Fast Food Marketing and the Local Church

Have we, as American pastors, given up our calling as shepherds and unknowingly become fast food entrepreneurs who are building a religious business and not a church? Before I dive into this, let me first confess. I am the pastor of a church with several big buildings, one of them with a cafe and a bookstore that sells products. Our stage is backed by a huge high definition screen and surrounded by lights of every color.

In many ways, we are not unlike any other mega church in America because, we too, have used marketing techniques to attract a crowd on Sundays.  But, the internal conversations among our leaders are shifting. We want to be what Eugene Peterson calls “a company of pastors” and not a company of shopkeepers. Church is not a product to be consumed like a gym membership, but rather a holy gathering of sinners who are becoming saints because of grace.

This is a blog, not a doctoral thesis, so I am not trying to give complete answers to the three questions below. Instead, I am hoping to start some conversations and maybe some helpful debate. I will ask some questions here and give some of my thoughts. I hope to create a symphony of discussion that may be helpful to leaders who are brave enough and secure enough in their calling to honestly evaluate the way we are leading our churches. Also, this is not a slam on the fast food industry, of which, I am a big fan. In fact, I might starve to death if my driver side window ever broke.

Read the three questions and consider my thoughts and then give me your thoughts.

Question #1 – Is it wrong to use marketing for our church?

I don’t think marketing is evil or carnal, as long as we are not solely leaning on worldly principles while forgetting the primary disciplines that truly build the church. Prayer is the engine of church growth, followed closely by our personal witness to others. Praying people who know they are called to a local fellowship will bring others with them to the gatherings. Slick, four-color door hangers are fine, but passionate people who love their neighbors are the real church builders.

At New Life we have banners on the outside of our church to tell people what times we meet and, from time to time, we use local media to promote events. However, we are also convinced, it’s the unseen work of the Holy Spirit birthed in prayer that really gathers the lost, the hurting and the disenfranchised.

Question #2 – What do we REALLY want?

I emphasized REALLY, because I know what most church leaders would tell me if asked this question. They would say they want to make disciples, reach the lost, and help the hurting. And they probably do. But what I hear leaders talk about most are attendance numbers and because our mouth always betrays our hearts, I suspect we have focused too much on how many are attending rather than how many are growing.

We stopped emphasizing overall weekend attendance numbers about 18 months ago. We do not talk about it in meetings or in the hallways, but we do know how many were baptized, how many went on missions trips, how many joined small groups and how many became a part of the Dream Team, which is our group of servant leaders who lead inside and outside the church.

The result has been a liberating release from the temptation to compare ourselves to other churches and a freedom from the impulse to perform solely for numbers sake.

Question #3 – Do we really know the stories of our people?

Instead of telling me attendance numbers, I would like to hear about stories. In the sea of faces, there is a surplus of stories waiting to be told. Tell me about current accounts of redemption, healing, restoration and rescue. How many that arrived is a lot less compelling to me than how many are thriving.

In a neighborhood restaurant, there are lingering unhurried conversations about stories. In a fast food restaurant, there is a hurry to get to the next customer with short blurbs of discussions about a numbered meal on a well organized wall menu. Everything in a fast food restaurant is about efficiency and excellence. Time is the master and we are the slaves.

Church for the past 2000 years has been centered around the story of our Christ, pausing to remember him in the Sacraments and interludes to celebrate the stories of a persecuted but joyful people. It has always been about the gathering of the called out ones, not the gathering of potential customers who we hope will have a great consumer experience.

I do believe in excellence and efficiency, but not at the expense of relationships and stories. We can do both – tell stories and build relationships in a environment that is warm and inviting.

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  1. Rina Thompson

    May 26, 2011 at 8:02 am

    So glad to belong to this “company” where we let God be God. It is so freeing to know we are not executing our own plan. I pray we are just an extension of the Holy Spirit, available and aware.

  2. Is marketing the church wrong? I don’t think so. We live in a digitally connected world there’s nothing wrong with keeping up with trends. Churches should be involved in social media and they should be using the means necessary to them to bring in lost souls. Sure, some churches have more ability to do that kind of stuff than others – but what I love about the big churches that are doing it right is that they don’t just keep it to themselves. They are a part of a global church community and help out everyone.

    I think, especially when you’re a “mega-church,” you have to be very careful you don’t cross the line, though. It’s very easy to see something become a success and want to take credit for that success yourself, which opens the door wide for pride and sin to enter. I’ve been to mega-churches where they do some pretty ridiculous things (like throwing out church branded t-shirts to the audience during worship) and I personally think when you get to the point where you are doing that kind of stuff then you’ve let the focus shift from what God wants to do to your own pride and that is a very dangerous path.

    I think a lot of leaders get caught up in attendance because of either pride or insecurity. If it’s a large church, pride can play a big part of an inner desire to want to have more members than those guys down the street — but I don’t think that’s as big of an issue as insecurity. I’ve seen so many leaders get hung up on numbers because they see the size of their congregation as a means of income and ability to fund the church needed activities (missions, trips, etc). But the truth is that God is in control of all that and as leaders we need to be willing to trust that He will handle it. I love that you guys don’t talk about this there because it shows that your focus is in the right place.

