Published in Insight - Spring 2015
By Charles Waldo, Ph.D.

Well, it sure seemed to be at my church at a recent church council meeting I sat in on.    For a number of years, like many main-line churches, our attendance, membership, and giving have been slowly and steadily declining. People have been worried for some time, but things are now getting more serious.   Last year the number of member deaths outnumbered new members 5:1.    Several long-time members and good givers have gone to nursing homes or moved away to be closer to children.

As the statistics were being hashed around, one council member, a small businessman, suggested, “What we need is a strong marketing campaign.   We don’t toot our own horns.   How do church seekers find out about us?  Even our website is mostly about upcoming meetings and what church school classes are doing instead of offering reasons why someone should give us a try. And why should they?” His suggestion was met immediately with snorts of rejection, especially from several older persons:    

    “We are a church, for heaven’s sake, not a business.   You don’t market God.”    “We can’t go around cramming our church down peoples’ throats or use slick advertising. They have to accept us for what we are.”

The subject was quickly dropped.

As a visitor at the meeting I did not feel it was my place to jump in to explain that authentic “marketing” is not anything like how these members think of it. Their comments reminded me of the first couple of class sessions I usually had with college students enrolled in my Principles of Marketing classes; most were taking it because it was required of all business majors, not because they wanted to. In the early sessions many of these young adults placed marketing and marketers right next to snake-oil salesmen, swindlers who prey on senior citizens, or Ponzi schemers. By the time the semester was over, however, virtually all students had a much different, more positive view of the field, with more than a few switching their majors to marketing.

They also came to see the vital role marketing systems play in the smooth functioning of our modern society. For example, your local supermarket typically stocks 15,000 – 40,000 different items, coming from all over the world-- fresh, canned, or frozen, made safe to eat, most at very reasonable prices. How these products are sourced, manufactured, transported and delivered, shelved, advertised, etc., is a marketing miracle to which most people do not give a second’s thought.

Most students came to understand that modern marketing practices, properly done, can also benefit not-for-profits such as colleges, the Salvation Army, local food banks...and churches.   I do not know how your church looks at or does “marketing” but, as business administrator,  you are likely heavily involved in its marketing efforts,  whatever they are.  This short article will help you, the staff, and the church as a whole  be better ambassadors for Christ  through astute marketing practices.

 What is “marketing?”
There are several definitions for “marketing” but the one I laid on my students was “Marketing is all the things organizations (including churches) do to find, attract, and keep customers (read “members”) and all others it tries to serve.”

So marketing at its best is all about an organization’s “customers” and would-be “customers”:  
Understanding and meeting their needs, wants, hopes, fears, habits, likes, dislikes, etc.
Getting “inside” their heads and hearts. 
Satisfying them.  
Making them want to come back for more.   

Here are a few principles with which to do that.

The Marketing Concept
The intense focus on the customer, the “Marketing Concept,” took root in the 1950-60’s when the U.S. economy began to change. A lack of buying power before and during the Great Depression was followed by a lack of consumer good to buy during the rationing days of WW II. After WW II,  goods became abundant and buying power increased. Domestic and international competition increased significantly. 
Companies which did not deliver better satisfaction than their competitors soon found themselves with no customers.  Customer satisfaction was and is everything.

The competitive landscape for churches
One can hardly name any product or service class for which there is not an abundance of identical or very similar products or services.  Monopolies are few and “brand loyalty” is diminishing. So it is with churches. Given the wide use of automobiles, how many other churches are within just a twenty-minute drive of your church?  How many direct choices does a “church shopper” have?  Count all denominations and independents since many people are not hesitant to switch churches to seek what they want. Allegiance to mainline denominations is waning; and the popularity of  independent, “community” churches is on the rise.  Then there are in-home churches where small groups of believers gather for study, prayer, and fellowship.   
Now, think of all the ways people can “get church” or “religion” without leaving their homes and on their own time schedules:   TV, the Internet,  radio,  CD’s,  videos,  books, and so on.   See, for example, LifeChurch.TV.  

Then, there is indirect competition for potential and actual members’ time and attention from such non-religious activities as weekend sports events, golfing,  fishing,  hunting, tennis, or recreational travel. Maybe they are sleeping in after a long work week or working on weekends, etc.  It is estimated that about 20 – 30% of the adult U.S. population attends a church in any week and I wonder if it is even that high.  The numbers are even lower for the under-forty age segment….the “next church.”   The “Nones” are on the rise with an estimated 30 – 35% of the adult population having no church affiliation at all.
The competition for seats in your church’s pews is intense, to say the least.

The tools of Marketing
The following equation is a “tool” which a church can us to increase engagement:
Member Satisfaction = P1 + P2 + P3 + P4 + S + Q + R where:
P1 = The Product and/or Services offered.    Do you know what your church’s “product” is?  
P2 = The Place(s) where the Product and/or Services are offered.   This does not have to be a “brick and mortar” building but could include broadcasting services over TV, the Internet, radio, etc.
P3 = The Promotional methods used to inform would-be visitors about what is offered. (They are not mind readers.) These methods include publicity, public relations, advertising, and personal selling (read, “personally inviting and talking up the church with the non-churched”) and include digital and Web-based communications.
P4 = Price.   While churches do not charge admission, as would a movie theater, there is still a cost associated with membership, both financially and time-wise. When special drives are held, members are expected to contribute over and above their regular giving.  Members are expected to serve as volunteers in various capacities, and the smaller the church,  the more load members usually carry. Church is not “free.”
S = Service – Enthusiasm, a can-do attitude, and wanting to please the visitor.
Q = The level of Quality of anything the church offers.   
R = Research – Surveying members as to how they see things going;  keeping track of key statistics such as membership, giving, attendance at worship, Christian education, special events, etc.    What is working and what is not?     What are other churches doing?   What societal and cultural trends can affect the church?
How these various factors are used together is called the “Marketing Mix.”

 Competitive Advantage, Differentiation, and Segmentation
“Competition” might be seen as a dirty word in some circles, but it is fact of life. As pointed out above, there are MANY factors directly or indirectly seeking the time, attention, hearts, and support of both your present members and those who might become members. For example, my church has at least nine other churches within just a one mile radius.  While none are of our denomination that is still a lot of close-by choices for our neighbors.
Churches must figure out and offer programs and services that others, both members and potential members, desire and which are not offered by “competitors” or are not offered in the same way and/or at the same quality level.  Determine the “Competitive advantages” that might separate or differentiate your church from others.   How does it stand out from the crowd of other churches in positive ways?
Finally, few churches, even large ones, can be “all things to everybody.”   This is certainly true of smaller churches. If the old adage, “Birds of a feather flock together,”  holds true,  churches have to figure out …what “segments” they want to target.    Millennials?  Busters?   Gen Xrs?    Hispanics?  Asians?   Caucasians?    Seniors?  Gays.    They are all the same in some ways but different in others.  Few churches can successfully appeal to many segments.
Some churches are beating the odds and growing.   What are they doing and why?    Do not be too proud to consider being a copy-cat.   Good ideas are everywhere (as are bad ones).

 If you want to dig a little deeper into marketing principles, you might read the best-selling, longest-lasting (now in its 15th edition) text book on marketing,  used in thousands of college classrooms:    Principles of Marketing, 15 ed., by Drs. Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong.
Charles Waldo, Ph.D., is Professor of Marketing (ret.) in the Falls School of Business at Anderson (Ind.) University.     He can be reached at