Jesus Is Not a Brand
For months after I first moved to Nashville, a billboard by the westbound I-40 advertised an alcohol addiction recovery program. But what caught my eye was the billboard's photograph: the coldest, frothiest, most delicious-looking pint of beer that has ever been poured. I never wanted a beer more than I did when I drove past that billboard. And I am not an alcoholic. I wonder how many of the hundreds of people suffering from addiction passed that spot every day and were perversely tempted—not to enter rehab, but to pull off at the next exit for a tall, cold one.
Marketing has problems if it makes the consumer pant for the dead opposite of what you are trying to sell.
An Unavoidable Dilemma
This is the issue we confront when weighing the merits of the church's public outreach, its evangelistic task, in a Western culture saturated by marketing. By marketing, I refer to all the activities that help organizations identify and shape the wants of target consumers and then try to satisfy those consumers better than competitors do. This usually involves doing market research, analyzing consumer needs, and then making strategic decisions about product design, branding, pricing, promotion, advertising, and distribution.
While researching Brand Jesus, I realized that the church faced unavoidable questions as it sought to maintain a public witness and evangelistic task in a consumerist culture. One is this: Should we market the church and the church's message? (In this article, I assume that our evangelistic message is about knowing Christ and being incorporated into his body. Thus, whether we are specifically encouraging people to consider Jesus or some aspect of the gospel message or to attend a particular church, we are practicing key aspects of evangelism.) In particular, can we use marketing techniques such as niche targeting and branding? Can we help but do so? Can we change the medium without affecting the message? Or does the medium of marketing itself taint our message, leaving us only to resist to the last breath any accommodation to our consumer culture?
The champions of better church marketing say that withdrawal and resistance are not options for a local church that seeks a public presence. We live in a commercialized culture that accepts that virtually everything is for sale. There is simply no way to be in the public arena without engaging in marketing. Even if you do not intend to market your church, that's how consumers are going to perceive your outreach. They will take it in through market-conditioned filters. If we ignore this fact, we will probably wind up doing bad marketing, and that doesn't do anyone any good.
So, unless we completely withdraw from any kind of evangelism, marketing is inevitable. And if marketing is the language of our culture, we might as well be fluent in it, right? After all, if you were a missionary in a foreign country, you would learn the language. Marketing is just the latest incarnation of classic evangelistic models such as persuasion and example.
Thus goes the argument. At the popular blog ChurchMarketingSucks.com, Joshua Cody wrote, "It's a privilege that in a world full of broken marketing and blatant lies, we get to sell the truth." From this perspective, the mistake would be to market the church poorly, which would make the church seem less than it is—like an undesirable brand—to an unbelieving audience.
The difficulty with the pro-marketing arguments, however, is the failure to recognize that marketing is not a values-neutral language. Marketing unavoidably changes the message—as all media do. Why? Because marketing is the particular vernacular of a consumerist society in which everything has a price tag. To market something is therefore to effectively make it into a branded product to be consumed. The folks at ChurchMarketingSucks.com have no problem with this: "Marketing is the process of promoting, selling, and distributing goods or services. It's a business concept, but something very similar happens in the church. As much as we bristle at comparing evangelism to a sales pitch, there are certain similarities."