Church Marketing 101: Preparing Your Church for Greater Growth, by Richard L. Reising Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. 206 pages.
“We often say in our seminars that over 50 percent of the churches in the United States should not promote themselves. Shocked? The simple reason is that if your congregants are not actively inviting people to your church, there are reasons why. If visitors are not staying, there are reasons why” (20).
The rest of the book attempts to help a congregation’s leadership see their church through the eyes of an outsider. The ten chapters cover many of the same principles that a congregational analysis (such as Parish Services, School of Outreach, etc) would address. Below is a brief summary of each chapter’s content:
- The term “marketing,” as Reising uses it, is a synonym for “communication.” “All your church has done and does, including your members and your denomination, combines to shape what people think – and ultimately forms their thoughts on whether they consider your church” (22). “Our challenge as the New Testament church…is to help the world perceive Christ not for who we have been but for who he is” (29).
- Everything about a church communicates something about that church – from name, signage, external promotion, and location – to website, worship style, ushers, vocabulary, and attire of worshippers (36-52). What is your church saying about itself? “People are not ashamed of Christ, they are ashamed of their church” (57).
- “…God, in His goodness, enables us to have such new lives in him that we often lose track of what it felt like to be on the outside looking in” (67). How can a congregation be sensitive to a newcomer, without compromising the church’s doctrine or identity?
- Using demographics, psychographics, and community needs to understand one’s target audience. “Are your church’s messages meeting people where they live?…Does your crowd reflect your community?…What does your community need from the church?” (95). In other words: How might qualitative information help influence a church’s work within that congregation’s specific context?
- How well does your congregation connect with its visitors? How can you remove obstacles to first-time and repeated attendance? “For the most part, there are two ways nonbelievers make it into an actual church: (1) by coming on their own and (2) by coming with a churchgoer. That pretty much covers it,” (101). “…the easier the invite, the more likely it is to happen. Make it easier and less intimidating on all parties, and it will happen more often,” (105).
- How might the atmosphere of a church impact visitors? This chapter addresses hospitality, comfort, consistency, relevance, understandability, and sensitivity (118). “If members walk out of your service saying, ‘I wish my unsaved friend had been here,’ they will start to think about inviting their friend,” (135).
- How can a church understand and address its local community? What could a congregation learn from Nike or Pepsi? “We all know the people we desire to reach need Christ…the challenge is…many people likely cannot conclude their specific need for him” (143).
- Branding “is built around the aim of using all your marketing efforts to consistently communicate a strong central image and theme,” (160). “Every organization has, in the mind of its target audience, a definition of who they are. They all have a brand. Some organizations deliberately create it and communicate it to their audience. Others miss this opportunity and therefore give outsiders the authority and responsibility to create a definition for them,” (165).
- Having a vision and purpose is essential to communicating what you want others to know. “Your church does not need a vision statement. It needs a vision,” (179). [emphasis added]
- Putting it all together: How does a congregation “relate to, identify with, and attract the unchurched,” (197)? How do you form a ministry plan that addresses the spiritual need of everyone, from unchurched to lifelong members? How do you communicate this plan to the congregation so that they can get involved easily (195-203)?
In the field of church marketing, church leadership, and congregational planning, the recent movements within Christendom have made some Christians rightfully and understandably leery of books like this one. (For example, Michael Horton raises a good point in Christless Christianity—reviewed here: “While God wants to give us everlasting life, we settle for trivial satisfaction of superficial needs that are to a large extent created within us by the culture of marketing. Only when God’s law— his holiness, majesty, and moral will—create in us a sense of our moral offensiveness to God does the gospel communicate deeper answers that our felt needs and cheap cravings only mask,” (34).)
Reising does his best to dispel any doubts in the introduction: “Marketing, to me, is not about sugarcoating or misrepresenting; it is about effectively communicating. It is meant to support a work that God is doing in your church—not to replace it. Also, there is no suggestion here to compromise the gospel or suppress the ministry of God’s Spirit. The presence of God and a strong scriptural foundation are prerequisites to any movement of God in our churches,” (14).
Reising attempted to write the book apart from doctrinal presuppositions: “I will not get into divisive doctrinal issues but rather will attempt to help all churches focus on forming stronger connections and developing deeper bonds of relevancy with those whom they are trying to affect for God,” (14). However, it quickly became apparent that he has a misunderstanding of a number of doctrines, ranging from the ministry to the call to fellowship.
