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"Bridging the gap between faith and culture"

By Paul Cannon, Dave Lefurgey, Rolanda Ward, Lisa Zambarano

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Using Church Marketing to Bridge the Gap
between Faith and Culture

By Paul Cannon

The Christian church in America is in trouble, if one reads the opening pages of almost any book on Christian evangelism written in the past twenty years. Walter Brueggemann describes the situation as a "deep crisis" facing the church as many mainline denominations have experienced steep declines in membership since the mid-1960s (Brueggemann 1993, 7). George G. Hunter III, professor of evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary, sees secularization as the culprit that has created a gap between the culture and the church. According to Hunter, 120,000,000 Americans are leading secular lives, and by secular he means lives that are lived without any meaningful sense of religious identity (Hunter 1992, 41). Norman Shawchuck and his co-writers state

There are now more persons in America who are either not associated with any religion whatsoever or who are connected to a religious tradition other than the traditional Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish faiths. The advent of the baby-boom generation provides us with the first generation of Americans who have not simply ‘bought’ the faith and ecclesiastical traditions of their parents. (Shawchuck 1992, 19)

In the face of this bleak statistical situation, some churches have turned to church marketing, and there is no shortage of materials for the would-be church marketer. Appendix A in Shawchuck, Marketing for Congregations provides a good list of books and electronic resources related to church marketing. A search of "Marketing for Churches" produces fifteen titles on Amazon.com’s home page (http://www.amazon.com).

Church Marketing: A Description

When one thinks of marketing, one thinks perhaps of sales and promotion. However, as used in the context of church marketing, marketing refers to the entire process of data collection and analysis that enables churches to more effectively determine and reach a desired target audience. Specifically, marketing "is the analysis, planning, implementation, and control of carefully formulated programs to bring about voluntary ‘exchanges’ with specifically targeted groups for the purpose of achieving the organization’s missional objectives" (Shawchuck 1992, 22). Marketing involves not only research into one’s target audience, but it involves an analysis of the organization’s purpose and ability to achieve that purpose.

A significant aspect of church marketing is research. Hunter states that the first step for any church that wishes to reach out is to research the community and the unchurched population. Pastor Rick Warren, the founding pastor of the megachurch Saddleback Community Church in California advises church leaders to "be an expert on your own community" (Hunter 1992, 154). Research can be an unsophisticated as a pastor conducting two hundred personal interviews for the purpose of getting to know the thoughts and priorities of the unchurched population in the community.

In addition to conducting research by personal contact, marketing organizations can help churches obtain demographic data on the local community. (Several organizations specifically work with churches. To sample what two have to offer, go to http://www.perceptnet.com and www.barna.org. Percept offers a download of sample marketing tools at www.perceptnet.com/pn4/samples.htm). According to Percept’s own promotional web site, the company combines demographic information with data on the religious preferences of Americans and tailors this analysis for each customer.

Once a church collects data, it develops a target profile. An oft-cited example of a target profile is the profile developed by Warren at Saddleback Church. There, the targeted unchurched person is called "Saddleback Sam:"

"Saddleback Sam" is a well educated young urban professional. He is self-satisfied, and comfortable with his life. He likes his job and where he lives. He is affluent, recreation conscious, and prefers the casual and informal over the formal. He is interested in health and fitness, and he thinks he is enjoying life more than 5 years ago, but he is overextended in time and money, and is stressed out. He has some religious background from childhood, but he hasn’t been to church for 15 or 20 years, and he is skeptical of "organized religion." He doesn’t want to be recognized when he comes to church. (Hunter, 1992, 155)

Although churches may not work out a profile as detailed as Saddleback Sam, this process in church marketing calls for the church to have a fairly detailed idea of who it thinks is present in the community who the church wishes to reach. (To reach the Saddleback Community Church web page, go to www.saddleback.com).

