When he was in Houston last spring, Fred Harrell made a comment about church marketing that has stuck with me.
Advertising doesn’t work. None of that stuff really works anymore. Secular people see it as nothing more than hype.
The quote has haunted me because it intersects with where I live. I follow a lot of blogs; most of them are very much pro-advertising the church. They endorse methods like billboards and monthly mailers to the community and TV ads and carnivals and radio spots and, well, you name it. One of the things that I appreciate about most (if not all) of them is their zeal for telling people about their faith and their local congregation. I find a lot that is laudable in their planning and desire to connect people with the local church to connect them to Jesus. The only problem is, I don’t really think it works in all contexts. Though they’re becoming more similar, a college town in the midwest is different than a beachfront community in Florida. A city in the deep south is different than a suburb in the Pacific Northwest. Even here in the Houston area, The Woodlands is very different from the Heights which is itself very different from the Third Ward.
I live in the ruins of the Bible Belt. We’re not a completely secular culture here in Houston. Though there are people from every corner of the globe and every faith under the sun here, there’s also kind of a cultural echo of Christianity. To put it in clearer terms, there are a lot of people here who have been burned out of the Christian church, many of them for reasons quite unrelated to the Christian Gospel. Billboards here don’t call out to people, “Come, see Jesus, the man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?” like the woman at the well in John 4. They scream, “We’ve got something to sell you!” whether it’s the minister or the programs or the lifestyle of contemporary (predominantly white) wealthy evangelicalism.
Maybe the best and most responsible advertising we could do would be to say something like this to our churches:
“We’ve decided to eliminate the line-item for advertising in our budget. That’s right. Not one dollar will go to billboards or commercials or anything like that. That money is for church planting; that’s where lives are changed, not by a slogan on a freeway. Now it’s your job to get to know people around you and bring them with you to church. We’re not looking for people who go to other churches; we want you to get to know people who aren’t Christians and don’t share our beliefs. We want you to bring them here. We promise that this will be a safe place for them to hear about Jesus without all of the extra junk that so often goes along with it. We’re not going to sell ourselves to anybody. We’re not going to treat human beings as mere consumers. We’re going to be respectful; we’re not going to lie and tell people that we’ve got everything figured out. We’re going to worship God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
How’s that for a marketing campaign?