Is It Even Possible for a Church to Advertise Properly?

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Is it even possible to use material bait to capture a spiritual fish?

Marlboro Man, meet Pastor Phil.

I wrote those words back in 2005 when I heard that the United Methodist Church will start a four-week, $4 million effort to market its church. John Wesley’s spiritual descendants said they were “turning to those who know how to sell cars, houses, and other commercial products.”

It was part of a trend that has only grown stronger over the past 15 years. Many churches have their own “marketing arms.”

I’m not sure I like it. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason, but it’s worth remembering the most common criticism of advertising today (after its saturation of public space): it’s more concerned with getting sales than imparting truth. Indeed, we know that some advertising gurus will distort the truth to get sales for their clients. If churches turn to ad agencies for whom such an approach is the norm, isn’t there a significant risk that the ads will be misleading or play off emotionalism and thereby be a discredit to institutions that claim to impart objective truth?

But forget that for the moment. I’m more curious about a potential branch problem of such advertising.

As advertising becomes acceptable to draw people to the pews, might advertising become acceptable once people are in the pews? Catholic Churches have advertised on the back of bulletins for years, with no discernible ill effect on worship (if worship fervor is depressed these days, it’s not because of the 1” x 2” bulletin ads).

On the other side of 1517, many Protestant churches now have big-screen TVs, karaoke machines, and other technological worship aids. In the staid Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in which I grew up, you can come to church a few minutes early and, instead of praying quietly, watch a jumbotron-like screen above the altar.

If you combine that jumbotron with the Catholic bulletin advertising, you have . . . mainstream advertising. Maybe we’ll soon see religious booksellers advertise on the jumbotrons. Maybe we’ll see Zondervaan Publishing stitched on the arms of clergy robes or Coke logos on all the pews.

It’s not farfetched. Once we accept the legitimacy of advertising to draw people to church, it’s not outrageous to think advertising might leak into the church. Churches, after all, need money (if for nothing else, to pay for the advertising). If advertising is good enough to draw people, isn’t it good enough to help sustain the services that keep them there?

I have at least four objections to advertising in church.

1. Such in-house advertising is only one step removed from the temple marketers that Jesus drove away with whips.

2. The sanctuary ought to be set aside from the ordinariness of everyday life, including the everyday saturation of advertising.

3. Material needs and desires are pressed on us every day. Advertising appeals to the material. We ought to get relief from it.

4. Advertising is for the most base thoughts and emotions. When we go to church, we ought to be raising our minds to the sublime, not wallowing in the emotional mud.

Now, can’t all these objections about hypothetical advertising in the pews be adjusted just a little to point a questioning finger at the trend in church advertising that we are seeing?

1. If Jesus didn’t want the temple pandering to marketers, should we want marketers peddling the temple?

2. If the sanctuary is filled with the types of people who are lured by base advertising, might we need to adjust the sanctuary experience in order to keep them there?

3. If materialistic-type people are attracted to the pews, might we need materialism in the pews to keep them there?

4. If attendance at church is a sublime activity, perhaps it’s not meant for the type of person attracted by advertising.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

I’m painfully aware that most of these objections sound horribly snobbish. It’s almost as if I’m saying that church is too good for some people, which would seem like a brutish, not to mention stupid, thing to say. Jesus, after all, came to save everyone.

But still, when we get someone into the church, it’s for a purpose, and it’s a purpose that transcends the ordinariness of everyday life. It’s for a higher purpose.

If people show up because a piece of mass marketing appealed to them, are they showing up with a realistic expectation of what to expect?

More to the point: Is what attracted them to church in the first place inconsistent with what is expected of them once they arrive?

Is it using a materialistic lure to catch a spiritual fish?

I think it is. And it brings us back to the problem I mentioned early: the advertising by nature will tend to be misleading.