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Overcoming your “fear of flying”

SUMMARY: Marketing—presenting products or services in such a way as to make them desirable— is big business today. Does the idea of marketing the church make you uncomfortable?

For many of us, working on church communications involves putting ourselves outside our comfort zones. We put our egos aside, however, as we create newsletters, plan events, organize volunteers and do the promotional work needed to make church activities successful.

We take proper pride that we have learned—or can “do”—communications. And guess what? Communications is one aspect of marketing. Some consider marketing too commercial to embrace, especially within a church environment. Others fear marketing will change their church in unacceptable ways. Yet, marketing, as a discipline, can provide a framework to do our communications job better. For that reason, let us take another step outside our comfort zone to see what we can learn.

Develop a shared definition.
Before moving forward, we need a common definition of marketing. If you look up the word in the dictionary, you find marketing is a discipline or process through which an organization structures and plans its response to meet an audience’s needs. The goal is to align the organization to meet those needs in a way that builds audience interest. Now that still sounds rather commercial, so let’s adapt it to a church setting and use the following definition:

Marketing is the process of the church identifying and meeting, or contributing to, the spiritual, community (sense of belonging), and service needs of its members and surrounding neighborhoods.

In reading this definition, notice that church marketing does not alter God’s gift of redemptive love or the positions of The United Methodist Church. The mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is not changed. In addition, the term “communications” is not even mentioned. Communications becomes a marketing tool to reach and inform audiences. Marketing focuses on discovering needs and aligning the church to meet the needs it chooses to address. In essence, marketing helps the church “package” its communications and activities to make it more attractive to members and prospective members because it meets their needs.

Package your church.
Packaging? Does a church package itself? Yes. Although we may not want to admit it, each church already has adopted some level of “packaging.” Think of packaging as a collection of services related to the church’s real “products”: spiritual growth and fulfillment. This collection could include the types of worship services offered, the adult and youth programs supported, and educational curricula and small-group opportunities available.

For many of us, this collection results from a series of independent, and unrelated, decisions. Should the church provide contemporary and/or traditional services? Should the church sponsor a day care or “mothers’ morning out”? Will the church support a group of United Methodist Women or the Boy Scouts? All represent decisions that define the church for its membership and the outside community. Typically, churches do not make choices based on a predetermined idea of what they want the church to be. Embracing marketing as a process, we hope, will ensure we make intentional decisions, rather than having the church become the product of apparently random decisions.

Decide what you want to be when you grow up.
You may have a preconceived idea of what your church “is” or wants to be. In focus groups conducted recently, we often heard that churches want to be known as the most “spirit-filled” or the “friendliest.” These are very admirable goals. Yet, some “spirit-filled” churches struggle to determine whether they are making spiritual progress or if the community can see any difference between their church and others in town. Some “friendly” churches wonder why their attendance and membership has declined if they really are so friendly.

Developing the image we want to communicate is not easy. It requires a deliberate effort to correlate church actions with the desired “reality” seen by members and the community. In upcoming issues of this newsletter, we plan to address these and other questions related to developing an integrated, well-grounded marketing approach to church development.

In this series, we will cover basic elements related to church marketing and provide practical tips and advice on how to be more disciplined in approaching program development and communications:

  • Know thyself -Understanding your strengths and weaknesses.

    • Church self-assessment
    • Community assessment
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower and the power of planning.
  • Make your church special -Moving away from being a generic church.
  • Break down church walls -Setting up an integrated marketing program that works.
  • The marketing toolkit -Choosing the right communications tool.
  • Measure twicecut once -Creating performance-driven marketing.

---For any questions related to this article, you may contact Chuck Niedringhaus at cniedringhaus@umcom.org.