending, building maintenance, salaries, etc.) While these discussions may not seem or feel “spiritual”, they are necessary. In fact, during one of the meetings, I heard the comment, “The church is in the business of doing God’s business!” I find this a very helpful phrase – “God’s business”. It’s a phrase which bridges a gap between the principals of capitalistic enterprise and our church organizations which promote the Kingdom of God.
    While the church does not exist to make a profit, Jesus did spend quite a bit of time talking about money (in fact, he taked about money more often than heaven or hell)! We should freely use the techniques and tools which businesses have developed to spread their message and gain commitments to purchase – these tools can help the church grow.
    In today’s society, we aren’t simply competing with messages from neighbors, schools, relatives and associates as perhaps we did in the past. People today are bombarded with messages to “buy this” or “try this”, and it’s not simply trying to sell a product. New religions are using these methods as well. Ideologies hostile to the Christian church are “advertising” and gaining converts every day. We can’t afford not to do the same – too much is at stake.
    Peace & love –

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  • Anthony D. Coppedge
    May 2, 2006

    Marketing: to have a message you want people to hear about and act upon.
    Gee, that’s exactly what we should be doing. Let’s just not suck at it.

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  • zane anderson
    July 5, 2006

    By today’s standards, Jesus wasn’t the best marketer, no? Luke 8:10: He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’

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  • Michael
    July 6, 2006

    Marketing is not just about moving products and services, ultimately its about selling an idea or perception about an organisation or it’s products and services to potential consumers. A church has a very important idea to communicate, the truth that Jesus Christ died for every single one of you, sometimes this means that a church has to meet the world on a level which people in the world are able to understand. This is known as a shared field of experience.
    I believe that a person can only be saved through belief in Jesus Christ (John 3:16) and that eternal life as opposed to eternal damnation is a pretty attractive prospect. However, I see no problem with creating a positive and comfortable image for a church, a perception of credibility and understanding, but more than just a perception. Churches need to meet people on a level that they are comfortable at, how else will they be able to communicate the truth?
    As a marketing consultant and a christian, I believe that ethical marketing of churches which understands that medium is not more important than the message, but rather a tool enabling the message to be clearer to the modern world, is completely acceptable and appropriate.
    Zane Anderson has stated that Jesus wasn’t the best marketer, because not all the people who heard him speak or saw his miracles decided to follow him. This doesn’t mean that he is not a good marketer. Marketing is not convincing people to buy something, it’s more about telling people about that thing and why they need it, the old adage, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, is very relevant to marketing.
    Marketing well, means that a customer makes their decision to purchase a product or service after an evaluation of all the alternatives and opportunity costs involved. It is not forcing someone to buy something or ensuring that everyone buys something, but rather, making sure that everyone knows what is available and what benefits it will provide them if they purchase it.
    I would also draw the attention of the owner of this blog to the fact that some fairly inappropriate replies have been posted here which have nothing to do with the topic.

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  • Frank Meyer
    October 7, 2006

    Aristocles, son of Ariston, aka Plato, did an original critique of the marketing mindset in the service of deceit: creating attractive but ultimately incoherent images to prompt action by target audiences. The Old Testament prophets, beginning with Moses gave an earlier critique, in everything they had to say about idol worship and its various pathologies. Since most of the readers of this site will be at least acquainted with these warnings (First Commandment, anyone?; Elijah vs prophets of Baal;the pronouncements in the Psalms and the Prophets against idols, etc,etc?), I will focus on what this less familiar character contributed to the discussion.
    The subjects of Plato’s critique were the pretenders to wisdom in his time: the sophists (private teachers proclaiming their wisdom and peddling it for pay), politicians (public teachers proclaiming their wisdom to crowds in order to accumulate power), and various other peddlers of nostrums for private and public maladies. He dealt with priests in “Euthyphro” (perhaps most directly relevant to a “church communications” focus), and with politicians and other busybodies and utopians in “The Republic”.
    The first half of book 10 of “Republic” explains the problem with generic “marketing”: it is three steps removed from “what is”, being an image of a representation of some aspect of “what is”. It may be a “true image” or it may be a clever fraud (discussed at some length in “Phaedrus”).
    If the church, the body of Christ, wishes to project beautiful images that compelingly communicate truth (the two categories, truth and beauty, are fundamentally equivalent in the platonic account of “what is”) it must give careful thought to how those communications transmit a faithful image of the one who claimed to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. If those who have been given by the Head to be responsible for “equipping the Saints for works of service” (Eph 4:11-12) define “marketing” along these lines, they will do well. Otherwise, the professional image makers are best sent on their way and kept “outside the camp” (the tentative conclusion of Book 10, up to the “Myth of Er” in “Republic”, leaving the door open for them to reason their way back in, but otherwise keeping at arm’s length their emotive generation methodolgies that distort “what is” for the sake of ‘closing the sale’ or ‘moving the masses’ to irrational displays of passion).
    There is a positive account of image making in Scripture, too, which deserves attention: e.g., the descriptions of the fixtures and accouterments of the temple, and the Ark of the Covenant, and all of the texts that spell out the intent of the design of these artifacts to present a faitful image of divine truths, most of which are frankly beyond the boundaries of the intelligible (that which can be fully apprehended by thought). Both platonic thought and the “faith once delivered to the saints” acknowledge this boundary. Plato did not see the “personal” aspect of what he called “the Idea of the Good”, but he did understand that it went beyond what could be directly known. Scripture underlines the same point in driving us towards an acknowledgement of our creaturely dependence on our Creator which, unlike the other trans-tribal monotheistic “brands” (Judaism and Islam), is represented in Christian thought as a multi-personal yet fully unified being.

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  • Mike
    December 11, 2006

    How about instead of spending the money on marketing your church to christians who are already saved, you fill up and “market” your church by going out into the community, spending your money on meeting peoples needs in the community, and reaching people who are lost? I know that’s probably not easy to do… but it seems alot more rewarding and a much better use of funds.

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  • Shaun Snapp
    December 6, 2009

    I don’t know about marketing getting a bad rap. It has the rap it deserves because it so often means misleading people with false claims. General Mills, Coke, Monsanto, insurance companies, all have lied so frequently that almost no claim can now be believed. Sure, the concept is of marketing is fine. However, its practice is appalling. We don’t measure a concept simply by its conceptual value, but by its actual performance.

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  • Anthony Smith
    June 17, 2010

    Here’s the deal…

    The BIBLE says FIRST the natural THEN the supernatural.

    That’s it! Case closed :-)

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