The next step in the marketing process is for the church to develop a mission statement, often called a vision statement. This is the church’s reason to exist. It is only as a church knows why it exists that it knows what it can offer to both its own members and to the unchurched persons of the community. The mission statement must be an honest and somewhat unique statement of purpose. For example, a liturgical church in an older community with an active artist population may develop a mission statement around a concept of worship featuring well-presented classical music. It clearly would be targeting a different person than Saddleback Sam. The mission statement should be well-constructed and adopted in such a way that all members of the congregation understand and accept the statement as being true and valid for this particular church.

The next step in church marketing is to construct a marketing plan that specifically maps how the church will fulfill its specific mission by reaching its specific target audience. Leaders plan programs and construct budgets centered on reaching the targeted audience and fulfilling congregational objectives. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this step, but it is important to realize that a church cannot get to this step until it has conducted its research on the community and developed its mission priorities. Involved in executing the marketing plan are leadership training and deployment, funding, and advertising. Again, underlying the success of this whole process is to be as specific as possible and leave as few things to chance as possible. One cannot expect to control all variables in church planning, but as far as one is able one should endeavor to control and target where one can.

Finally, the process continues with internal feedback and information flow. A process that was popular in business in the 1980s and adopted by some churches emphasizing continuous feedback was Total Quality Management (for churches, Total Quality Ministry). The emphasis on TQM, as it came to be known, was on the use of surveys to continually improve customer service by knowing what customers were thinking and feeling about their experience within the organization. As used by the largest and fastest growing congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona, TQM used weekly surveys, suggestion boxes, and measurable performance indicators such as worship attendance and rated satisfaction in all areas of church life. The emphasis was on customer relations and a continuous process of improvement. (Community Church of Joy’s experiment with TQM is described in Walt Kallestad and Steve Schey, Total Quality Ministry (Kallestad 1994; the church’s web page is at www.joyonline.org).

Church marketing can be complex, and I have described it in generalities. However, the consistent characteristics of church marketing are population research, mission statement development, putting a specific plan into action, and evaluating for continuous improvement. Church marketing is the application of objective principles to a specific situation, for a specific church in relationship to a targeted population in a community.

Sociological Analysis of the American Context for Church Membership

Statistics show that American churches today are having both a difficult time keeping present church membership and attracting new members. Although a great many churches are indeed growing, many more are losing members or are closing their doors. Surveys conducted by the Percept Group in 1991 and 1993 showed that the growth of some churches was not enough to offset the decline or closure of many more churches, and the result is a net loss of church members (www.perceptnet.com/pn4/doc_pr1.htm).

As mentioned above, churches have turned to church marketing as a tool to understand the American population and their own communities in an effort to tailor the church’s ministry to the perceived needs of the community targeted. In one sense, marketing is not new. Placing a denominational label on the church sign out front is a way of marketing. In the recent past, denominational labels were helpful tools that aided potential church members to decide between churches. Now, however, denominational labels are not as meaningful.

Sociologist Nancy Ammerman reports that based on random samples of the American population, Americans responses to questions about their denominational affiliation are both ambiguous and "unanchored in any actual participation" (Mullin and Richey 1994, 119). For many Americans, a denominational label is not relevant. Today, several factors have combined to displace denominational identity. Writes Ammerman, "in the place of commitments to family and place and religion, a new norm of individual choice now seems to reign. We are no longer willing to allow, for instance, the ties of religion, family, or geography to limit our choice of marital partners…" (123). Educational and occupational mobility have loosened the ties to denominations, and Americans move in and out of denominations depending on location or marital ties, and "increasing numbers of members never make it into a new congregation" (124) when making a job-related move. (For more information on Nancy Ammerman’s social research, see the web page of the Center for Social and Religious Research at www.hartsem.edu/csrr).

