November 16, 2008 Tony Morgan

Why Churches Should Stop Marketing

Last week I voiced my opinion that churches should stop marketing. Here’s why. It’s not about your marketing.

One of the reasons why I hate it when other churches try to mimic NewSpring’s success is that they try to copy the tactics instead of the core objective. Yes, we use marketing techniques at NewSpring from time to time. If you think marketing is the key to ministry growth, though, you’ve missed the point completely.

The objective is to help people enter into a relationship with Jesus and take steps in their walk with Christ. When life change happens, people talk. When people talk, more people show up. The main reason why new people visit NewSpring Church is because a friend invited them to attend. People invite their friends because they have a reason to invite their friends. I know. That’s a little simplistic. But, honestly, we’ve overcomplicated things a bit.

Our hearts are pure. We want more people to be in a relationship with Jesus. We want more people to attend our services. We want more people to participate in our classes. We want to see more people engaged in home groups. We want more students to show up. We want more people to attend the big event. Just so you know, I happen to be in the camp that thinks more is better when it comes to people hearing our message.

My concern, though, is that we jump to marketing tactics too quickly. We think if we’re going to get a crowd, we need to market it more. That’s lazy thinking. Marketing is the easy way out. More marketing doesn’t make for more people. At least I hope not.

Part of my fear, frankly, is that our marketing may actually work. If we haven’t asked the right questions first, the people who show up may find that we’re not really smoking what we’re selling. We, the church, end up looking like hypocrites. We’re marketing one thing but people are experiencing something completely different.

That’s why I think churches should stop marketing. No, maybe not forever. Maybe not even beyond your next ministry team meeting. I think it would be healthy, though, for you to take marketing tactics completely off the table for a moment and ask some challenging questions. Those questions might include:

  • If we stopped marketing, what would we have to change for people to invite their friends?
  • If we stopped marketing, would the environment make people want to come back?
  • If we stopped marketing, would the conversation be relevant to people’s lives?
  • If we stopped marketing, would the relationships keep people connected?
  • If we stopped marketing, would the next step be obvious?
  • If we stopped marketing, would people still believe in and be excited about our “brand”?
  • If we stopped marketing, might we actually help remove some of the noise from people’s lives?
  • If we stopped marketing, would we get a better response when we start using marketing tactics?
  • If we stopped marketing, are we more likely to be sensitive to God’s leading?

The point here is that we’re trying to fix the problem by playing the marketing card. Direct mail won’t fix your problem. Billboards won’t fix your problem. Neither will platform announcements or bulletin ads or bumper stickers. At some point marketing may be a good option, but until you answer the right questions, marketing could be what’s preventing your success.

If your church has stopped growing, marketing is not your solution. If you have stopped seeing life change, marketing is not the answer.

That’s why marketing is evil. It gets in the way of churches facing the real issues that need to be addressed. In my mind, anything that keeps the church from being the church needs to be challenged.

And that’s why I believe churches should stop marketing.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

Comments (38)

  1. Kelly Adkins

    I just had this little conversation in my head last week. Thanks for making me not feel quite as crazy as normal — and for cutting to the core of both the problem and the dream.

  2. adam

    Tony.

    I think the beauty of this idea is that we have to think to ourselves, “OK, once we quit pouring energy into marketing, what are we left with?”

    Honestly, marketing is simply about packaging. It isn’t really about the product or service you provide, marketing is advertising. Marketing is communicating.

    Ok, so our churches may do a lot of communicating, we may work really hard on our packaging, but if we stripped that away, what are we left with?

    Jesus

    So yeah, we’re trying to “market” jesus and the gospel, but is there anything we can do that is more glamourous or more attractive than the gospel in action? is our marketing simply distracting people from the core message? does our marketing become another barrier that people must work through instead of something that draws them?

  3. Great post. I totally agree. It’s sad that so many people place worship attendance as the or one of the main ways to judge a church. You’re right, we can market to the point we have tons of members. If we care more about the numerical growth over the spiritual growth then we have missed. Praying for you and your ministry!

