James Howell: Holy marketing

We want to reach people, but we should be holy, too.

I’d be content if the postal service delivered mail less frequently. Like everyone else, mostly I get junky, impersonal ads -- no matter how snazzy some marketer has tried to make the mailing. Some are from churches, and some are from marketers who pledge to give my church the edge over others. How? By sending more junk mail?

How do we “market” the church? Or should we refrain from marketing? The newspaper wants us to pay for spreads, but we decline, perhaps because we suspect this will be ineffective, or perhaps because it feels too gimmicky. In traffic I find myself behind cars with bumper stickers for well-marketed churches, but I’m never comfortable with “pitches.” Is my uneasiness just aesthetic, not wishing to be thought of as too bawdy, not risking the fact that we don’t have anything all that “hip” to sell? Is my wariness more theological in nature? Or rooted in some delicate holiness?

I love Elaine Heath’s “Mystic Way of Evangelism,” where she points out that we have tried banners, bands, upbeat programs, buses, special music events; we’ve had worship wars, denominational strategies, marketing programs and direct-mail, but these leave us “grief-stricken at our own impotence.” In these bleak days, she says, when a “dark night of the soul has descended upon the church,” we need to look to the “wisdom of the great spiritual giants.” The church is in “the kind of trouble that requires leadership from those who are holy.”

Is there such a thing as holy marketing, or is marketing inherently unholy? The essence of marketing is the technique of persuasion -- and while we are in the persuasion business, we always tip-toe perilously near the edge of “spin.” Harry Frankfurt of Princeton wrote an enormously important little book on the topic, in which he analyzes this overwhelmingly dominant mode of communication in our era. The essence of spin, Frankfurt argues, isn’t lies or truth, but rather the determination of the “spinner” to say whatever must be said to talk the “spinnee” into something. Church marketing stands a solid chance of slipping into spin. So do we not market? Or risk the danger of spin as a means to some hopefully greater good?

Our church doesn’t advertise, or at least not much. We count on word of mouth, of course, but we are especially attentive to whatever we do in public and whatever we put into print. What is the message we push out into the community? How do we market ourselves to ourselves? These are the basic questions we ask.

I think we hope for two objectives that matter -- and might even be holy.

One is clarity. Whatever we say about our church must be true about our church. As Melissa Wiginton mentions, we Methodists love our threefold chime, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” -- but I’d wager most of us question whether we succeed consistently on even two out of three. How can we be clear about who we are? Clarity about reality is achievable, possibly holy, and might not lure in as many consumer-minded spiritual shoppers.

The second objective would be excellence. So many bulletins and newsletters, so many carelessly draped banners in churchyards, so many print pieces or YouTube videos are kitschy, not well-done, full of misspelled words, or with weeds growing around the “Welcome” sign. Can’t we do whatever we do with excellence, as if we take a little pride in who we are and in who God is? Granted, our ambition for excellence can easily morph into spin, but excellence can be holy, too; there is an excellence about holiness, right?

I want to reach people. But I want to be holy. I despise spin. But I can be clear: come here and we will maybe try to love you, and we will talk about a God who will ask you to sacrifice a whole lot. I can strive for excellence, cut the weeds, spell words correctly and suggest by our attention to detail that what we do, we do for God. We’ll try to be holy; we aren’t just going to pile additional junk into your mailbox.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.