Marketing the Church (Part I): “Mad Men” or “Holy Heralds”

One of the objectives of many churches is to attract people who do not participate in the life of a church. According to Barna Group Research data (2011) 28% of the adult population has not attended any church activities, including worship services, in the past six months. That translates to nearly 65 million adults. When their children under the age of 18 who live with them are added to the picture, the number swells to more than 100 million people! Are Church “Mad Men” needed to reverse this unfortunate trend? I think not. What is truly required is the valuable cultivation of “Holy Heralds,” men and women capable of the honest messaging of forgiveness, and the effective provisioning of the transformative, relation-focused, spiritual services that the Church has been exhorted to freely provide.

“No, I’m not talking about Twitter,” Jesus tells Peter. “I literally want you to follow me.” (Online Religious Cartoon)

“Mad Men” is a critically acclaimed American television series about Sterling Cooper, a fictional 1960’s advertising agency in New York City enigmatically run by protagonist Don Draper. According to the melodrama’s pilot episode, the phrase “Mad Men” was a slang, mid-century term, coined by Madison Avenue marketers to refer to their specialized occupation and unique identity. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the series that premiered in 2007 was renewed in 2013 for a sixth season.

In “A Night to Remember,” the eighth episode of Season Two (2008), a visiting Catholic priest named Father Gill solicits public speaking tips from copywriter Peggy Olsen, Don Draper’s once personal secretary. Convinced of her extensive marketing expertise, the priest persuades the young woman to also develop a pro bono advertising campaign for his parish’s upcoming teen dance.

In the midpoint of the installment, Father Gill informs Peggy that several members of the parish Youth Committee have voiced serious concern about her choice of dance theme. Peggy argues that the title, “A Night to Remember,” is romantic and not inappropriately suggestive. “If you want the event to be a success,” she asserts, “you have to get the girls there . . . it is the only way the boys will follow!” Nonetheless, while making mimeograph copies of a revised dance poster, Father Gill invites an irritated Peggy to talk with him about her “un-confessed sin” and her need for reconciliation with God and the Church.

The relationship between marketing and the Church has steadily intensified since the early 1960’s. While some applaud the innovative alliance, exemplified by Peggy’s collaboration with Father Gill, others sternly warn against the Church’s imprudent flirtation with secular business niggles. Whatever putative opinion is accepted, history verifies the notion that Christianity has frequently appropriated secular methods of communication to promote its unique mission, vision, and message. At issue, therefore, is not whether they should do so, but rather, the adequacy of the model contemporary Christian institutions choose to place at their employ.

In my opinion, the Church should refrain from “marketing” and seek the more effective “promotion” of the ministry aspirations of its unique mission and message – especially when the contemporary marketing mix is predominately understood as brokering a fair exchange between customer and stock. Unlike the “Mad Men” portrayal of Father Gill’s on-again-off-again partnership with Peggy, today’s Christian institutions should carefully negotiate their alliance with Madison Avenue-styled branding and persuasion. Christian leaders may alternatively safeguard the authenticity of the Church’s traditional core values by choosing to utilize less profit-centered communication tactics as outlined in “Social Cause” Marketing (to be discussed in an upcoming article) frameworks.

Whatever option is chosen, rather than view themselves as Madison Avenue entrepreneurs, Church leaders might more sensibly consider themselves as mystical heralds precariously poised at the social water-cooler of a most dangerous consumer-obsessed age. In so doing, like the famous dialogue between Jesus and the expatriated Canaanite woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4:5-42), the sympathy of Christianity’s spiritual and social concerns will permit them the opportunity to more aptly quench society’s thirsts with the deep water of the Church’s most unique Wellspring.

Irrespective of Peggy’s youth focus-group allegations, it is the message of the Church, and not the marketing method used for its promotion, that remains “something to remember.” It is Christianity’s life transforming “gift-offering” that must be highlighted, as it is precisely what differentiates it from the profit-centered ambitions frequently promoted by secular marketing agendas. Only in this fashion can a younger but more spiritually parched generation be drawn back to the pews – not because their potential spouse might be present – but because Forgiveness, Truth, and Life can assuredly be discovered and celebrated there!

Nonetheless, marketing, advertisement, and general communications have all been deeply influenced by the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue. An average viewer is currently beset with a tidal wave of nearly one million commercial images and messages each year. Although goods and/or services may freely pass between parties within commercial-based systems, Church leaders should have never allowed themselves to so quickly become the unwitting sponsors of the commercial marketing of what God Alone desires to freely gift. As a result, Church-growth advocates who unwittingly subscribed to slick marketing tactics and orientations have unintentionally spawned a “mindset of exchange” among many of their adherents.