  4. Johnathan

    Great post…I remember when I sat in the Newspring membership class and Jake Beaty asked everyone why they initially came to NS. All of them (about 100 people)said because someone invited them. No one said they came because of a billboard or flyer. Word of mouth works. It is the oldest and most effective form of marketing.

  5. Okay, wow. I feel so much better now, and I’m embarrassed about my public panic attack on your intial post. I appreciate the reminder . . . and the list of questions to share with our leadership team.

  6. I understand (and agree with) the heart of the post but I feel like this smacks of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    We can and should by constantly trying to get back to doing God’s ministry and if we need to stop marketing to get back to the simplicity then I agree, but I don’t think it’s a necessary measure.
    I think my key understanding is: simplify, at whatever cost necessary.

  7. Kirt Manuel

    The first component of any marketing is product. You can’t “sell” what you don’t have. Thus you don’t have an inviting, safe, relevant church that encourages spiritual growth and Christian community just because your marketing efforts say you do. Disingenuous descriptions are really just lies.

  8. Thanks for the post, Tony! It’s confirmation. I’ve only recently learned what my purpose is in the church — communications. What I’ve learned about “doing” that is that it’s a lot of teaching — and vision casting. The people aren’t doing because they don’t know what to do. Our staff has been discussing ways to help those convinced people to see, really see the unconvinced and long for them the way Jesus does. Now I see I wasn’t as “out there” as has been thought.

  9. Call me still not getting it. What is new here? As suspected the earlier post is basically thrown out. No one’s marketing is stopping. As Michael Buckingham pointed out at the very beginning it is all about what is behind it, blah blah blah. And he was told that his answer was the most dangerous. All marketing should stop. For a second I guess seems to be the answer here.

    Did you give the clicked money back for the ad for sermon branding up there?

  10. I think the “life change” issue is most important. Sure a church may be growing, but is it just taking Christians from other churches? Or is it bringing in non-believers from outside of the church to whom we can invest.

    I think you pose an interesting issue: are we placing marketing efforts ahead of our relationships?

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  11. Michael

    i’ve often wondered what would happen if we took 100% of our marketing budget and reallocated it to serving the community in Jesus name.

  12. Walker

    right on man. how tragic it would be if people became so caught up in the means that they missed the message.

  13. paul

    If that is what marketing is, then I would whole-heartedly agree. On the other hand, what if marketing is less about old school styles of promotion and more about communication.

    I disagree with the idea that people always tell others when they have life change. It just doesn’t happen as often as it could (probably less than half). Where I am, they rarely do. It’s embarrassing to a lot of people to acknowledge that they were messed up and sinful.

    Marketing doesn’t have to be the old ineffectual ways of the past (mailers, postcards, ads, etc.). Many new ways have come up in the past ten years that are way more effective and show the real need for communication. Seth Godin could teach most churches a lot about getting a message out. Traditional marketing just won’t do it.

    For my culture, and probably many others, the objective isn’t to “help people enter into a relationship with Jesus and take steps in their walk with Christ.” It is many other things. We might try to let people know they aren’t alone in their struggles, or let them know there are resources and people who can help them, or that there are things happening that they have no idea about. This idea of there being one very limited objective is… well very limiting.

    Tony, and those who read this, please lump marketing in general together with failed attempts. The two don’t always go together. I can only think of the message this post sends to some people and wonder what the results will be.

    Sure, there are some churches out there who have no idea what message they are trying to send, yet no they should market themselves. Hopefully, they will stop sending useless messages out in mass. Also, hopefully, some people won’t use this article to give up on communicating the gospel in all it’s forms to those within reach.

  14. danielle

    tony – thanks a lot for this. i’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy about our staff’s reliance on announcements and cool print pieces to gain momentum and get the word out, rather than creating memorable experiences that people talk about.

    this will really help me articulate that better.

  15. Rick

    Great thoughts, Tony. I remember listening to an Andy Stanley message talking about their decision to not do the typical church marketing and to focus on invites. It seems to have worked out okay.

