Other Churches Suck: How Not to Market Your Church

November 12, 2009 by

ChurchSucksFront.jpgWe’ve covered plenty of churches who are trying to be edgy, stay relevant and communicate in a way that’s never been done before.

Adam Metzger tried to go that route, and he ended up with a big headache.

He wrote to us to tell us about his campaign and see if we had any insight into what went wrong:

I used the phrase “church sucks” in an advertising campaign two weeks ago, and I sort of regret it. It was to advertise the launch of our church. Totally underestimated the continued stigma of that word. Massive feedback (Bad feedback. People called and yelled, threatened to “investigate” and turn me in to Fox News, etc.) from the Christian community (which I expected). However, zero feedback at all from the unchurched (which was the whole point). Church launched with fewer than anticipated–probably from a bad campaign message planned by me…

Buzz Bomb
Yikes. The whole idea was to create buzz, get a big crowd on the first launch, then develop that crowd into their core group. To create the buzz, they sent out 120,000 mailers. One featured a church in the rear-view mirror of a car, another featured simple text about their church, a third read, “God Doesn’t Care,” and a fourth had the text, “Church Sucks. Or at least we thought so.”

To say they weren’t well-received would be an understatement. Here are some quotes from the feedback they received:

  • “If you love God, then church is never boring.”
  • “I am shocked and outraged that a church would send this out. Please let me confirm the spelling of your last name when I turn this in to the Fox News and the media.”
  • “My six year old daughter read your postcard out loud and asked ‘why do they say church sucks?'”
  • “Dear pretend church, please visit my church. It is a real church.”
  • “I don’t need this smut in my mail box.”

And the big kicker? They underperformed on expected launch attendance by 75%.

Adam’s intentions were great. He had experiences at churches that were less-than-stellar, and he assumed (probably rightly so) that others had a similar experience. So he decided to play off of that shared experience, try and align himself with the unchurched and invite them from a perspective of, “We’re not like them. We’re like you. Come check us out.”

But where did things go wrong?

Don’t Over-Promise
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You want to differentiate yourself from “church as usual,” so the easiest way to do it is to attack church as usual. We’ve probably all been guilty of it on the Internet at one point or another. And we see it from time to time in the Church Marketing Lab. Our own Michael Buckingham, one of the moderators in the Church Marketing Lab, had this to say:

I’ve seen a lot of this direction this year and while I absolutely get what they were trying to say, they end up just hurting the church as a whole. Messages like this simply perpetuate people’s negative view of church, cast a negative message and come across as self serving.

It’s the equivalent of putting up a sign that says “we’re better than other churches.” It’s an example of marketing without stepping out of our own walls and looking at it from other perspectives. While you’re trying to say that you’re trying something new you’re main message just points out how other churches aren’t. Remember, we’re in this together. This isn’t about being the best church, this is about finding the best way to share Christ.

So true. We might think it’s just a little fun at someone else’s expense to reach our audience. Adam likely wouldn’t have walked straight up to a pastor at a local church and told him, “Man, I’ve been to your place. It sucks.” And he was more likely referring to the state of churches in general, not particular churches in his town.

But there’s one problem. Jesus said “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, ESV)

And the world knows this. It’s written on their hearts, even if they’ve never stepped foot inside a church.

Touting yourself as incredible while mitigating others is rarely a model for success–especially in the church. You’ve heard that you should “under-promise and over-deliver?” This is a great example. It generally works much better to take a humble, even self-deprecating approach to gain trust and make an impact.

Pot, Kettle
You might be saying, “Whoa there! Wait one minute. Your name is Church Marketing Sucks, and you’re giving this advice? What gives?” The issue isn’t with the word “sucks,” although you should consider your audience on that one. The issue is that a church introduced and defined themselves with a sweeping indictment of “church.” And it crossed a line.

Avoiding crossing that line isn’t a magical formula of marketing, advertising, demographics and luck. It’s a matter of promoting ourselves in a manner that respects the guidance and charge of Scripture. Being careful to respect God’s church and handling ourselves with love are two integral parts of this.

Different Ideas
There are plenty of ways you can differentiate your church without slamming other churches. The next time your church looks to push the envelope without crossing a line, have some free ideas:

  • Instead of beginning services immediately, begin with concerts or events. Hold these monthly with great music, great production, etc. to let people know this won’t be like the church of their childhood.
  • Say you won’t launch your church until $100,000 has been raised for your community. And don’t back down from your goal.
  • Go door-to-door. Leave no house unvisited. Ask them their biggest needs right now, and never mention your church. Then get back together and figure out how, as a church, you can start meeting those needs.

If you think churches in your area suck, the go ahead, begin one that doesn’t. But never stop praying and loving the other churches in your area.

