Jim Moon started his church with cold calls. Presented with 10,000 names to call, his core group thought he was crazy. But three months later, they launched a church.

Marketing methods, such as cold calling, have long created a canyon of division and controversy within the church. On one edge of the canyon are those that claim “selling” your church with telephone calls or radio ads is “selling-out” to the world. Across the divide are those that claim marketing techniques gleaned from the consumer world can equip the church to more effectively accomplish its goals.

But in his new book Shopping for God, James Twitchell transcends that argument, claiming that religion has become just another commodity. “Rather like the choices of jam, in one sense it really makes no difference what the religion is so long as it … provides a spiritual narrative for the seeker. Much of megachurch religion is capturing the vitality of the human potential movement, providing context more than truth. ” Perhaps it is time that the canyon of difference over marketing is bridged by a common understanding of how to not only engage our culture, but engage it with Truth.

In 2001, when Jim Moon moved to Smyrna, a diverse suburb on the edge of Atlanta, he met with a core group of people interested in starting a new church in the area. However, he soon realized that his vision and philosophy of ministry didn’t mesh with the group’s expectations. Strike One. Not to be defeated that easily, Moon began networking in the community, talking to hundreds of people about the prospect of a new church in Smyrna. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, many were hesitant to tackle the risks necessary in launching a new church. The answer he heard most frequently was: “That sounds great! Let me know when you get started, and I’ll come visit.” Strike Two. After nearly two years of work, Moon still didn’t have a core group, let alone a church.

Desperate to avoid strike three, but still feeling called by God to the area, Moon embraced a concept he would have laughed at two years earlier: telemarketing. In January 2003, Moon challenged 15 people he barely knew to cold call 10,000 people. “We didn’t make it to 10,000 – it was more like 4,000 – but we found 400 people who said they would be interested in receiving information about our church,” remembers Moon. Crosspoint launched on March 23 with 40 people attending. “A lot of people weren’t Christians, were burned out on church, had been out of church for 20 to 30 years, or had never stepped foot in a church,” says Moon.

“I feel like I could start a business now from all that I learned about marketing,” he continued, with a sigh of relief that the start-up stage of Crosspoint is over. Reflecting on his journey, Moon describes his overall approach as “unmarketing.” These days he focuses on straight talk about Christ and sin. “What we’re ‘selling’ is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s hard to compete when you’re preaching the Gospel. It’s not a popular product because it tells you what’s wrong with you first,” says Moon. “There are people out there selling an experience, trying to remove all the barriers – including sin. They are an abomination because they don’t talk about Jesus Christ.

A Dangerous Message

Ed Stetzer, Director of Research and missiologist-in-residence for Lifeway Research, agrees that marketing is often used inappropriately in “selling” the church. “The question is: What are you appealing to?” says Stetzer. “If you’re asking, ‘What will attract people to my church?’ you’re going down a dangerous path. If you’re attracting people with a consumer strategy, then your message is going to become a consumer one – the way you win them is the way you keep them.” Instead, “Let’s invite people to a safe place to hear a dangerous message,” suggests Stetzer. The louder the consumer culture, the louder the noise required to capture people’s attention, he says, which leads to a more consumer-based marketing message. Stetzer offers an alternative: move from an attractional ministry to an incarnational ministry. In this model, marketing becomes a bridge by which people can be exposed to the claims of Christ.

In Arlington, Virginia, Scott Seaton hopes incarnational ministry will define Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, a plant just outside of Washington, D.C. “My problem with using marketing tools on the front end is that it puts us on the track to be the kind of church we don’t want to be – a destination church, an anonymous gathering,” says Seaton. “If a brochure for the launch of our church arrives in the mailbox the same day as an ad for a new restaurant and a coupon for ten dollars off a car wash, it puts the church on the same level as these things. And it’s pitched in the trash….” Seaton doesn’t want to be just one more combatant in the fight for the time and attention of busy D.C. professionals.

Instead, Seaton asks how his marketing efforts can follow relationships rather than relationships chasing marketing. After just moving to Arlington this summer, Seaton and his family invited neighbors to a Halloween party at their home. As the evening approached, they wondered if anyone in their new neighborhood would show up. To their delighted surprise, 75 neighbors appeared for hot dogs and hang-out time before the rounds of trick-or-treating. In a city starved for community, Seaton says, “I’d rather invest advertising dollars in hot dogs. I don’t have a problem with putting something in print, but let’s make it an invitation that is handed out in person.”

The Failure of Church Marketing

Visit www.churchmarketingsucks.com and you’ll encounter straight talk about the failure of church marketing: “We’ve got the greatest story ever told, but no one’s listening…. We love the church, but it needs some help. Typos, cheesy logos, and bad clip art aren’t helping the cause. But snazzy marketing won’t save this ship, either.” Brad Abare and his cohorts at the Center for Church Communication founded the site as part of their mission to “help churches matter.” Abare suggests that churches often seek to mimic successes in mainstream marketing rather than do the hard work of researching their audience and defining their identity.

“There are three stages to communicating: message, movement, and method,” says Abare. “Too often, churches jump straight to method.” Rather than rush into a cool ad or brochure, churches should focus on why they matter to their particular community and stick to that. “If we stay true to who we are, we will have churches organized according to different needs. We can’t become all things to all people. If we do, we’ll start to spread ourselves too thin,” says Abare. “The churches that do it wrong want to be the ‘church on the cover’ rather than the ‘church on the corner.’”

In Shopping for God, Twitchell observes, “Growth itself is a powerful selling tool. As any student of Branding 101 knows, being able to say you are the fastest growing has pulling power. It implies leadership…. If the product were not so good, why would so many people be buying it?” He continues with a powerful indictment: “[Megachurches] are evangelical, all right, but the crusading zeal is more to increase the gate than to spread the Word. Doctrine takes second place to filling up the house.”