For many American denominations, religious identity was related to the ethnic and linguistic identity of immigrants. For example, my own Lutheran denomination was founded by groups of northern Europeans who maintained a sense of identity in America. They also were part of a village and small town culture. Religious affiliation was part of web of connectedness that included home, family, work, school, and town. In this context, one was a member of the church even before one consciously held to the faith precepts of the denomination. Other social factors strengthened denominational ties.

The village culture declined as part of the movement of Americans to the large urban/suburban areas. Social ties to small town life eroded. People changed careers, geographic location, and even marriages with greater frequency. Notes Lutheran writer David Luecke, a mobile people "come as strangers, do not expect to stay long, and measure their provisional participation according to experiences it gives them" (Luecke 1988, 61). As a result, the church lost its place, its former function, in the social fabric of a society that shifted from small town to urban.

There were other social movements in society as well. We have seen in the introduction that with the advent of the baby boomers a whole new set of attitudes came into play. Boomers do not trust institutions. They value personal choice over tradition. Their lives have been characterized by economic mobility and oftentimes instability in family life. Many boomers left the church and never returned, and therefore the next generation showed even lower levels of church affiliation or activity.

In addition, the movement of many middle class women into the work force has taken the volunteer core of the church away. In an interesting study, Bradley R. Hertel writes that "of particular importance is the finding that full-time employment of married women is related to successively larger declines in their own and in husbands’ attendance and strength of religious identity" (Ammerman and Roof 1995, 116). If the mother and father’s participation in church declines, then the religious activity and identity of their children will also be negatively impacted.

Because of several sociological factors in American society, denominations form primary religious identity or command allegiance for far fewer people in the younger three generations. Instead, people tend to make decisions based on personal preference and self-interest. Churches that choose marketing practices do so as a tool to determine the preferences and felt needs of the population. It is sociologically reasonable to make this move.

The sociological roots of church marketing can be traced to the American situation of religious pluralism, and this implies a depth and inevitability to this situation that goes beyond reasons cited thus far. Peter Berger, in The Sacred Canopy, notes that in the American situation no governmental establishment of religion is allowed to exist, and all religious bodies are treated equally. States Berger

The key characteristic of all pluralistic situations, whatever the details of their historical background, is that the religious ex-monopolies can no longer take for granted the allegiance of their client populations. Allegiance is voluntary and thus, by definition, less than certain. As a result, the religious tradition, which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now has to be marketed (emphasis his). (Berger 1967, 138)

Continues Berger, "the pluralistic situation is, by definition, a market situation" (138). Berger plays this out logically. Churches not protected by privilege and who must inspire the voluntary allegiance of a constituency must now compete for members with other similar religious bodies. They must market what they have to offer.

As American society developed bureaucratic corporations, educational institutions, and governmental institutions, American churches assumed a bureaucratic organizational structure. In the pluralistic situation, theological scholarship became "increasingly irrelevant" (141) in the market-oriented religious marketplace. The pastor’s pragmatic, organizational, and interpersonal skills became more important than theological thinking skills. Denominations as a whole and churches as individual units assumed the structure of the prevailing culture.

Berger sees in the development of churches in the American pluralistic context a sociological drive toward marketing (and he wrote this in 1967!). Again, if religion cannot be forced it must be marketed. "It is impossible," says Berger, "almost a priori, to market a commodity to a population of uncoerced consumers without taking their wishes concerning the commodity into consideration" (145). Once the dynamic of consumer preference is introduced, consumers "will prefer religious products that can be made consonant with secularized consciousness over those that cannot" (146). Berger sees this trend already in the 1960s with the movement in many churches toward therapeutic models of ministry. Thus, once marketing and consumer preference is introduced, that preference will be integrated into the life and mission of the church, and becomes part of the legitimizing process of religion toward society.

Theological Analysis of Church Marketing

Church marketing is the attempt to use objective and controlled analytical tools to discover consumer preferences and to tailor the ministry of the church to meet those preferences. As we have seen above in the sociological analysis, a certain degree of marketing is inherent in the American religiously pluralist system. This analysis also shows that once consumer preferences are incorporated into the church, these preferences can influence the very content of the church’s message and self-understanding.