While valuable, used without proper understanding and reserve, marketing strategies such as focus groups, satisfaction surveys, exploratory interviews, town-hall meetings, and channel market segmentation, have the dangerous potential of radically altering the shape and character of the Church, redefining its character and mission in terms of negotiated exchanges between purveyors and consumers. The practice of such unbridled marketing methods has, consequently, generated a deleterious mindset of obligation among church members. Sadly, believing that all secular marketing strategies are neutral forces that can equally be used to shape the form of religious communications while leaving the core mission values alone, the “Mad Men” styled approach has actually traded the core Gospel messages of sacrifice and self-denial for those of immediate gratification and merited prosperity. As a result, many now expect religious celebrations, ministries, and blessings to be exchanged according to fair-market value and reciprocity.

One of the objectives of many churches is to attract people who do not participate in the life of a church. According to Barna Group Research data (2011) 28% of the adult population has not attended any church activities, including worship services, in the past six months. That translates to nearly 65 million adults. When their children under the age of 18 who live with them are added to the picture, the number swells to more than 100 million people! Are Church “Mad Men” needed to reverse this unfortunate trend? I think not. What is truly required is the valuable cultivation of “Holy Heralds,” men and women capable of the honest messaging of forgiveness, and the effective provisioning of the transformative, relation-focused, spiritual services that the Church has been exhorted to freely provide.

According to Merriam and Webster, a herald is an official messenger with ambassadorial capacity. Ancient Heralds were, fundamentally, designated couriers formerly charged with conveying royal proclamations and important messages. In medieval Europe the term “heraldry” was coined to further delineate any communication system that used military and governmental implements, colors, and symbols for the purpose of certified messaging. Ecclesiastical heraldry subsequently emerged as the official structure for classifying documents, identifying dioceses, recognizing ecclesial rank, and for all authoritative Church communications. Although Anglican, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox churches, schools, seminaries, and other institutions, continue to retain a semblance of such a system, ecclesial heraldry is most formalized within the Catholic Church.

Contemporary churches and institutions would do well to seriously consider adopting a hybrid of ecclesiastical heraldry and the “4 P’s” of the traditional marketing mix (Product, Place, Promotion, and Price) to advance their evangelical requirements. As Church Heraldry has never been characterized by political or military heraldic considerations alone, but by doctrinal, liturgical, canonical, and missionary factors, it provides a more suitable framework for effectively promoting the distinctive mission, vision and message of Christian institutions. By wisely utilizing its strategies, contemporary Church leaders would avoid the pitfalls that are often associated with deceptive branding and unscrupulous commoditization of religion.

At the close of Season Two’s Episode Eight, viewers of “Mad Men” were offered a montage of characters stripping off the “branding” of their public – marketed – personas. Sterling Cooper’s office manager, Joan Holloway, removes her scintillating business attire. Eerily reminiscent of a baptismal sin washing, a teary-eyed Peggy is shown soaking in her bathtub. Finally, while the story’s credits scroll across the screen, Father Gill lights a cigarette (reminiscent of Father Guido Sardouchi), removes his priestly vestments, and begins strumming his guitar to the singing of “Early in the Morning” (Peter, Paul and Mary).

Unlike “A Night to Remember” whose illusory ending can easily be interpreted as Madison Avenue’s inability to alter reality with even the most magical of marketing garb, the Church is steward to the greatest non-fictional Story ever told. Christian leaders must learn to communicate this Narrative with effective honesty – not as “Mad Men” – but as “Holy Heralds.” In so doing, they will lovingly reach the minds and hearts of the people who need to hear this Story the most but, for one reason or another, are often alone and at a distance, stripped of their authentic God-given image and likeness, thirsting for meaning at their respective Well of Jacob.

In the end, the marketing of Christianity happens whether we intend it or not! As such, the Church can no longer linger on the sidelines, nor madly race to clothe Herself with the garments of unexamined communications. Christian leaders should first prudently determine the degree to which they are willing to engage the varied methods of marketing, prior to doing so as one thing is certain – unintentional marketing is usually bad marketing by default.

(In the next issue of Frankly Speaking, I will examine the “4 P’s” of marketing, as defined by Philip Kotler, (Principles of Marketing, 2006, 15th Edition; Marketing Management. 2011, 14th Edition) and their application within a Church Heraldry marketing paradigm.)

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Rev. Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS…
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