Church Growth: Thoughts on Advertising

churchgrowthl-thumb.jpgAfter my post on Details and the Devil, I think I need to clarify my thoughts on advertising. In fact, we recently had a budget meeting where a proposal was made for us to spend $60,000 year on advertising. It didn’t pass.

We were told by a professional in marketing that this is what an effective ad campaign would cost. And so, I’ve been thinking about advertising. (And who couldn’t be thinking about advertising when they broadcast more ads than football during the Sugar Bowl?!)

1. I think most advertising is wasted money and, more importantly, contrary to the mission the church. When we give up trying to steal members from other churches, the whole concept has to be rethought and a lot of advertising becomes pointless.

And this is really hard because most of us church leaders have been “churched” for so long that we don’t have any idea how the unchurched think. However, we are likely pretty good at appealing to others with church homes. That is, we can be very good at stealing other church’s members.

2. Nonetheless, some advertising is essential. People who hear good things about you or who’ve been personally invited need to be able to find your facilities and find out about your congregation. Hence, being in the Yellow Pages and having an attractive, informative web site are important. Nowadays, more people will look for the web site than in the Yellow Pages.

3. We live in a mobile society. An urban congregation may lose 10% of its members a year due to tranfers out of town. You’d sure like to attract your fair share of those moving in just to replace those you lose. A powerfully evangelistic church might not have to worry about this, but very few grow evangelistically at a pace that matches the natural attrition from moving out. Some churches get contact information from the local utility company or city to locate people new to town and contact them through direct mail.

I look at this from a Golden Rule standpoint. If I were new in town, I would be very glad to have a few mailers or even a few personal postcards inviting me to church. I mean, it’s just really hard to tell much about a church from the Yellow Pages. An introduction is helpful. But I don’t think I’d like to have people knock on my door (unless they were coming to help hang pictures!)

However, while this sort of effort might lead to church growth, it won’t lead to much evangelism. And we need to be careful not to confuse the two.

4. If you offer support groups or 12-step programs, advertising those may well be the only effective way to get the word out that this service is available. Such programs often require an impersonal approach to invitation, as people are just not going to share many of these problems with friends. In fact, many churches offer these at times separate from regular services due to privacy issues.

5. Some churches offer “community seminars” on parenting, financial management, marriage enrichment, and such, and these really ought to be advertised. These programs should not be foremost evangelistic but should be run as a service to a hurting world. The love shown to hurting people will be evangelistic in effect, even though not evangelistic in intention. Certainly we should invite people to learn more about Jesus, but not as a bait-and-switch tactic. The focus should be on the program as advertised.

6. We sometimes have a “Fall Festival” in lieu of Halloween, or an Easter Egg hunt, or a VBS for our children. And we typically advertise these events to the community. We make a point to get names and addresses of visitors and follow up with a note inviting them to church and to learn about Jesus.

We feel that it’s important for parents who aren’t part of a church to be able to bring their kids to these kinds of events. If nothing else, it creates a positive impression for both the parents and the kids — and will pay off for Jesus in the long term.

We also typically invite the children of parents we minister to in through food distribution and such. It helps build our credibility within their community — that we are willing not only to feed them but to let their children play with ours. It’s hard to bridge the racial/economic gap, and events like these help.

7. However, I have serious reservations about advertising church as church. The practice does tend to turn worship into a commodity to be sold and is likely not very effective anyway.

We tried this several years ago. It didn’t work. You see, we were only appealing to people who already cared about church things, and these people were already in another church. I just don’t think you can attract the lost via advertising — other than to events like those described above.

I just don’t think that a lot of unchurched people are going to show up because of an ad saying a church is “family friendly” or has “contemporary worship” or whatever.

8. Some have suggested that we advertise the good works the church does. And this is tricky. We are commanded both to let our lights shine and never to do good works for the praise of men. It’s a tricky balance. But I just can’t see a church advertising its good works without it coming across as in very bad taste and risking doing the works for show.

Many towns have papers with a religious section that are often looking for articles, and the occasional favorable story on a church’s efforts seems legitimate so long as the good work isn’t being done for the publicity and those benefited aren’t being used.

We  have a food distribution program that the paper has occasionally run a story on. The ministry leaders have insisted that the people receiving the food never be photographed — so they don’t feel used or coerced. I think this is wise.

In conclusion. And so, I guess I’d advise against reflexively approving ads or disapproving ads. Rather, you have to consider whether the ad campaign is directed to a legitimate audience (the lost, the hurting, those new in town) or an illegitimate one (those in other churches).

Then you have to “count to cost,” as Jesus advises. In doing this, you consider not so much whether your congregation will grow, but whether the lost will be brought closer to Jesus or you’re helping people as part of the church’s mission to the needy.

Advertising solely to grow is not a good idea. However, advertising can often be part of fulfilling the mission God has given the church.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Church Growth, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Church Growth: Thoughts on Advertising

  1. Melina says:

    I've never tried this, though I've heard of it being done in Europe. A newspaper ad that is aimed at non-Christians simply offering a free, personal, no further obligation, Bible Study….nothing at all is mentioned in the ad about worship services or anything…..just an invite to find out about God/Jesus or the Bible or Christianity or just explore spiritual matters….
    I've considered even putting such an invite on Craigslist or other free venues….
    (anybody else try that? I'd love feedback)

  2. johndobbs says:

    Good points! I've written short, easy to read articles that might have one sentence from the Bible at the end … and gotten good comments in the community. I think it can help build a media-type relationship with the community and also create an image / feeling about your church…though it's not very deep.

  3. Alan says:

    Virtually everyone who visits our services comes through a personal invitation by one of our members.

    We get our share of move-ins because our congregation maintains relationships with congregations in other cities and other states. We have members who moved from a certain congregation, so when the next person moves from that congregation they naturally check out the church where their friend is now a member. It helps that we have a better than average job market in our area, and reasonably low housing prices.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    I have to say that all the research indicates that nearly all Christians became Christians either due to family or friends. We surveyed our congregation several years ago and found that over 90% became Christians this way.

    Josh Hunt's rejoinder is that we've never done advertising in a very effective way, so it's all a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I object to the idea of just running ads for the church. I don't think it works — unless your goal is to steal members from other congregations.

    On the other hand —

    There are a couple of churches in town that have had great success with 12 step programs, which they advertise the community and which produce many conversions.

    I know a church in Texas that has a job training program for the indigent. They report getting jobs for over 70% of the trainees and converting over 90%! It's a work of love, and their students respond to the compassion of the volunteers.

    There's a church in Arkansas of about 170 that's baptized 85! They do it through service to the community. They're described in this article: http://www.christianchronicle.org/article649~Rura….

    And so, I think mission can lead to conversions when done the right way. One key is that you don't do these things with evangelism as the primary goal. People will feel used. Rather, you do these things out of love, and the love will draw the people you help to Jesus.

    And some kinds of mission work through advertising, but of a very narrow, specific type.

  5. Alan says:

    That's a great story about the church in Arkansas. Thanks for sharing it!

Leave a Reply