Phineas Barnum, the showman of circus fame, is credited with the saying: "There's no such thing as bad publicity." Another version of the saying goes: "Any publicity is good publicity." Maybe that's true for circuses.
It's not true for church. Not in the US in 2019.
I'm not talking about the Joel Osteen churches and the Franklin Grahams. I'm talking about the little church not too far from you, that's been there since nearly 200 years ago, where a few of your advanced-in-years neighbors still go most Sundays. The one that has the sign for a chicken-and-biscuit dinner out once in a while. The one your parents took you for Sunday School, but not since you were 12 or 13 years old. Maybe you got married in one, or went to a funeral. Maybe you've been in their basement hall for an AA meeting.
That church has a lot of problems. They can't really afford to keep that old building together, so it looks a bit dumpy these days. Maybe smells a bit musty. Over the years, to save money, they may have put in an ugly drop ceiling that covers over the more elegant architecture of former times. The lighting may or may not be very good.
Most of these problems you can see are symptoms of other problems you can't see. The primary one being that membership numbers have dwindled over the years. Sanctuaries built for 200 people feel uncomfortably empty with only 20 or 30. Those that remain are mostly older. Older isn't bad, but it is often more limiting in terms of energy and physical ability.
But at the root of all this is a marketing problem.
Maybe you think churches shouldn't be in marketing. That's exactly what they think, too. They think that religion should be above marketing. Marketing is for smarmy, used car sales. Marketing church would be (maybe) the one thing less appealing than that ugly drop ceiling.
That's true if you think of marketing as dishonest bait-and-switch tactics to trick people into buying a bill of defective goods. And, when the church has done marketing, that's often the vision of it they've tried, because an expert told them it was what they needed to do. Show pictures of the 3 kids that come every other week and promote it as a thriving youth group with lots of "family friendly" activities.
And then, bad publicity is not good publicity.
When Joel Osteen refuses to open his Colosseum to hurricane victims, the bad vibes it sends into the wider culture is a disincentive to anyone who has a passing thought that maybe they ought to try going back to church.
When all the news of about Christians in America is about churches and "faith leaders" who promote bigotry and support the fabulous leader, hoping to sit close to the seats of power while ignoring moral failures so blatant you need never have darkened the doors of Sunday School to see – that takes a real toll.
Not many people are willing to sign up for telling their friends "I go to church" knowing that, even though their little church down the street isn't like that, their friends are going to think it of them. It makes membership recruitment hard. And because we don't believe that the church should be in "marketing", there are few alternative messages for people to consider.
So we have a marketing problem. How to address the feeling of embarrassment people imagine they would have telling their friends about "going to church"? How can we give them a different story, and a different feeling about telling that story to people who are important to them?
The solution isn't more bad marketing, but good marketing. If you have to call it something other than marketing, that's fine. It's not just about advertising anyway.
Good marketing is thinking through what we can say about this little company who gather weekly in this old building that is honest and compelling about who we are and what we have to offer. It's about sending the kinds of messages to the right people, people who are open to hearing them, that begins to communicate that this little group in the old building is a hidden gem in their community. What can we say to our neighbors that begins to let them know that even if they're "not into religion themselves", they'd recommend to their friends who are to check it out?
It's not just buying ads in the paper. It's not going door to door pestering people about whether they've "found Jesus".
As it turns out, the best marketing is being intentional about doing in your community what Jesus did in his: service to neighbors that offers a real benefit.
One temptation is to offer service as a hook, as a way to make people feel obligated to join. That's not it. You can't say, "Here is something that's free" and then require payment in the form of a return favor. That's bait-and-switch.
Another temptation is to show up and make it all about you. "Here, take this brochure about us home with you." That's asking for people to pay you with their attention in advance.
Jesus never handed out brochures. Instead, he did what he came by to do, in public. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes crowds went out of their way to follow him. A few times, they ran him out of town.
The in public part is important here. So is the part about being willing to accept that church may simply not be welcome in some places. It's not for everybody. It's offered to everybody, but not everybody responds. Never have.
Following that example means that the first part of marketing for the church is figuring out who we are and what we are ready and able to do for people in public.
We need to know who we really are. What do we really believe? What are our assumptions, worldviews? Are we willing to be honest with ourselves and the public that there are only 30 of us and 20 of us are senior citizens, and that we're ok with who we are?
We need to know what we can and will do in public. Who among our neighbors can we really help and how? And are we ready to follow through with the promises we make about who and how? Are we committed?
Once we sort out all that, we can show up and say,
"Here is what we have for you. It's for people who __________. If you __________ with us, we promise __________."
(The blanks are what you need to figure out in the first part.)
And for people who say no, we need to say,
"We understand that what we have is not for you. If it ever is for you, we'll be here for you."
That's where it starts.
The bad news is we have a marketing problem. The good news is we can fix it, if we're willing to put in the work.