Indeed, one of the key questions raised about the use of marketing in the church is "the impact a marketing orientation has on the church’s self-understanding and mission" (Kenneson and Street 1997, 16). Christian theology has grounded the identity and mission of the church in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is Christ who calls, gathers, and sends out the church to be in mission to the world. A key question raised about marketing is the extent to which the agenda and self-understanding of the church is grounded in the context as opposed to grounded in the call and sending by Christ.

Fundamentally, critics of church marketing claim that the techniques and strategies used are "at cross purposes with the church’s call to be a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of God’s reconciling work" (24). In a negative assessment, the process of research itself objectifies and makes of persons a commodity to be manipulated by shrewdly designed church programs. The church that is created, formed, and nurtured by church marketing is the product of its successful strategy – efficient, pragmatic, homogenous, and self-interested – and thus "the market-driven church is first and foremost the status quo church" (22). According to its critics, the church produced by marketing does not authentically represent the coming kingdom of God. Its identity is grounded in society and not in God’s call.

Advocates of church marketing claim that one can maintain a true distinction between the substance of the church’s message and the style through which that substance is transmitted. It is possible, claim church marketing advocates, to package and present the church’s message in a way that will be attractive to consumers "without prostituting our values, theology, or purposes" (Goetz, 123). Church marketers thus distinguish between style and substance, between theology and methodology.

The distinction between style and substance, or methodology and theology, is illustrated in Acts chapter 15. The apostle Paul proposed to the early church leaders in Jerusalem presenting the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles without demanding that Gentiles also adopt Jewish laws and customs. The substance was the message about Christ. The style was the manner in which the gospel was presented, in this case, with or without the context of Jewish customs. Says Luecke,

What we can observe from this first council is that the line between church substance and style can and does shift. For that time and place, they had to make a decision about what they could let change and what they had to preserve. Line-drawing decisions have been made again and again over the centuries of changed circumstances encountered by God’s people. (Luecke 1988, 25)

Of course decisions have been made over the centuries, and great rifts have occurred in the church precisely because Christians could not agree on where the line between substance and style could be drawn. In any mission situation, for example, the church wrestles about where the line should be drawn. In Africa, India, and New Guinea, the first Christian missions presented the gospel along with the cultural accoutrements of northern Europe. The church in Africa continues to wrestle with the distinction between substance and style. What indigenous cultural elements are matters of style only? Or at what point do indigenous practices conflict with the core message of the gospel?

The theological issues in this debate are the source of the church’s identity and the relationship of the church to its context. Church marketing attempts to use research to better understand the minds and attitudes of persons in the prevailing culture and find the points of contact that the church can legitimately address without compromising its message. For example, George Hunter states that research shows that today’s American people live in the twin worlds of technology and psychology. The church’s ministry can present the gospel in a way that speaks to persons in a language that contemporary people can relate to and address their deepest, if often unspoken, concerns, including alienation, the search for meaning, and coming to terms with mortality (Hunter 1992, 70).

The attempt to use church marketing to make the gospel message relevant to the contemporary culture is an expression of a theology of incarnation. God chose to relate to creation in a specific and unique way in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, says Christian theology, God became a human being and dwelled among humanity. The church attempts, given the limitations of our human (sinful) condition, to incarnate the gospel to the culture. Church marketing is the attempt to make the gospel recognizable and approachable to a world not otherwise interested. Critics of church marketing point out that in Christ, God became a human being, embodying the values of the kingdom of God and not adopting the methods and practices of the world in which he lived.

Peter Berger, cited earlier in his work The Sacred Canopy, notes that are only two options for the church’s relationship to society available to the church in a pluralistic situation. The first option is the "accommodating posture, reorganizing the institution in order to make it ‘more relevant’ to the modern world" (Berger 1967, 156). The second option is a "resisting" posture, in which the church stands apart from the prevailing culture and thus "entails the maintenance of sectarian forms of socio-religious organization" (164).

