“Why does church marketing fail?”

From Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study

I recently had a question from a friend who attends a small church with a smaller budget but interested in marketing and outreach their congregation about the pitfalls of church marketing.

“Sam, why does church marketing fail?”

So with her permission, here’s my response…

The reason most church marketing and outreach efforts fail is lack of follow-through and consistency. We all want the quick dopamine release that comes with likes, hearts, and favorites based on our social media posts. But marketing (well, good marketing) isn’t about the quick and transient. Patience is part of the very intrinsic nature of the concept of marketing. Churches, particularly dealing with a budget, do a poor job of recognizing that.

Second, church marketing tends to be generic and formulaic. Perhaps because of the common practice of churches getting many of their resources like Sunday School materials (or pastors who “borrow” sermons from the internet), Vacation Bible School posters etc from a central office or approved denominational body, church marketing, church marketing also tends to be generic and not in touch with the surrounding community. But like politics, all church marketing is local. Not everyone can walk in and teach the youth Sunday School class even if they are using LifeWay materials. Not everyone can walk in and run your church’s marketing or outreach efforts even if they have a Facebook account. Nevertheless, church marketing often doesn’t live up to expectations because it is formulaic and generic rather than reflective of the local community.

Third, church marketing and outreach efforts often do a very poor job of asking “why would anyone who is not coming to our church want to come to our church?”. Salvation? Good luck marketing theology. In reality, if a church is going to embark on marketing or outreach, the church should first ask existing members “WHY?” as in “Why do you come to this church?”. Once you have answers to that first Why, ask Why four more times with the responses. The “Five Why’s” is common tool in setting up marketing and branding efforts and can really help clarify both a church’s identity and what makes it special (or not). I love doing this with our clients and it always leads to unexpected and surprising places. Don’t assume… ask why.

Church marketing is often targeted at the wrong audience. Denominational identity is rapidly becoming less of a “selling point” and something that can be used as a marketing point. I often have clients who initially want to “target (insert denomination here)s living in our town.” If you’re a Baptist church targeting Baptists in a few zip codes, you’re not going to have great success with your outreach. That time has passed as we now have more Millennials than Baby Boomers. There’s a reason we see many youth-focused churches dropping denominational labels in their name, even if they were planted and / or affiliated with a particular denomination or church.

Last, churches often target their outreach efforts to what I call the “seldom attenders”. You don’t want a congregation full of “seldom attenders” even if they write big checks once a year. A church should market to those who will attend every week and take part in activities and programs frequently. “I like the pastor’s preaching” isn’t a “selling point” anymore. People, particularly younger cohorts of people, want experiences. In this world of on-demand movies and music and dating and socializing, it’s the experience of your church that will directly help growth. Be authentic and own who you are (and the WHY’s from above). If you’re traditional with traditional hymns and everyone wears “Sunday Dress”… own it! There are people in your community who want that experience. Don’t market what you are not because you see the non-denominational warehouse church down the street bursting at the seams with involved young families. Churches, as all businesses and nonprofits, should tap into the unique experience of worship or the incredible feeling of belonging to a community of people seeking something larger than themselves.

Oh, and don’t be pretentious. If you don’t think your church is pretentious and wonder why it’s not growing, it’s probably because your church is seen as pretentious. You can’t market earnestness. But you can drop the pretentions and be an authentic congregation. That’s a whole other conversation though 🙂

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