    Make your worship experience worth inviting people to, from the parking lots to the children’s programming, to the worship, and the message, while focusing on why you do it all – Jesus. The word-of-mouth marketing will take care of itself.

  16. I love the point you’re trying to make…but it’s not really about marketing, by making it about marketing you’ve not only watered down the message but you’ve kicked some of those that are trying so hard to help the church communicate the message better, stronger.

    Your arguments about church marketing don’t feel fully informed. Church communicators, those doing the marketing, are indeed about more than crowds and pretty pictures. There’s a lot of ignorance about what church marketing is and does…let’s not perpetuate that.

    The truth is we really on the church too much instead of being the church. What if we stopped preaching, what if we stopped having church on Sunday, what if we closed small groups…what if we just started to act out our faith. It would make all of these things, including marketing, much more effective.

  17. Mike

    Good thoughts. I think it is a step in the right direction. I wonder if it is deeper though than just evil billboards.

    – What if you stop marketing and people still don’t invite their friends to the “big event” or the classes? What then?

    – What if we can trust and equip Christians to be spiritually mature enough to “be Jesus” in their immediate community instead of depending on others in a different venue?

    – What if New Spring “attenders” actually introduced the entire Anderson county and surrounding counties to a holistic relationship with Jesus but didn’t come to your campus? Would you still count that as success if attendance dropped “on campus” but more people were in relationship with Jesus in your community? Would you still cease the marketing (Gorilla style or not)?

    I like the direction of your post and your heart here. I think I get it. I just wonder what would happen if we dare to truly be innovative and push others deeper into Jesus (without us in the middle). What would it look like to encourage people NOT to show up but to stay and do life, be the church in smaller settings, not less people, just not centralized?

    I agree that trying to fix a deeper problem by playing the marketing card is not the answer. I also agree that the one objective is to move people into a relationship with Jesus so deep that they are willing to take up their mat and following Jesus. Losing themselves. Dieing to themselves. ALL of themselves. And Yes, we have to be willing to go that far or what’s the point? And we all have to go on our own eventually.

    So are we willing to not only stop marketing to do this, but are we willing to stop obsessing about more people showing up to our events (big or small) no matter if they are invited or if they are targeted by a mailer?

    (Sorry for the length of this comment)

  18. Tony Morgan

    mike, God may use the strategy you’ve described in your culture. all i know is what i’ve seen work in our culture.

    i’ve seen the benefit of more people showing up to one of our services to hear the message and participate in corporate worship. hearts are changed. lives have been changed.

    i’m not saying your approach is wrong. it’s just that i’m not convinced decentralized ministry is right for us because i’ve seen the way God has completely transformed hundreds of people lives here in our community because friends invite friends to corporate gatherings. it’s hard for me to discount the stories of life change i’ve seen.

    tony

  19. Mike

    Tony – Thanks for your response. Just to be clear, I am not against the church gathering for worship in one place. I AM for it – I think it is right. I am not even against changed lives. That’s not my point.

    I’m just asking the “what if” questions here to your post.

    I respect your position about culture, but I would venture to say that we are not too different. I live in the same middle class, predominately white, suburban American culture that you do. And I don’t believe being willing to respond to Jesus’ love and scandalous grace has anything to do with cultural context.

    Sure, wow WE create strategy does (but again, we live in similar cultures). And that is my paradox here. Marketing aside, what are we really saying our objective is? Is it is to point others to Jesus and allow them to become more like Jesus (individually – since at the end of the day that is all that really matters and all we are accountable for), or is it to grow our “brand” and attendance to the big events so we can feel better about what we are doing? Who is it about?

    Please understand that I am not implying that you need to change NS’s strategy – after all you have a new building to pay for. ;-) I am simply taking your thoughts a bit deeper than what you proposed. My thoughts to your thoughts. I am also not saying that what you are doing at NS is wrong. It isn’t. I would never make that judgment.

