A "Different" Kind of Church: how secular marketing is fueling church competition

General Motors launched its Saturn brand in 1990 with the tag line, "A different kind of company, a different kind of car." GM believed they could carve out a market niche by addressing the collective American psyche's negative view of car dealers. They were right. Saturn's "no-haggle" sales policy earned it awards for customer satisfaction. In the car business, it pays to be different.

Dave Terpstra, pastor of The Next Level Church in Denver and a regular contributor to Out of Ur, has observed that many churches are adopting the "different is good" marketing strategy used by secular companies. (Who can forget, "Little. Yellow. Different."?) But by championing our differences, are we treating other churches like fellow communities of Christ, or like competitors?

Because my church's primary service is on Tuesday nights, I have the opportunity to visit other area churches at least once a month. I call it my church-of-the-month club. This past Sunday I read this in the bulletin of the church I visited: "[Church Name] is a different kind of church." They went on to explain how their church is for those who don't like organized religion or for people who have not had their needs met by a traditional church.

Another church I have visited was "different" because it was a place where there's "no pressure or guilt." Still another church I know claims to be different because it is for a new generation. I searched Google for "a different kind of church." Here are a few examples of what I found:

"Your first impression of [church name] may be, "This doesn't seem like a typical church." And we think that's good."

"[Church name] is a different kind of church, making a difference."

"Even if you didn't think you would ever feel comfortable in church, this is a different kind of church. We want to be your church."

Google returned 924 results. It seems "different" churches may not be so different after all. But that got me wondering - why do church leaders feel the need to advertise how different their church is from others? Admittedly, I have used this terminology when talking about my church. And it was in the not-too-distant past that our church used similar terminology very regularly.

The simplest answer is that we are marketing to Christians. If we are targeting the "already convinced," and if our growth is from transfers and people new in town, then we need to distinguish our product from the neighboring churches' product. That's not a new idea. In the past Protestant churches in America used to make distinctions based on theology. Now we do it with our ethos - captured in a snappy catch phrase.

April 04, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 18 comments


April 08, 2006  1:42pm

The Church should not be designed to bring people in, but to send people out. We should not try and make our churches too comfortable, but instead move to make it a challenging and uncomfortable place so that we are moved to action.

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April 06, 2006  12:32pm

I don't think the church should advertise by marketing itself as different or loving or zealous for the Word or whatever. It's hard to live up to such a statement & its disengenuous, which is exactly why we have a credibility problem in the first place. Folks are cynical in this age of mass marketing and what you say you are doesn't amount to much. I'm all for promoting things but not for manufacturing an image. You can say you're different from that greedy church that preaches on money but if you still take up an offering what's really different in the eyes of an unchurched person? We need to emphasize doing the Word and quit with all the words about how we're different than those churches that offend people because the gospel is offensive anyway and before long every church is going to push that "offensive" button. We need to get out from behind our computers and media campaigns & start touching individual lives with our individual words and actions. Only then will the perception change. Our silly impersonal advertising just makes hypocrisy loom larger in the eyes of the world.

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April 06, 2006  12:51am

That's funny; I wasn't aware that churched was a word or a verb. :) But you raise an interesting point. Here in New Zealand I suspect there is not as much 'competition' between churches as in the US.

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April 05, 2006  1:57pm

Sid and Randy said it. Being "different" is not necessarily an acusation against the other churches in the community; it is against a prejudice that unchurched people have about most churches. Unchurched people distrust the church and its message not because they are closed to the gospel or don't want to accept good theology (though this happens). The unchurched hate our churches because Christians are often the rudest, most unloving and judgmental group they have ever met. If you doubt, talk to any waiter or waitress who has to feed their family on the $.37 tip and a tract given by seven of the grumpiest church people on Sunday afternoon. I don't think "selling" ourselves comparatively is the answer. I do agree that we should proclaim the distinctives of our community of faith. Let them draw the conclusion based on how our people act toward them. They will know if your church is really different than the "other."

