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Book Review – Selling Out The Church

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Much has been written in recent years about marketing the church. Of all the books I’ve read, both for and against marketing the church, few have been as helpful or as biblical as Selling Out the Church. The authors set out to answer the question of whether the market-drive church can remain Christ’s church. While many proponents of church marketing consider this debate to be over, the authors of this book consider it wide open. “We hope to enable a more robust debate about the wisdom of employing church marketing by articulating as clearly as we can what we take to be its dangers” (page 16). They ask the reader to consider this book “a contribution to what we hope is a churchwide conversation about the identity, character, and mission of the church, and more specifically about the wisdom of employing marketing thinking and practices in the service of that church” (page 17).

Church marketers believe that marketing is a neutral force, in that it shapes only the form of the church while leaving the function alone. Kenneson and Street disagree, for they believe that the convictions that shape marketing are at cross purposes with the convictions of Christians.

Following an introduction to the history of marketing, where the reader sees how society has passed through three eras, the production era, the sales era and now the marketing era, the authors answer the church marketers who taught that Jesus and His apostles used marketing to further their ministry in New Testament times. While Jesus used components of marketing, they show that He did not subscribe to a marketing orientation as do the church marketers. In short, they show that there is no biblical basis to support such a marketing orientation. In fact, the marketing orientation is antithetical to Christianity because it presupposes an exchange mindset in which goods or services pass between parties. Yet the Gospel is a message of grace. There is no equal exchange. Instead, God gives us a gift of grace. A marketing mindset may lead us to feel that God has an obligation towards us (in which we exchange service for blessing) or may lead us to seek reciprocity in relationships, despite the biblical emphasis on self-denial.

“We believe that placing a marketing orientation at the center of the church’s life radically alters the shape and character of the Christian faith by redefining the character and mission of the church in terms of manageable exchanges between producers and consumers. Much that is central to the Christian life will not fit neatly into the management/marketing scheme, and, not surprisingly, these matters are neglected in a marketing paradigm.” (page 62).

The authors go on to examine the false understanding that the church is primarily a service agency that exists to meet the needs of the “consumer,” believer and unbeliever alike. This view teaches that a felt need is a legitimate need because in a marketing paradigm the customer is always right. At the heart of marketing is an assumption that theology has long denied – that people know what is best for them. Scripture teaches the exact opposite – that the church has something people need, but something these people do not want and do not know they need! The church has no business asking unbelievers (ie consumers) what they would like in a church, for the church already knows their deepest need.

A chapter entitled “The Baby Boomerang” examines the danger of the marketing practices of segmenting, targeting and positioning. While segmenting is a practice that comes naturally to humans, who naturally gravitate towards people like ourselves, we do so along “natural” lines that are in reality social constructs. We look to the population of a town and divide them along socio-economic lines and assume that God does too. When the church relies on marketing strategies that reach only a certain segment of the population, the church is excused from having to be genuinely transformed to reach the world. We need to change only a little in order to reach people who are just like us, but we need to change radically to reach people who are radically different. “The unspoken message of target marketing is that the church need not be different from the world; it simply needs to package itself differently, position itself properly, and enjoy the benefits that come from engaging in mutually beneficial exchanges with its target market” (page 93).

The authors begin to put all of these concepts together in the sixth chapter. They show that marketers understand that the appeal of the marketing approach is the fixation our society has on control, measurement and effectiveness. Marketing, at its core, is an attempt to control the future. Furthermore, marketing is premised upon the need to move towards the future with limited resources of time, manpower and finances. Yet Christ tells us that in Him we have abundance! We do not need to worry so much about where we are going or how we are going to get there. Rather we need to ensure that we are learning from God along the way as He shapes us into the men and women He wants us to be. Kenneson and Street question where church marketers leave room for God in the grand drama of the church. They also point out the danger in valuing measurable objectives because this tends to filter out theological objectives that cannot be neatly weighed and measured. Thus goals tend to be number-driven even though numbers are not a reliable indicator of theological depth and understanding.

The crux of the matter is this. The authors believe that the church is called to be a sign, foretaste and herald of the kingdom. This phrase is repeated often because it stands at odds with the understanding that the church is a service agency. Strangely, if there is a weakness in this book, it is that the authors did not do much to prove that this is the purpose of the church. If a person reads Selling Out the Church who is not convinced of this premise, the book may do little to change his mind.

Reading through my review I can see that I have done little to indicate just how thoroughly I enjoyed this book. What can I say, but that of the fifty plus books I have read thus far in 2005, this is one of the top two or three. I would recommend it to any pastor or person who ministers within a church.

It is deeply theological, and right on target.
Written to be accessible to nearly anyone.
One of the few books that approaches the topic from this perspective.
A profoundly important book that will help you rethink the purpose and function of the church.
I absolutely recommend this book to any Christian, but in particular to those in positions of leadership.
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