Melissa Wiginton: Church marketing

Does your church advertise to let people know who you are? How do you decide what to say?

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series on marketing. Look for James Howell’s post tomorrow and Benjamin McNutt’s next week.

Zooming down the freeway through a major Texas city, I thought I saw a billboard that said, “Finally, a church we can believe in.” The next day, heading back the other direction, I confirmed it. There was an older white couple bigger than Dallas, as they say, his arm around her shoulders, smiling down on the traffic and announcing they had finally found a church they could believe in. The church’s name and logo were also big and easy to read.

This was an expensive advertisement. No doubt, the tag-line came out of focus groups, surveys and the kind of process professional consultants lead. The phrase-makers belie the assumptions underlying their church growth strategy: people are looking for a safe place to belong, a place of comfort.

The statement is also theological. It begs for exegesis. They are, of course, suggesting churches exist that people “cannot” believe in. But, “A church you can believe in” is also code for something else. “Change you can believe in,” Obama’s slogan, comes to mind. But based on the billboard’s colors, pictures and fonts, I inferred they are quite intentionally, not about change, unless it is a reversal, a going back to the way things used to be, “when God was famous” (as a teenager put it in Christian Smith’s “Soul Searching”).

Do you think my exegesis overreaches? Maybe. But this is what came to me as I whipped along at 75 miles per hour, trying stay in the flow of traffic. We have no way to know what people bring to public texts and images, especially those which touch on matters of the human soul, like religious faith.

Can we say anything without fear of alienating people who are not already part of our particular tribe?

The UCC advertises their identity with “God is Still Speaking”; the United Methodists with “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” Both of these statements are beautiful, compelling, aspirational rhetoric, but at the same time, in a culture suspicious of religion, where there is little hermeneutic of generosity, they create expectations that no human institution can purely meet. Are we setting ourselves up?

Is public speech too corrupt to serve as a valuable medium for the institution of the church? Does your church advertise to try to let people know who you are? What mediums do you use (print or online magazines, social media, etc.)? How do you decide what to say and what images to use? What have you learned?

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.