With names like Celebration, Journey and Elevate Life, large non-denominational churches use advertising, hooks and gimmicks to attract non-Christians to their Sunday worship events that may look like they’re designed to mimic a concert at a night club.
Elevate Life is pastored by Tim Staier, who rejects the term gimmick in reference to offering first time visitors a free pizza and movie rental from Redbox this past February.
“Every Sunday, every guest gets a gift because people think the church always wants something from you and we want to turn that on its head, so we give them something. We do a relationship series every February and this year we called it Cheap Date. Last year we called it Love Handles and I think we called it Do Not Disturb the year before. We aren’t trying to be trendy, we’re just trying to speak the language of normal people,” Staier said
Some raise a red flag of caution saying the body of Christ is an organism long before it’s an organization and, therefore, marketing strategies from the business world are inappropriate for the church. One critic says marketing inherently gives a negative reinforcement to a consumer identity instilled in people by the consumer culture we live in.
“The danger of marketing in the church is that it begins with transaction – an exchange that starts from the customer’s viewpoint. This makes the church a vendor or service agency and treats the Gospel as a type of product,” said Phil Kenneson, a theology professor at Millligan College in Tennessee who has a Ph.D. in theology and ethics.
This photo I found on Pinterest demonstrates how marketing brings Christ down, comparing Him to something like junk food simply by placing them together as though they are on the same level:
Mainline denominational churches have been on a numeric decline, so churches that look like an arena and feature a bookstore and Starbucks are trying hard to stabilize themselves. Journey Church’s pastor, Eric Jaffe, says the Christian church is at risk if it doesn’t have members to hand the faith on to.
“The Gospel is only as good as the next generation,” he said. “To preach the Gospel, people have to know you exist. We rely on word of mouth, but like any business, a combination of marketing helps. So, we use social media, mailers and billboards – the message can never change, but the methods must change.”
Kenneson said church marketers see marketing’s methods as a neutral force but these practices are not neutral when they go past simple mailers to slick productions and treating Sunday worship as something customers typically pay for – a rock concert. He said when a marketing orientation is embraced by a church, doing so changes the church’s identity.
“The big issue is how the marketing model changes how the church sees itself. Through most of its history, the church didn’t sit around thinking about what our product is, but when you view the faith through a marketing model, salvation becomes an individualistic exchange – it’s a product and the church is the broker,” Kenneson said.
Preferring church growth to be determined by things like love, joy, peace, kindness and the like, Kenneson says focusing on numeric growth places things that can be measured by research data and statistics ahead of love and other virtues that lay beyond marketing’s grasp. He said by shifting emphasis toward the church as an organization, it loses sight of its identity as the body of Christ.
“Surrounded by marketing in our culture, it’s no surprise that it has crept into the church. People who advocate for church marketing are well-meaning people but they haven’t thought carefully or deeply enough about the subtle effects of what they’re doing,” Kenneson said.
Nonetheless, traditional churches are not reaching the people churches like Elevate Life and Journey are attracting. Jaffe agrees churches should be careful to not intentionally change their message to please spiritual seekers, but the church has to be assertive to reach them.
“I grew up outside the church, so the traditional church is a foreign world to me. What you see is us trying to reach people who’ve never stepped foot in a traditional church. One of the dangers is shallow spiritual growth, so we must focus on repentance and discipleship, he said.
“The traditional churches need to get back to the heart of the Gospel and the evangelism that got them there.”