Branding God: Marketing the Modern Church

REGION – For many church-minded people, marketing can be a dirty word. It's often viewed as shallow and commercial, a form of promotion that undermines or cheapens what religion stands for. But as local churches find themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace-with growing concerns about dwindling membership and decreasing budgets-that viewpoint may be changing.

More and more local churches-non-denominational and traditional-are embracing the power of marketing, and with it, new technology and social media. Central United Methodist Church in downtown Traverse City is part of a global marketing campaign, RETHINK CHURCH (10thousanddoors.org), which the greater United Methodist church is spearheading. The Traverse City church has also undertaken efforts to define its singular identity, giving a small twist to the greater United Methodist denomination's motto, "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors," to craft its own: "Together in Christ, Reaching Beyond our Doors."

According to Sue Judson, chair of Central Methodist's communications management team, the church also is considering the incorporation of other social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Like many churches today, Bayview Wesleyan Church on Wayne Street boasts a welcome website, but rather than merely listing worship schedules and other church business, Bayview offers a Flickr Photostream link and media page, where users can go to download audio and video files of the Sunday morning services.

They also have a casual and contemporary weekly worship service called Fresh Wind that's cast as "an opportunity to encounter God in a new way." Envision, says the website, "a stage set with props and visuals. Sunlight beaming in through bay-facing windows. A warm welcome, and a relaxed environment … Don't forget to grab some coffee and donuts as you sit at a table or ease into a chair." Designed to appeal to parishoners seeking a less traditional experience, Fresh Wind wisely goes to the place that market might find it: Facebook.

Faith Reformed Church on East Front Street, known widely as one of the most media savvy churches in the area, recently hired the local firm of LindyLazar Marketing Communications. The agency's mission? To develop Faith Reformed's brand identity and create and disseminate its message, says Pastor John Oelze.

Is all this necessary? According to the Barna Group, a marketing research group that serves churches, absolutely. The group finds that one of the biggest challenges facing today's houses of worship is the growing tendency of parishioners to shop around. No longer are people staying with a certain faith just because it was the church of their childhood. In fact, says Barna, one in seven adults change churches each year, and another one in six attends a handful of churches on a rotating basis.

Why the rise in the church test-drive? Results of a recent study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life point to several reasons you might expect-marriage to a person of a different faith, the arrival of a new minister, disagreement with church rules. But they also discovered one that's a clear sign of the times: people are simply comparison shopping the churches' extra offerings, such as child-care, outreach programs, education, counseling, and recreational options like music or sports teams.

Certainly, there's more at stake than just creating a big church. Whether the marketing-averse like it or not, running a church is like running a business. Memberships supply the necessary capital that churches need to run. Be it the plummeting economy or the rise and growing popularity of non-denominational churches, church coffers are shrinking, and growing membership is critical to keeping each organization afloat.

So, will your next visit to church find you surrounded by laptops and iPhones, with your fellow worshipers following the sermon on live feeds and posting on Twitter? Probably not. But according to Leonard Sweet, author of The Gospel According to Starbucks, the modern church has to learn how to communicate on levels that will reach many people and in a language that they can understand.

Amen to that.BN

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