Is the attempt to make the gospel message relevant to the world a worthwhile effort? Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, in Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, give a straight-forward "no" to that question. In trying to "be relevant" the church has given away too much. The task of the church is "not the necessity to translate Christian convictions into a modern idiom, but rather to form a community, a colony of resident aliens which is so shaped by our convictions that no one even has to ask what we mean by confessing belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (Hauerwas and Willimon 1989, 170-71). The church marketing debate highlights the conflict in interpretations of what it means to be people of God living responsibly in the world.

Theological Reflection: Church Marketing As a Responsible Human Process

The church marketing movement uses the resources and techniques of society at large and will necessarily draw secular people into the church. That is precisely what church marketing is designed to do, that is, get secular people into the church. It is my view that marketing is a faithful use of the gifts God has given the church, and that church marketing is a faithful expression of the responsibility that Christians have to be in relationship to the world.

On one hand, I acknowledge that using church marketing techniques can legitimate the prevailing culture. As we have seen from the introduction, the younger three generations of Americans value individual choice. Each person judges the effectiveness of any presentation through the filter of direct experience and its impact on one’s own life. Even once inside the church, individual choice and direct experience will continue to be an important part of how one interprets the gospel.

However, the processes of individual choice and rational thought have proven valuable in human social development. Within recent human history, rational thought processes and individual choice seem to present the best potential ways for humans to organize life together. Tyranny and fate have been cruel masters in human history. Democracy and rationality seem to offer a better future. Of course, there are many variables as humans construct a framework for life together, but for now our social endeavor is to organize ourselves in a way that enables individual freedom and choice. Certainly the implementation of rational church marketing principles in the church legitimates the recent human social endeavor that we call democratic capitalism.

There is a theological interpretation that sees the hand of God behind the development of the human construct of freedom and democracy. This interpretation was expressed specifically in the last century in the social and nationalistic concept of manifest destiny and was integrated into America’s own indigenous religion, Mormonism. I am much more hesitant to draw close parallels between the "hand of God" and American history. However, if I were to play the prophetic role here I would say that insofar as God gives humans the ability to make decisions to live responsibly, freedom and democracy have the potential to better express creatively a just social order, as opposed to social alternatives designed thus far. This perhaps approximates what Richard John Neuhaus calls "critical patriotism," that "on balance and considering the alternatives, the influence of the United States is a force for good in the world" (Mouw and Griffioen 1993, 60). Freedom and democracy and the correlatives of individuality and choice present flawed but useful ways for humans to organize themselves socially, and God stands behind the process.

Having said that, I must quickly emphasize that this God transcends our human attempts to organize ourselves. We may use our God-given talents to conceive of and work to build a nation based on freedom and democracy, but this God always transcends our human constructs and we are always accountable to God for our efforts. Our social engineering is itself an exercise in human responsibility, and is likewise a necessary exercise in humility.

Martin Luther described this situation as the "two kingdoms," or "two hands" of God. All of life is subject to God’s authority. The church speaks with God’s authority in matters of salvation by grace. In other matters, Christians act in love toward neighbor and make wise and rational choices. Ultimately, though, decisions made even in love toward neighbor are necessarily limited by our human ability to comprehend and choose wisely.

The same social processes, including the trend toward individuality and rationalization of human structures that are manifested in church marketing are the processes that have led our culture to democracy. In this sense, church marketing is a reflection of the principles by which we organize ourselves, and can be seen as legitimating the prevailing culture. I prefer to conceive of these processes that have led to human individuality, dignity, democracy, and freedom as developing in an intricate interplay of cause and effect in church and society as part of the web of social patterns that enable us to live together in human community. For example, the Reformation played a role as a theological movement with sociological importance. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber describes the connectedness between the Puritan ethic and the development of democratic capitalism. There is a wonder and a mystery in the way this has played out, and in the wonder and mystery I see the hand of God. This hand is difficult to see or comprehend, and one must be exceedingly cautious about claiming to act for God in most human situations.