Abare admits it’s a natural impulse for churches to gravitate toward growth because it’s the easiest thing to measure. “You can’t exactly measure how God is working in hearts.” Yet, for those who want to remain biblically faithful, that’s the elusive goal. It’s not about slick ads, full parking lots, or book deals. “It’s about Christ in hearts, not butts in pews,” Abare quips. “We’re looking to God to change hearts.” Regrettably, Abare finds that the church has largely missed the way God Himself showed us to grow the church. “God comes to us,” he says. “We can learn from Him and go to people – it’s all about relationships.”

Radical Commitment

Steve Childers, president of Global Church Advancement, an inter-denominational ministry that provides resources for church planters, agrees that the value of marketing should always be secondary to the value of personal relationships. “The Church seems to have crippled along just fine doing the work of evangelism prior to the printing press or the Internet,” he says. “The truth is that most people come to Christ and the church through relationships – normally family members or trusted friends, not through marketing and advertising.”

Yet, Childers observes, the debate over church marketing illustrates the classic tension between over-adapting and under-adapting the gospel to culture. “This always presents us with two dangers,” he says. “The one danger is removing the offensive elements of the gospel – such as the exclusivity of Christ and the call to radical obedience. The other danger is not removing our cultural non-essentials from the gospel.” While balance may seem the logical answer, Childers argues emphatically against it. “I think the goal here should be more bipolar: both a radical commitment to adapting our message to our culture and a radical commitment to confronting our culture.”

Engagement and Truth

As Christians shout across the canyon of difference over marketing, the Church often falters on this combination of engagement and truth. Twitchell finds churches that have succeeded in marketing themselves have also succeeded in making people feel good. “The sermons are invariably encouraging and easy to swallow, sugarcoated with optimism and affirmation,” he writes. “No one is called a sinner; they’re just someone with a broken part.” Megachurches aren’t the only culprits. Moon visited 32 churches in Smyrna and found only five that mentioned Jesus during their services. He says, “People are looking to inspire and attract people who want to come to church, so they don’t talk about the offense of the cross.”

Some go too far and some don’t go far enough in engaging culture, agrees Stetzer. “It’s easy to be biblically faithful. It’s easy to be passionate about the lost. It’s hard to do both.” For the most part, the Church excels at criticizing those on the other end of the spectrum rather than engaging the world with biblical truth. Stetzer urges self-evaluation first. “The question is: What are you doing? If you aren’t reaching the lost, then I’m skeptical of your criticism about my techniques.”

A lack of this self-evaluation is what Childers finds most worrisome. “My greatest concern is frankly with those who don’t feel tension anymore,” he says. “We teach church planters that there is no such thing as a gospel that is apart from a culture. There is no universal, decontextualized form of Christianity. So they are always leaning toward one or the other of these polarized dangers – either over or under-adapting the gospel to their culture.”

But God has graciously protected us with a compass to keep us from veering too far in one direction. “There are some valuable and radical lessons that can be drawn from the model of how God has condescended to communicate with us throughout redemptive history,” says Childers. “The incarnation shows us the remarkable extent to which God was willing to condescend in order to communicate effectively to the first century Jewish culture.” Seaton says it another way: “Did Jesus ever accommodate too much? Accommodation is the incarnation.” He asks: “Is there a line where you can compromise? Absolutely. Is there a line where you can accommodate too much? No way.”

Susan Fikse is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to byFaith. She’s lives in Atlanta, Ga. with her husband and three young children.

Q&A with Steve Childers

Steve Childers is President of Global Church Advancement and professor of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Is it appropriate for the Church to market itself?

We must reject the easy extremes of either demonizing or idolizing marketing. Instead, we are called to the hard and sometimes risky work of learning to use wisely the sociological principles that underlie effective marketing in a way that truly benefits the church and honors God.

How are you training church planters in marketing techniques?

Our training focus today is on helping church planters understand the importance of being not only wise interpreters of God’s Word but also of being wise interpreters of God’s world – particularly as it is uniquely manifested in the culture their church is serving. I’m finding that most church leaders are trained to exegete the Word well but they are rarely trained to exegete their culture well. We train church planters how to develop a “people profile” of their community and serve that community well in light of this analysis.

What should be our goal in using marketing tools?

Our goal is not to sell the people in our community a product but to bring to bear on their whole lives the riches of the gospel, calling them to repent of their idolatry and turn in faith to worship and serve the living Christ alone. When church planters understand the things that keep people up at night in their communities, they are more prepared to develop ministries and show the people in their communities how it is only in Christ that the deep longings of their souls will be content.

What does it mean for a church planter to serve a community well?

It doesn’t mean that church planters should ever compromise integrity in their ministries merely to please people. Often it means understanding more deeply those areas in the culture that must be confronted by the church. People are designed by God to give their lives to something far greater than themselves. They need the church to help them align their purposes more radically with God’s – not merely help them minimize pain and maximize pleasure.

So, how should we use marketing?

Frankly, it all depends on cultural context. From a biblical perspective, I think the apostle Paul gives us a good framework by calling us not only to imitate him as one who wrote, “I became all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some,” but also to imitate him in letting our only offense to the surrounding culture be “the offense of the cross.”

Some church leaders today need to stop hiding behind their very well-honed, self-protective theological arguments that keep them from seeing the value of becoming serious students of their surrounding culture in order to understand and engage it more winsomely and powerfully with the gospel. And others need to repent of their illegitimate hope placed in the power of their marketing skills to build the church instead of the power of the gospel in Christ.