You Can’t Advertise Problems Away: Ad Campaigns of the Mainline Denominations

June 11, 2009 by

U.S. News & World Report covers the shrinking mainline denominations and their desperate attempts to re-brand. It’s pretty much the same story we’ve heard for a while now, but a few interesting items:

  • “The under-35 generation thinks church is a judgmental, hypocritical, insular place.” (Jamie Dunham, chief planning officer for Bohan Advertising & Marketing, the firm behind the United Methodist campaign) If that’s the case, I’m not sure an advertising campaign is the answer.
  • The article mentions a new campaign from the Episcopal Church, I Am Episcopalian. Great, they can join the Southern Baptists and the Foursquare Church. Anyone else want to use the same campaign?
  • This quote hurts: “Study after study has shown that religions that grow are the ones that are hard-core in some way. They have something that differs sharply from the culture in which they operate,” says Boston University’s [Stephen] Prothero. “That’s the problem with mainline Protestantism: It’s not different enough from mainstream America.” (emphasis mine)
  • Another money quote: “The brand and character of the Episcopal Church is being driven by a lot of things that came out of 17th-century England,” says Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor who has studied church growth. “You can’t change that with an ad campaign.”

And perhaps that’s the big lesson from this article. The problems in the church today can’t be fixed with an ad campaign. Marketing (not an ad campaign, but marketing in the big picture sense) can help to address those problems, but you can’t re-brand your way out of trouble.

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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12 Responses to “You Can’t Advertise Problems Away: Ad Campaigns of the Mainline Denominations”

  • Geoff in CT
    June 11, 2009

    I’ll second that!
    Brand notwithstanding, if an organization launches a national advertising campaign, it’s generally good practice to make sure that the fulfillment processes to back it up are in place and pretty solid.
    I checked my own parish out on one of the campaigns listed above. They offered not one but THREE “find a church” capabilities. That’s the good news.
    The bad news included: (1) two of the services didn’t provide my own parish website, (2) one returned “sorry, we can’t help you” for the zip code I live in, (3) only one of the three offered a choice of nearby parishes (4) the one that listed the clergy listed only the name of clergy who had supplied at our house in the past, not the current clergy.
    Based on that, I suspect that branding is the least of the problems!

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  • C. Holland
    June 12, 2009

    “This quote hurts: ‘Study after study…'” Why should it hurt? The Gospel is countercultural (help others sacrificially, turn the other cheek, don’t live for self, etc.). If churches are preaching Jesus and living this message, then we should be excited that people are drawn to it. And if it’s not different to the culture, then to non-believers it’s just another diversion or way to spend your time.

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  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    June 12, 2009

    @ C. Holland: I meant it hurts because we’re “not different enough from mainstream America.” As counter-cultural as we may think we are, apparently we’re not living it out as we should be.

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  • C. Holland
    June 12, 2009

    @ Kevin: Thanks for the clarification; I see what you mean now.

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  • Emilio Silvas
    June 12, 2009

    I worship in an Episcopal church and came to this tradition because of my wife. I have worshiped in Catholic (born and bred), non-demoninational, Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God churches. 17th Century English thought has little to do with the weekly discussions at my church. They are often about homosexuality and permissive behavior and rebranding has nothing to do with the number of people attending our Sunday service.

    The particular tradition we follow each week is desirable by some and tolerated by others. What really matters is what we believe and that it be consistent with those stated beliefs. People will get past the order of service if the message is real and honest, even if it condemns their own behavior.

    The other reason evangelical churches do well is because they evangelize. Mainline churches may have a soup kitchen in one church, but the rest of the diocese should not be able to point from their pews as an example for them as well.

    No matter what kind of marketing campaign you have, it will never eclipse the kind of relationship you will build when someone from your church invites someone they know. Mainline churches have been built upon the premise of someone, somewhere dropping by the church. Evangelical churches are built on the premise that YOU bring in someone as Jesus commanded.

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  • Emilio Silvas
    June 12, 2009

    I should probably state two additional things:

    1. I love my church would not consider leaving despite the turmoil at the national level. You have to love people even if you don’t agree with them.
    2. The reason I talked about evangelical churches was the discussion on the US News page. I think many of the people leaving mainline churches are going to those churches. We have certainly lost several members to evangelical churches in our area.

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  • jesse
    June 17, 2009

    Snark does not an argument make. The problem is that many people are unaware of the options that DO exist. If they turn away from Episcopalianism because the services are too boring, fine. But what of the people who don’t even realize there’s such thing as moderate or liberal Christianity?

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  • Emilio Silvas
    June 29, 2009

    My point is there should not be moderate or liberal Christianity. It should simply be Christianity. I’m a conservative and, after reading your blog, you are liberal. So what? I don’t recall Jesus saying there are different wings in God’s house for us to reside. The terms you propose mean more in the secular world. When we evangelize to people we can’t ask them what brand of Christianity they prefer.

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  • Brian Klassen
    July 10, 2009

    I am neither a moderate or a liberal. I am a Jesus follower who is struggling and working towards developing a better relationship with Him (within the community of a mainline denomination). We are so scared to let everyone know that it is a struggle and that we are not perfect. This is where the brand disconnect occurs. Either we are unwilling to be honest or we don’t really know. Either way, we are not communicating the “real” truth about who we are and from my experience, that’s what people really responding to these days, especially seasoned with Gods radical love.
    Our brands are not held by us but by the audiences it interacts with (a very important distinction when developing any kind of brand communication). We are but caretakers, and I must be honest and say, we could be doing a much better job in both development and then communications of these sacred brands.

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  • Andy Wittwer
    July 16, 2009

    It’s really a shame to see this kind of advertising going on. Our church is part of the Foursquare denomination – I hadn’t heard “our” new slogan yet. Marketing a denomination reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1. Everyone comes to Christ in a denomination (or theological outline), hopefully, that doesn’t make them anything different than a tried and true Christ-follower.

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  • church outreach
    August 8, 2009

    Ouch, that quote about the church not being different is really harsh! I think it hits us that hard because it is true. I am finding more and more that outreach is not always about the advertising… it is allways about the people.
    You could have a thousand ads in every media about your church but no one is going to show up if the first thing they see is someone fighting in front of the church with the elders chanting “FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!”

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  • Church Advertising
    December 13, 2009

    This reminds me of another blog here about the amount of people who would be willing to come to church. While 82% said they would come only 2% of the people in church said they would ask. Maybe it is because we don’t believe in what we offer. Maybe it isn’t Jesus we are ashamed of it is His followers.
    I do agree though that church advertising will not solve this problem. It will only be solved in the hearts of those who claim Christ.

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