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Further Thoughts On Church Advertising

Yesterday I posted an article about church web sites that turned out to be a little bit controversial. I was quite sure in advance of the direction the discussion would take and intended to address the controversy today. So here goes.

In the article I pointed to the fact that many, if not most, church web sites contain words and information that suggest they are primarily targetted more to believers than to unbelievers. I suggested that church web sites ought to be targetted specifically at unbelievers. I was sure to suggest that I am not advocating a seeker-friendly, church growth marketing orientation in a church whereby the church is driven by its marketing, but referred only to the bits of advertising done by almost all churches (at least in this area). This includes primarily the web site, but also newspaper advertisements and perhaps signs outside the church.

Several people expressed concern with this, either in the comments or via email. David wrote, “I’m sorry, but I disagree with the whole notion that Church (capital C, indicating the organization and place of worship) is supposed to be attractive to unbelievers.” While he expressed his affirmation of the importance of evangelism, he believes evangelism is to happen primarily outside of the church. Another person expressed a similar concern, saying, “I do wonder sometimes why we try to especially attract unbelievers into our church services when we are instructed to go out into the world to teach them.”

The following quote from John MacArthur’s must-read book Ashamed of the Gospel is helpful in this regard.

“Scripture says the early Christians ‘turned the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6). In our generation the world is turning the church upside down. Biblically, God is sovereign, not ‘unchurched Harry.’ The Bible, not the marketing plan, is supposed to be the sole blueprint and final authority for all church ministry. Ministry should meet people’s real needs, not salve their selfishness. And the Lord of the church is Christ, not some couch potato with the remote control in his head. I never hear the term ‘user-friendly church’ without thinking of Acts 5 and Ananias and Sapphira. What happened there flies in the face of almost all contemporary church-growth theory. The Jerusalem church certainly wasn’t very user friendly. In fact, it was exactly the opposite; Luke tells us this episode inspired great fear…upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things’ (v.11). The church service that day was do disturbing that none of the unchurched people ‘dared to associate with them.’ The thought of attending such a church struck terror in their hearts, even though ‘the people held them in high esteem’ (Acts 5:13). The church was definitely not a place for sinners to be comfortable — it was a frightening place!” (p.51).

This may be surprising in light of the article I posted yesterday, but I agree that the purpose of the worship service is primarily to edify believers. It is primarily a time to read the Word, hear the Word preached, celebrate the sacraments and fellowship with one another. In short, it is a place of worship and only believers have the ability to bring pleasing worship to God. Hence the worship service is primarily a time for Christians. I do believe that evangelism is a secondary purpose for worship services, as Paul himself expresses concern that the behavior of believers may negatively impact the unbelievers present in the service. The New Testament model points towards both believers and unbelievers being present during the services, but the services being primarily a place of edification for Christ-followers.

Despite this, I still believe that web sites, and many other forms of advertising, should be geared primarily (I’m using that word a lot today) towards the unbeliever. There are a few reasons for this.

First, believers know what questions to ask to find a church that is doctrinally sound and that would be a good fit for them. Conversly, most unbelievers do not. If I were to move to a different town, I have the knowledge and vocabulary to speak intelligently with a pastor or elder and find if a certain church would be a good fit for me. I know the differences between Presbyterian, Baptist and Pentecostal and would be able to filter churches according to my specific beliefs on both essential and nonessential doctrines. I know the differences between various denominations within any of those larger spheres, or at least have the knowledge to discern what these differences are. So it is not essential that all of this information appear on a web site, and especially that it be most prominent. In fact, if a church gives primacy to information that is primarily of use to Christians, they are, by definition, excluding the people who most need information.

Second, I believe it is exceedingly important that churches take a stand against “sheep stealing.” Churches need to have a policy in place about how they handle visitors who already attend another church in the community but are looking for a change of scenery. Some pastors would go as far to suggest that churches in a local area should covenant together to only accept former members of each other’s churches under very specific circumstances. With the prevelance of transfer growth in evangelical churches, this may not be a bad idea. Transfer growth is obviously a plague within evangelicalism. We can see this merely by pointing to the vast numbers of megachurches in existence today and the fact that there are no more Christians in America right now than there were long before these churches began. Churches grow by shuffling sheep.

One way churches can guard against attracting members of other bodies is to make their advertising more appealing to unbelievers than to believers. After all, if the boast in our advertising is our wonderful doctrine, we appeal only to people who already attend church but are looking to escape to a new one. We make ourselves most attractive to the people who least need to hear our message. Ultimately our advertising does little but tell other believers why our church would be a better place for them to attend.

Third, and I admit this is something of a reductio ad absurdum, but if we think deeply about our advertising, we have to target it at one group or another. If we are not specifically targetting unbelievers, who are we hoping to woo to our churches? Obviously it must be believers. There may be times when believers have good reason to seek out a new church. Perhaps a family has just moved to town, or a family has been convicted by the Spirit that they can no longer remain in an apostate church. In these examples we do well to woo them to our fellowship. However, most of the time we advertise only to the already-churched - to people who are merely disgruntled with their current church.

I would refer you again to the book Stealing Sheep by William Chadwick. He provides the specific example of Charles Swindoll’s church. Through doing interviews and surveys at that church, Chadwick found that fully 96% of the people attending that church had transferred from another. With 6000 people attending the church and the average church in the United States claiming only 100 members, it does not require a degree in statistics to see that Swindoll’s church has done what may be irreparable damage to many small churches. How did his church advertise itself to the community? I cannot say, but I suspect that they emphasized Swindoll’s reputation as a conservative Christian, thus appealing far more to believers than unbelievers. (I apologize if these statistics are slightly inaccurate. I am pulling them from memory as my pastor is borrowing this book at the moment so I cannot refer to it).

So here’s the rub. We need to be very deliberate with who we target through our advertising. Whether consciously or not, we target someone. We need to be careful to ensure that we are doing our utmost to build the kingdom of God, not merely our congregation. While we may have a large congregation, if we have merely drawn people from other churches, the net gain to the kingdom is slim-to-none. But if we draw unbelievers, we grow the “kingdom-count,” having the privilege of being involved in drawing one of God’s elect to Himself.