Why “church” in America needs a marketing makeover

Just this last weekend while watching Ohio State beat down Notre Dame, I saw the “Open Invitation” AT&T TV Spot with Steve Young, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, and Bo Jackson. Humorous commercials are great. I loved it. And honestly, this is what AT&T is going for, to be positively associated with a viewer’s experience. Have enough positive experiences with a brand and you’ll be more likely to recommend or purchase their products.

I grew up in a church-going family. My childhood was a happy and positive one, and I attribute that largely to the type of people my grandparents and parents were because they were church-going people. Because of this, I have tried to give my children a similar upbringing. Recently, though, I have begun to feel as though I and my family are sometimes perceived as odd for our consistent weekly church attendance. Of course, some may read this and think, “Well, who cares how you’re perceived? That’s not important.” And on some level they’d be right. But as I thought, I realized that so much of the media that we consume in our culture is really not much different from what happens at church.

Book Club: Sunday School

For example, let’s say I ask a friend, “Hey, would you like to join our community book club? Right now we’re reading one of the most popular self-improvement books ever. We have great discussions about it. What do you think?” Book clubs are pretty popular now. (I even started a “Guys, read too” Book Club a few years ago because many of the community book clubs of which I was aware were female-only. But I digress.) Now, what if instead I asked in this way, “Hey, would you like to come to church with me on Sunday? We have a Bible study class you might enjoy. What do you think?” My gut tells me that most people would be much more interested in my first invitation than in the second.

Sermons: TED Talks

TED talks have become incredibly popular with some Talks generating millions of views. Some of these talks contain inspiring ideas and stories that one could easily imagine being retold from a church pulpit. Every 6 months our church holds a marathon conference over a weekend with speakers drawn from church leadership. Each conference session lasts 2 hours and there are 5 of them over the weekend. Now if I told a friend that I was going to listen to sermons for 10 hours over that weekend, I’d get a look like, “Are you serious? How boring. You’re crazy!” But, I view it almost as though they are TED Talks with ideas and topics that God has chosen and deemed worth spreading (See also http://www.normons.com/why-you-shouldnt-be-scared-mormon-general-conference/).

Also, many of the most popular podcasts today teach and share principles (motivation, living a good life, parenting principles) that were originally taught to our grandparents as part of worship service sermons or Sunday School lessons.

Connotation and Pre-conceived Notions

My personal experiences with people make me think that much of the imagery and emotion that the word church conjures up is negative. Maybe people remember feelings of dread having to sit through boring hymns and sermons or resisting parents’ efforts to prepare them for church because they’d rather stay home and play video games or something. Or maybe the negative emotion comes from seemingly antagonistic nuns, priests, bishops, or pastors from childhood. Or maybe from harrowing news stories, scandals, and coverups of child molestation from priests. Or maybe the negative imagery comes from Hollywood or popular culture painting religious groups as zealots or corrupt hypocrites. For whatever reason, I feel that the brand church is experiencing a decline. The Pew Research Group study on America’s Changing Religious Landscape corroborates this. Over the past 7 years, survey participants that identified themselves as Christians in the United States dropped by 8 percentage points from 78.5% to 70.6%. During this same time the percentage of people identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated grew by 6 percentage points from 16% to 22% (Pew Forum, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). Church attendance across the board is dropping (statistics range from 40% attendance to 35% or as low as 11%). Church has too much negative baggage. Even though so much of media: books, podcasts, TED talks align with and disseminate principles taught in church, it is as though today’s preachers no longer preach from a synagogue or church pulpit or even consider themselves ministers, instead they teach from behind recording microphones, laptop computers writing blogs, or on a TED stage.

And because of this, I am left to wonder, either my perception of the decline in popularity of church is really what is off, or else church is really in need of a marketing makeover to replace the negative imagery and connotations in the public’s mind.

In her book Brands of Faith, Mara Einstein, writes, “In and of themselves, products have no meaning. It is the marketers who give them meaning, and it is that meaning that is the product. It is not the soap or the car or the coffee, but the meaning behind these commodities. Much as religion created meaning for people’s lives over the centuries, now marketers create meaning out of the products that fill our existence. These products come to be not just clothes to wear or cars to drive, but elements of who we are.” She goes on to argue that marketing has become such a part of our culture that we use what we buy to construct our identities: “Whereas once our family, friends, schools, and religious institutions gave us a basis for understanding who we are and what we value, these groups have been usurped by marketers and mass media.” And hence, why I feel that church needs a marketing makeover.

Unfortunately, church is a universal term and its unlikely that any one religion would undertake such a large media makeover campaign aimed at improving church’s perception. Maybe I’m being a pessimist. Perhaps an organization such as Foundation for a Better Life — which puts up the Billboards on freeways that teach values like the one showing Albert Einsten with the text: “As a student, he was no Einstein. Confidence. Pass it on.” — would do so? Or perhaps enough religions would put aside doctrinal differences for the sake of rescuing the public’s perception of church. Whereas I perceive that church has been a source of positive influence and identity in my life, dear reader, consider this an “Open Invitation” for a church marketing makeover.

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