Beginning on page 44, we update our readers on the church-growth movement. In this guest editorial, Craig Parro evaluates a related concept: church marketing. Parro is director of international ministries for Leadership Resources, an evangelical discipleship ministry.

Well over 20 years ago, sociologist Peter Berger declared: “The religious tradition which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now … must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy.’ The pluralistic situation is … a market situation. In it, the religious institutions become marketing agencies and the religious traditions become consumer commodities.” More recently, researcher George Barna turned Berger’s analysis into an indictment: “The major problem plaguing the Church is its failure to embrace a marketing orientation in what has become a marketing-driven environment.”

In one sense, of course, good churches have long been “market-driven,” seeking to serve human need, to reach their communities in relevant ways. But on another level, church marketing is new. Only recently have “felt needs” provided the starting point for ministry.

Proponents of church marketing speak of consumers, strategy, research, felt needs, communications, and distribution. They see these concepts as a way to use secular tools to further the church’s purposes. They speak as if the church has wrested a sword from the enemy’s grasp and now wields it for the kingdom.

Opponents, on the other hand, fear the ills that often come with marketing (consumerism, greed, accumulation) will infect the church. They fear that the church that grasps the world’s sword will end up impaled on its blade. Nevertheless, a marketing orientation brings the church a number of needed perspectives.

A focus on people. Many evangelical churches focus on doctrine at the cost of ignoring people, their hopes, fears, needs, and longings. Too often scriptural truths have not been tied to life’s realities.

A focus on stewardship. God has given a local church a wide range of resources: people, gifts, equipment and facilities, dreams, and burdens. A marketing orientation assesses the church’s strengths and then tries to apply these to church and community needs.

A focus on outreach. A marketing-driven church is not content with the status quo, continuing programs merely for their own sake. The emphasis instead is on people and their current needs.

A focus on church-based ministry. Local assemblies of God’s people (rather than Parachurch organizations or individuals) are the platform for furthering the kingdom of God.

A focus on the inclusiveness of faith. A marketing orientation breaks down sacred-secular dichotomies. It recognizes that the church is in competition with lifestyles, philosophies, and organizations that oppose the all-encompassing demands of the gospel.

Jesus is Lord of marketing, as he is of everything. Yet, because marketing generally operates on unbiblical assumptions, it exposes the church to further secularization. There are four areas where a marketing view of reality is at odds with the biblical view:

Our view of persons. Marketing sees persons as “consumers,” “respondents.” “receptors,” “prospects,” or “targets.” This is a reductionist view. To view persons merely as consumers is to deny their dignity and value. Individuals created in the image of God cannot be defined merely by their “felt needs.” Many are totally blind to their greatest needs—forgiveness and a relationship with God. One “unfelt need” is for transcendence. Marketing rightly focuses on immanence—Jesus as our friend and companion. Yet we must not lose our grasp on the grand truth that it is the high and exalted One we worship.

Our view of the message. In marketing, the consumer ultimately defines the product. And thus a marketing-driven church will be sorely tempted to compromise its message, both in content and in tone. Marketing solicits, woos, and entertains. But the gospel confronts; it calls to repentance and commitment. There is a judgment to be avoided, a hell to be fled, and thoughts to be taken captive. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “We must not leave our hearer’s worldview intact.”

Our view of truth. Marketing is by nature empirical, gathering data to quantify revelant characteristics of “target” people. These data form the basis for knowing and decision making. Marketing research is essentially reductionistic, distilling communities, lifestyles, and attitudes into summary statistics. The complexities of life require some summation and stereotyping. Yet how many important questions can adequately be answered yes or no? To reach people where they are, we need to know not just what but why. As Os Guinness writes, “Facts without a framework lead to knowledge without obedience, knowledge without wisdom, knowledge without action.”

Our source of trust. Church marketing has sometimes been described in almost messianic terms. Writes Barna: “If a church studies its market, devises intelligent plans, and implements those plans faithfully, it should see an increase in the number of visitors, new members, and people who accept Christ as their Savior.” God is not even part of this equation! It is all too easy for churches to give lip service to prayer while, in fact, trusting in technique.

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Is “marketing” the new contextualization, enabling the church to reach our world for Christ? Or is it merely capitulation to our culture? It can be effective contextualization if we refuse to compromise the message, maintain a biblically critical stance toward culture, and trust solely in the sovereign work of God.

The goal of the church is to help bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and then to aid their spiritual growth. Appeals to “felt needs” can be, like the Law, a “tutor” to lead people to Christ. Yet, spiritual maturity requires years of teaching, wrestling, praying, and sharing together. If we are not wise, felt needs can obscure people’s deepest longings. Churches that are both Bible-driven and market-sensitive leave ample room for God’s surprises. Marketing is one tool of many that God may use for his glory. If he does, we can humbly thank him for his goodness.

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