Post By:

Joshua Cody

Josh Cody served as our associate editor for several years before moving on to bigger things. Like Texas. These days he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, and you can find him online or on Twitter when he's not wrestling code.
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10 Responses to “Other Churches Suck: How Not to Market Your Church”

  • brad davis
    November 12, 2009

    The problem is… church really does suck! The people you call “unchurched” know this, therefore, they agreed with your promo and stayed away- fortunate for them.

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  • Drew Goodmanson
    November 12, 2009

    Amen. And never forget that as much as you may want to see church ‘done’ differently, it still is the bride that Jesus came and purchased with his death and resurrection. Lastly, as someone who has been involved with a number of church plants, never plant as a reaction or you are in for a time of misery!

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  • Andy Wittwer
    November 12, 2009

    An article and a Leadership Summit session come to mind.
    The article, from HarvardBusiness.org, mainly discusses allowing someone to fail, rather than on failing yourself, however, it has this to say:
    Learning … isn’t about doing it right. It’s about doing it wrong and then adjusting. It’s not about being in balance, it’s about recovering balance. And you can’t recover balance if someone keeps you from losing balance in the first place.
    The Leadership Summit session, lead by Dan and Chip Heath was an address about change, but they included this thought (a summary):
    Failure is a necessity! It is not to be avoided; it’s an early warning sign for success. Be empowered to fail! Story of Thomas Watson, former president of IBM, had an employee who lost $10 million. His perspective? “I just spent $10 million educating you!”
    I’ll let others address the where you went wrong, but I want to say don’t let this failure discourage you to the point of withdrawing from “the edge” or, worse yet, ministry altogether. You’ve just had an expensive education – make it count!

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  • Greg Shore
    November 12, 2009

    Thanks for posting this reminder that we are called to love each other – and that includes refraining from saying that other churches suck.

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  • Jon Allen
    November 12, 2009

    We actually did some billboards last year that said “I hate High Rock Church. -Satan” Aside from the shock of several church members who neglected to read the “Satan” part, the response was overwhelmingly good. We have had many families come to our church and get involved because they saw that we had a sense of humor. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being shocking, in fact sometimes it is necessary. When we cross the line into intentionally offensive or crude, we’re on a slippery slope.

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  • stevelavey
    November 14, 2009

    As a marketplace entrepreneur, I can clearly see the folly in a blanket campaign focused on the theme that church sucks. In order for any company or organization to be successful, you must provide a solution that solves a real problem.
    What this campaign tells me is that they did not do THEIR homework in THEIR patch to address THEIR issues, and to fully understand THEIR community’s needs. They rolled out a generic “Isn’t church bad” and it backfired. It’s like watching a Lebron James ad in Chicago — just doesn’t sell because it doesn’t resonate.
    At our church is Chicago, Park Community Church, we are seeking to understand the needs of the low-income Cabrini Green residents and the wealthy townhome owners right in the city so we can meet their need. Another great example is River City Church (Daniel Hill’s church) who moved in to the Humboldt Park area and told the neighborhood that they were not going to provide services in the first two years until they understood what they neighborhood really needed.

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  • Adam
    January 15, 2010

    I think that this sort of campaign is generally characterised by a kind of “in-joke”: those in the church understand what they’re on about, and those outside the church just think, “Church sucks.”
    It’s all about communication, isn’t it? And communication is always between (at least) two parties. When churches release ads like this we end up communicating to other churches more than anything, and I actually thing that’s to be expected: church is what we know. But it highlights to me the fact that we all need to take a step back and learn to consider our target audience.
    What happens if we don’t really know? Then we first need to find out who our target audience is, and then invest some time on the ground finding out their needs / how to show we love them.
    And I think that until we do this, it’s probably wiser to hold out on the “in-joke” marketing campaigns.

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  • Church Marketing
    February 19, 2010

    Ouch, I hate to hear about that churches situation. Maybe it would be a good idea though to remember we are all part of the same body of christ. That means we do not insult other churches.

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  • Josh
    May 1, 2012

    I have had the privilege of designing for two influential churches in the past 12 years. And what I have come to quickly understand is that you won’t always get it right. That is not the point. Doing things by our own merit are destined to fail. We need to let the Main thing (Jesus) be the main thing. Marketing trends will come and go. Being bold is not a bad thing, but at that the end of the day are we making Jesus fit our marketing or marketing fit THE ONE TRUE GOD. Intensions may start out good, and I’m sure that was the case but somewhere down the line there was a disconnect. Jesus was shocking, bold, revolutionizing, radical, but none of it was to say HEY, LOOK AT ME. It was to say better days are ahead and freedom is on its way.

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