Church Marketing 101
I ought to show my cards right from the get go. I’m really not that big of a fan of church marketing. While I realize that “marketing” (though I’d rather use a different term) is, in some sense, inevitable if we want to be congregations that engage our communities, I generally don’t like the conclusions set forth. They usually appear to be consumerism wrapped in a Christian cloak. So when I heard this following scenario, I was instantly skeptical.
I read somewhere that first-time visitors to a church decide in the first 7 minutes whether or not they will return. These few minutes begin, supposedly, when people enter the parking lot and their decision to return or never step foot on campus again is apparently made by the end of the first song. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that churches need to be fastidiously aware of their first impressions. How does the building look? Is the landscaping well maintained? How’s the signage? Is it clear? Is the parking lot manageable? Was it hard to find a spot? Are there clear signs to the sanctuary? How many people said hello? What does the sanctuary look like? Is it warm and inviting, aesthetically pleasing? Is the music too loud? Too soft? Is it current? And on and on and on.
When I first read this, I didn’t have an issue with the whole first impression statistic. That very well may be true. There is no way that I can deny that claim. When I was church shopping during my undergrad years, I made many snap decisions about a church before a pastor had uttered a single word. If I, a Christian, was making such judgments, I can only imagine that a casual visitor unfamiliar with the Christian culture would do something similar.
My issue is with the proposed solution; since people make snap judgements, churches should see to it that all their bases are covered, and people only have positive impressions. Make it as “consumer friendly” as possible. But maybe the fact that people make quick first impressions is not justification for being “seeker sensitive,” but rather proof that the church was never meant to be decided on in 7 minutes. To put it another way, the fact that people make a decision to stay or leave in 7 minutes screams that relationships are more central to getting people to stick with church than good first impressions. The Gospel is not embodied in buildings and landscapes – it’s born out in the lives of God’s people.
If random strangers are walking into our churches and quickly making decisions to leave, the solution is not for the church leadership to create a better hospitality team. Rather, it’s a calling to the congregation to be hospitable to their neighbors, to love the strangers they encounter throughout the week. What we need is for the people of God to be salt and light wherever they may be, not church interiors decorated with a “Salt and Light” color scheme. We’ve treated the church like the Field of Dreams. If we build it, and make it attractive and friendly and well landscaped and upbeat and positive, then people will come. We neglect the fact that Christians are like Wifi Hot Spots, radiating the presence of Christ day in and day out.
When we place the emphasis on our church services to be the main draw into a life of communion with God, it leads to more structures and programs that burden the church leadership with more tasks and responsibilities. But when we remember that the church is generally open for 2, maybe 3 hours on Sunday, while followers of Jesus are rubbing shoulders with people in their neighborhoods, parks, offices, and grocery stores, we can see where our “marketing efforts” should really be directed.
So all you church marketers out there, take note. We don’t need flashy bulletins, fashionable artwork, friendly slogans, or fresh coffee. God already created the best church marketing strategy known. It’s called the people of God.