At times, the book seemed both overly simplified and overly complicated; perhaps that is the mark of writing a basic book on a complex subject. Reising did use some jargon—the chapter on “Understanding Your Market” (chapter 4) was laden with “felt needs”-style talk. However, Reising was quick to point out that an unchurched prospect may have no understanding of his or her true need for a Saviour (85, 104-105).
In chapter 9 (“A Vision for the Future”), Reising seems to confuse the English-language leadership term “vision” with a Biblical vision from God. After quoting Habakkuk 2:2-3—in which the Lord tells the prophet to “write a vision on tablets”—the subsequent paragraph uses the same word with a different meaning: “If you can accomplish the vision alone, there is hardly a need to write it, but if it requires the help of others, the vision must be plain so you are all running together toward the same goal,” (181). This was part of some recurring theological confusion about whether God speaks to Christians today as he did in days of old.
Reising does his best to frame the business-world concept of “marketing” in terms that church workers will not dismiss. He says that “marketing” is simply “effective communication” or “connecting with people” (14). According to his definition, marketing always takes place, because everything—from curb appeal to logo to worship style to member hospitality (and dozens of other factors)—communicates something about the congregation (21-59).
The book was quite helpful in a variety of ways. There were a number of lists throughout the book that would be helpful for comparing a church or congregation to an objective standard; in other words, this book would help a congregation see their facilities, promotions, and worship services through the eyes of an outsider or first-time visitor. These lists, illustrations, and examples (e.g., pp. 36-52, 67-72, 102, 107-110, 123-124, 198-202) provide an easy starting point for examining a congregation’s worship (according to externals such as style, facilities, and people in positions of service) and outreach.
This book would also help a congregation in the proper stewardship of their gifts – both the stewardship of resources and the stewardship of God’s Word. The author demonstrates and reinforces the necessity and blessings of having an organized plan for regular contact with prospects. “It is important to remember that repetition (both in continued promotion and in consistency of design and communication style) breeds a coherent sense of self. …Efforts with consistency simply pay off,” (41). Evangelism efforts ought to be regular and consistent in message, appearance, and audience. Worship services ought to be consistent in style. Additionally, Reising hinted at the spiritual problem behind lagging attendance: “If they are not coming [to worship], they do not think it is valuable in light of alternatives,” (111).
As congregations try to communicate law and gospel to prospective members, the congregation should also be aware of what else it may potentially communicate. Everything from website to appearance to history to people will be judged by a prospect (35-51). Improving our communication across all these categories takes a long-term commitment: “Perceptions that have been consistent for the long term require a long-term commitment to both actual change and the communication of that change,” (51).
At the close of chapter 2, Reising reinforced the primacy of the gospel and the subservient role of any promotions, marketing, or communication: “And please, do not mistake my observations and my passion for connecting with the lost for a desire to water down the gospel. Scripture reveals that Christ is either your cornerstone or your stumbling block. You either find his truths to be the foundation of your life or you stumble over them (1 Peter 2:7-8). Clearly, to some, Christ Himself will be a stumbling block. Therefore, you need to know in advance that not everyone will walk out of your church singing its praises. It is completely scriptural that you will not please everyone—but we must be sure that we are not creating stumbling blocks because of our inability to relate to and adapt ourselves (as Paul taught us) to the needs and understanding of the lost,” (57).
What’s the bottom line? Where would this book find its best use? In addition to the pastor’s shelf, sections of it might be good reading for a mature church council in a plateauing or seemingly stagnant congregation. Chapters 2, 3, 5, and 10 seemed particularly insightful. The book also might be helpful for pastors in mission congregations, or churches about to undergo a building project, or churches with a struggling children’s ministry.
“Let God’s best gifts be used for worship.” This principle, from the CW Manual, applies beyond the church service as well. God’s best gifts—whether people with graphic design talent or people with an aptitude for teaching children—ought to be encouraged in works of service within God’s church. This book helped point out areas where the doctrine of vocation should have practical impact within a congregation’s ministry.
The second subtitle of this book was “A revolutionary blend of corporate marketing strategy and Biblical wisdom.” There wasn’t anything truly revolutionary, but the basic message was helpful: Do your best to address or remove the external reasons why your members don’t bring visitors to church, and the reasons why those visitors do not return.
This book is not a manual on getting more people into church, in the misguided “church growth” mindset. This book is a reality check for understanding how people think and what people see in a church.