    I believe that we are all on a journey and if we are truly pressing deeper into God then we should see things differently this year than we did last year and we will see things differently next year than we do today. Right?

  20. I had a discussion with a friend this evening that is similar to the one occurring between Mike and Tony Morgan. I think that ‘corporate’ gatherings are acceptable and necessary but not to the exclusion of being the church the rest of the week.

    The problem that occurs is that a lot of effort, time, money, and other resources go into making that ‘event’ or service an ‘experience’ that will impact lives. So when lives are impacted we hold them up as a sign of success (a business evaluation that could be argued shouldn’t be used in church settings) and therefore justify our methods.

    Personally, I see this as an issue that builds 4-wall mentality for the modern church. We ‘give at the office’ and maybe we struggle with finding time, money, resources to do church in our neighborhoods.

    The question I have is – how do you measure the impact of people being the church body in their every day lives? The stats that I have seen show that people who visit a worship experience only are many, many times less likely to make a decision for Christ than those who have had a small group invest into their lives. Its the personal impact of everyday people doing what Christ has called them to do that has the greatest impact. Yet we continue to invest most of the church operating budget into buildings, programs, salaries, and other incidentals.

    Is all that money spent to impact the lost or to keep the found?

    Be honest for a second… how many of the people who sit in church on Sunday morning need Jesus plus ?

    Jesus plus expensive light shows
    Jesus plus air conditioning
    Jesus plus a coffee shop
    Jesus plus a great choir
    Jesus plus a charismatic speaker

    How many of us, myself included, could be satisfied with a gathering of people who were happy to be together because they were lifting Christ’s name up?

    I want someone to be able to emphatically tell me that we haven’t bought into the prosperity model. “Look what Christ is doing with our building fund – see who is speaking this week – join this program and your problems will be solved”

    Do you think the slick advertising or big events cover over the fact that divorce is just as prevalent inside the church as it is outside? But hey, we can fix that by showing up at the poles and voting for a referendum that will protect marriage…right? So lets invest millions of dollars there while husbands and wives who showed up for the ‘worship experience’ fall apart the rest of the week.

    I better stop…

  21. A great example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater… all the accouterments work, have worked and will continue to work, you just can’t let all that consume and distract you from the mission. Balance.

  22. hi, tony.
    first time here. i work with college ad/marketing majors, challenging the “evil” components of their field and encouraging them to live out the great commandments. i don’t envy their road ahead.

    a couple of thoughts:

    your work – on this blog or in your church – is inseparable from marketing, which is fine. but that fact requires a distinction between the good marketing you’re doing and the evil marketing you’re denouncing. without a clarification of what you mean by “marketing,” this sounds a bit gimmicky – like you’re trying to get a rise out of readers.

    second, not exactly related to the first, lame pastors can’t grow vibrant churches. marketability is directly linked to one’s cool factor; to one’s charisma and charm and eloquence and humor. you said people visit newspring because friends invite, but i’m guessing they stay – at least in part – because you (if you’re the up front “face” to the congregation) market well with a high cool factor. the gospel is compelling, but not as compelling as being in the right club.

    i’ll try to stop back again. take care.

  23. Chad

    As long as there’s 4,900 children dying per day of hunger, we shouldn’t be spending money on church marketing. Or church furniture. There’s too much need that surrounds us for there to be any reason to be spending money on promoting our churches. To believe that marketing is biblical or even beneficial is completely and utterly absurd.

    People who think marketing is okay are the ones that haven’t looked into the eyes of the men, women, and children who daily struggle to find clean water and a bite of food.

    Our American, western culture has unfortunately been mixed in with our pursuit of Christ. The American church is the rich man in the bible who loves Jesus, but refuses to sell all he has.

  24. Uhh that’s not marketing at all. That’s advertising. Marketing from a business perspective is “bringing a product to market.” From a church perspective, marketing is “bringing the gospel to people.”

    It’s not whether or not you will do marketing, its how you will do it. Every church has a brand, its how will you brand your church or will you let others brand it for you.

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