Let us return specifically to church marketing. Even the proponents of marketing claim it has its limits. There is a strong acknowledgment in church marketing circles that social analysis, research, and planning are more an art than a science. There is a sense that all of this is ultimately beyond human control. Marketing advocates do not claim to completely control the process. Says Barna, "we can’t make ministry a science: ‘if you do A, B, C, and D, you will definitely get outcome E.’ That removes God from the equation" (Goetz 122). There is a strong sense that one must remain open to the marvelous and mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, while at the same time doing what one humanly can. Here I am reminded of the church father’s admonition to "ora et labora," pray and work.

Church marketing is part of a process that does not end when a secular person comes inside the walls of a church. Of importance is what happens once secular people come into the church. This is not a new situation by any means. The epistles of Paul in the New Testament dealt with the same issue of new Christians sorting through their cultural customs and traditions and learning how to live more responsibly as God’s children. In the same manner, secular persons who come into the church are exposed to a process through which they have the opportunity to form their identity based around the person of Jesus Christ. Hunter calls this "transforming power," and he says that "effective churches invite and challenge their Christians, for their sakes and the world’s sake, to a life of obedience to the will of God" (Hunter 1992, 88). The road is, however, fraught with stumbling blocks and multiple distractions. Many who enter the church do not show much signs of this transformation. It has been so throughout the history of the church. Yet, church leaders have the responsibility to do what they can – to research, organize, and plan – but ultimately they recognize that the life of faith is beyond human engineering.

Church marketing is a reflection of the way Americans organize themselves in human society, but it is used to bring persons into relationship to God in Christ. It is an exercise in both grace and responsibility. Marketing in the church is an art and not a science. It is done in love for the community and out of a desire to introduce secular people to the love of God in Christ. The leaders of the marketing approach utilize rational processes and the social sciences as part of their God-given responsibility to the world. However, while making use of these processes, leaders in the church fundamentally recognize in humility that all human constructs are subject to the mystery and uncertainty that lies beyond us. It is an exercise, in the end, of faith.

Bibliography of Works Cited

(The works listed here are cited here and in the Introduction page.)

Ammerman, Nancy Tatom and Wade Clark Roof, eds. 1995. Work, Family, and Religion in Contemporary Society. New York: Routledge.

Barna, George. 1996. The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators. Dallas: Word.

________. 1995. Generation Next. Ventura, California: Regal Books.

________. 1992. Baby Busters. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.

Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. New York: Anchor.

Brueggemann, Walter. 1993. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism. Nashville: Abingdon.

Emerging Trends. May 1997.

Gallup, George H. Jr. 1996. Religion in America. Princeton, N.J.: The Princeton Religious Research Center.

Goetz, Dave. 1995. The Man Who Brought Marketing to the Church. Leadership, September 1995, 120-126.

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. 1989. Resident Aliens. Nashville: Abingdon.

Hunter, George G. III. 1992. How to Reach Secular People. Nashville: Abingdon.

Kallestad, Walt and Steve Schey. 1994. Total Quality Ministry. Minneapolis: Augsburg.

Kenneson, Philip D. and James L. Street. 1997. Selling Out the Church. Nashville: Abingdon.

Lindner, Eileen W., ed. c1998. Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 1998. Nashville: Abingdon.

Luecke, David. 1988. Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance. St. Louis: Concordia.

Mouw, Richard and Sander Griffioen. 1993. Pluralisms and Horizons. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Mullin, Robert Bruce and Russell E. Richey, eds. 1994. Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shawchuck, Norman and Philip Kotner, Bruce Wrenn, and Gustave Rath. 1992. Marketing For Congregations. Nashville: Abingdon.

Weber, Max. 1992. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Routledge. Original edition, HarperCollins Academic, 1930.

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