The Marketing of the Church
I was just on Facebook, and I started to notice the ads which appear on the right side-bar. Now, in my profile, I am identified as a Lutheran pastor, so naturally I get all sorts of "churchy" ads. In particular, however, I have seen ad after ad from church marketing companies.
The marketing of the church is nothing new, and in itself is traditionally called Evangelism. We want to bring a particular kind of person into the Christian Church: Namely, sinners, so that we might impart to them the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ through the Word and Sacraments. Paul and the Apostles were in a very real sense church marketers, and were highly successful at it. On the day of Pentecost they added 3000 souls to the Christian Church. You can read about it in Acts chapter 2. In fact, I hope you do.
As you read through this chapter, however, I want you to notice one thing in particular about the preaching of Peter: He broke every rule of modern advertising in the book. First, He insulted his target audience. He scared them to death. He didn't make them feel good about themselves. In fact, he accused them of crucifying he Son of God who was both Lord, the maker of the universe, and Christ, the Lord's Anointed Savior.
The crowd, in hearing this message was, "pricked in their hearts." They were slain by the message of Peter and the other Apostles, and they cried out, "Men, and brethren, what shall we do?" Now came the pitch, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this promise is for you, and for your children, and for as many as the Lord our God shall call." Just when the Apostles had a captive audience who were ready to do just about anything to escape the doom that the Apostles pronounced upon them, the Apostles respond by giving away their product: The forgiveness of sins in Jesus Name.
Now, it didn't always go so well. Modern marketing practice teaches that you should know your target audience as much as possible, and craft your message to draw them in. It is key that you learn from your mistakes. What works with one demographic won't work for another. And yet the Apostles kept repeating the same message everywhere they went. They never changed their pitch. They always accused people of their sins, and they always gave away the product: The forgiveness of sins in Jesus' Name. In Acts 17, When Paul was preaching on Mars Hill in Athens, he accused the whole city of worshiping dumb idols made of gold and silver, when all this time there was the true God, watching, noting everything. He might have overlooked their ignorant idol worship, but the day of judgment would soon come upon them when even the dead would be raised and held to account for all of their sins. Same method: Accuse and call to repentance. But the response in this case was completely different. Almost everyone laughed at Paul. Just a few were interested.
Besides this, Paul repeatedly offended the Jews, even the ones who were already members of Christian churches, by insisting that they had to stop demanding that new converts be circumcised, keep the Sabbath, only eat clean meats, and all manner of customs (Col. 2:14 f.; Gal. 2:1f.). Now, I am sure that any MBA will tell you that if your customers crucify you, you had better change your product and advertising. The Apostles didn't seem to care one whit about preaching toward a specific audience. Their message never changed, even when it led to persecution, and death.
Now, why did the Apostles break all the rules of modern marketing? Because their "product" was clearly defined by God, and not by any man. Their "marketing methods" likewise were not developed by trial and error, but were handed down to them by Jesus Christ (Mat. 28:18; Luke 24:44f.). Their success was measured not by the number of people packing the pews, but by their faithfulness to the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Name, so that they even rejoiced when they were counted "worthy to suffer shame" for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).
All of this is lost on the modern church marketers. I see in my Facebook sidebar the following two representative ads: "Hey Pastors Reach more people by finding out what Unchurched people in your community are thinking! Find out in this FREE special report!". "Church Marketing Tips 10 advertising secrets every Church needs. Make your advertising work harder and bring more people to your church for less money." The implication is clear: If you are not filling the pews, it is because your message and marketing strategy is wrong, and if you fix it, well, then you will get results: more people, more money.
This is the method of what is known as the "seeker sensitive", "relevant", or "church growth" movements. Change the content of your preaching to meet he felt needs of your audience. This works very well when you are selling cars and cornflakes, but the only way that it can work in the Church is to remove from the church what makes the church a church: The preaching of repentance and the remission of sins in Jesus' Name.
The job of a preacher is to awaken the real needs of not just a target demographic, but of all people. What people need more than anything else is the forgiveness of sins. The problem is, they don't feel this need unless they hear the thundering voice of God damning them for their sins, declaring in no uncertain terms that God, and not any man, defines what is holy and righteous, and that if you do not meet God's standards you will be damned to hell, no matter how you feel about it.
If this real need is not felt by the members of a church, then the marketing, and the church has failed, even if the pews and the bank accounts are overflowing. For the Church which Jesus founded with His own blood has only one product: the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness is not received except by faith, when sinners see their lost condition, and in the terrors of hell, believe the wonderful comforting news that God, in Jesus Christ has taken away all their sins and made them holy and righteous in His sight.