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Mark Goodyear

April 05, 2006  1:09pm

As a kid, I remember a preacher telling the church to invite their friends "because if you're not growing, you're dying." I understand what he meant, but his vision of growth was limited to numbers in the pews and dollars in the collection. We still fall into this kind of thinking. I worry that our desire for church growth is a matter of greed. We want more people so we can build that new sanctuary like the Methodists have, or the Presbyterians, or the Baptists, or the Episcopals, or the Catholics. The body of Christ isn't some kind of pie. We shouldn't be fighting for the biggest slice of Christians in our community. Rather than try to grow in size and wealth, let's focus on depth. Let's help every member of our church (including ourselves!) to worship God and serve Him every moment of every day. If we can be faithful to God in that "small" matter, perhaps he will bless us with the numbers growth we like so much. Jesus told his disciples to give themselves away. Maybe its time institutional churches started doing that too. God is faithful. He knows we have budgets to meet. But we don't need to worry unnecessarily about these things. We can serve our communities, we can serve God, and we can serve His Church (in all its denominations) without expecting anything in return—not membership, not donations, not anything. God will provide what we need. Let's trust Him.

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April 05, 2006  9:59am

Two question: First: Are the other congregations around us part of the Body of Christ, the one Church in the place where we live? Second: Are other Christians who belong to other congregations around us our brothers and sisters in Christ? If the answer to these questions is "yes" then we need to speak, act, and serve like we belong to each other. Christians and congregations who behave in such a way will do all in their power to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, avoiding competition to cooperate in Jesus' name to glorify God and reach others for Christ.

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Pastor Scott

April 05, 2006  2:25am

I think competition between Churches is just wrong. We should not be competing against each other but we should be helping each other, encouraging each other, praying for each other, and realizing that we all work for the same God(Boss) with the same goal: Win as many people into the Kingdom as possible. Having said that, I realize that Churches are different and they have distinctives. A person who might come to my Church and get saved may walk out of another Church and write off Christianity all together, and again someone else might go to another Church in our neighborhood and feel they have finally come home and yet, feel they walked into a different planet at our Church. God has made the Churches different to hopefully win more people. The brother's comments about the line "a different kind of Church" referring to different from the stereotypical Church rather than the crazy one down the street is good insight. I agree that it probably usually refers to a hypothetical Church rather than actual other Churches (Of course I would find it hard to believe that a Pastor/Church would deliberatly belittle other Churches). The Church has too many things in this world to compete with, without competing with each other. Competition between Churches only causes those who are being saved to loose out. This is a Kingdom issue. We are working for the Kingdom, not for kingdoms.

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Keith Penn-Jones

April 04, 2006  8:18pm

There is nothing wrong with marketing your ministries to the public but not at the expense of other churches. Regardless of the denomination, what we teach as christians should point back to Jesus. The bottom line, if HE (Jesus) is lifted up on the earth he will draw all men unto him.

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Scott Palmer

April 04, 2006  11:40am

Only in the church are we so concerned about maintaining perceived homogeneity that to say you're different is imply others are bad. I'm different than my wife, that doesn't make her bad. Different is different. Not necessarily better. Not necessarily worse. To embrace our sameness as a church, is to deny our continued ineptitude at reaching people for Christ. Bravo for churches who adopt different methods for reaching people with The Message.

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Randy Ehle

April 04, 2006  11:18am

I agree that the tagline "a different kind of church" can be viewed as an attack against a neighboring church, and I do (or at least should) have a problem with that. From another perspective though, I think the intention behind the tagline may be that we are different from the stereotypical church you are used to. In other words, we're not slamming another arm of the body of Christ, we're distinguishing ourselves from the generally-false stereotype in the mind of the unchurched person. Is that wrong, too? Maybe it is; I'm not sure. Either way, Dave's concern is justified and should be heeded.

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