    Do we know the stories of our people? I think this should be the desire of every church. I go to a church that is “All About People” (see if you can guess 🙂 ) and I think they do a great job of sharing those stories from those that are willing and that it does a great job of helping those that are new or lost in finding comfort in the church despite our size. I also think, related back to your first question, that this is a huge opportunity to use some of the marketing tools available to share those stories. Why not a Twitter feed on your website with church related victories? Why not a Facebook “Victory” or “Prayer” wall for members of the church to reach out and share shories and hurts with each other?

    Keep up the good work, Pastor Brady!!

  3. This blog really help me and helped our churches future.

  4. Very interesting post. Thanks! The whole consumerist thing makes me think of how sometimes church seems to be a market where the professional staff/ministers serve a service to the congregation of consumers. The problem with this is that the congregation does not get involved in becoming part of the life of the church in serving and using their gifts. They expect the church or the pastor to meet their needs instead of serving others. But also, the staff become so concerned about serving the best meal to their congregation by providing a first-class service, programs, classes, etc. themselves that they fail to build relationships and congrgational leaders for the work of the ministry. We need to simplify and trust the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

  5. Hi Pastor Brady, I do think we need to rethink, have we become mixed wine, mixed with the world in our practices, and really not looking much different than the world. In all my study the Israelites were to be set apart, different, consecrated as the people of God….and this is what we are grafted into, the Root of David…to be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession….1 Pet. 2:9 We are called to be spotless, without wrinkle or blemish if we are the Bride, holy and beloved unto Our God. One passage that has intrigued me, is Nehemiah13:9-22. This passage reveals that the gates of Jerusalem were to be closed before the Sabbath. When the merchants and sellers lodged outside Jerusalem with all sorts of wares, they were warned….the Levites were commanded to guard the gates….As I bring this principle forward into our culture, I believe that we are not to promote our personal businesses in the House of the Lord, the place of worship. Great Dialogue….

  6. I started attending NLC in March, 2006. I call you my pastor even though I’m not a member of NLC; it’s a comfort to have a pastor from the same geographical and cultural background.
    What do we really want? In general there seems to be a spirit of apathy in the Staff and Administration of “most” Churches.. People want communication and accountability. I recently heard, “It’s been a year and I still haven’t heard back from them (staff/admin).” Not by one person but by several. – “I’ll get back with you” turns into a lie…
    People, who need prayer, should get prayer. There should always, at a “moments notice” be someone available to pray with anyone who calls in with a need. If there is not enough staff, then bring in volunteers who know and pray the Word of God…Volunteers that don’t have to be preapproved by the office “clique”’.
    One of the biggest complaints I hear is “You want to be in leadership, a volunteer, have a bible study, a prayer ministry, a children’s ministry, a care group”? – “We will have to check your tithe records”. “Only the 10 percent thither” can obtain these positions.
    Tithing should be 10% of your income and it also should be between the individual and God. Not to include the staff and administration of the church office. Who and why should anyone other than the accountant (by an affidavit of silence not to divulge private information) have access to someone’s financial giving? It immediately brings offenses.
    There is a competitive spirit amongst those new comers who may know as much or more about the Word of God as the staff…Rather than finding a place of ministry for these seasoned individuals, they view them as a threat… Do we really know the stories of our people? – Only a “selected” few…
    Having a band of people gather around in a circle to pray with people, gives the appearance that they are gating what should be the alter – you can’t approach the alter and there is no mourner’s bench. Why is that?
    Most want someone with a humble compassionate spirit to come and pray for them if hospitalized. – Not Mr. G.Q. in his Armani suit asking; “What do you want?” then giving a two second prayer and walking out.
    Don’t sparing our feelings. Never apologize for going over or saying something from the Word that might offend someone. . It’s meant to offend…
    You said: “We do know how many were baptized, how many went on missions’ trips, how many joined small groups and how many became a part of the Dream Team.” But do you know how many were prayed for? ~ Jesus said: “My house shall be a house of Prayer…”

  7. GREAT words, Pastor Brady! Now on to transform a “fast food” Christian culture into ones that can “sit down, enjoy a meal together.” and take enough time to see how we can serve others with what we receive. =) Oh, to move people into genuine relationships where they don’t just sum up their relationship with God based on brief experiences and a “feeling of belonging” with the crowd, but that everyone feels truly connected, cared for, and subsequently, an important contributing factor in the Body of Christ. When those meaningful relationships are then partnered with discernment and sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, we may just have an Unstoppable force of transformation in the earth!! Glory be to God!! Thanks for caring about what matters most to the Head of our Church.

  8. I love the questions you brought up here. They are really good. Let´s see.

    Biggest problem in my eyes is that most people don´t know what they are there for and what God´s will is for their lives. Asked them and they tell you the nicest things they have learned or read but the question what did Jesus tell you about your day today won´t be answered. Be ready for a millions I don´t know´s after asking 20 times this question to the same person!

    We taught them not to question the church leaders, the annointed ones, the “so” choosen ones by God. I think this is why we see they just want to be entertained and hear from the pastor what they have to do instead of going straight to God themself. Not all, but a lot.
    That´s what you also see, feel, experience. I know you know it and can see it. People listen to you because you are on stage and the “Leader” and they will follow it doesn´t matter what. A trap in the message would give revelation who is a “yes” sayer or a real one. Just sayin.

    What do we really want?: Keeping the system going! Nobody will every say it but it is true.

    My final thought is and I hope it is God´s thought, proof it with God. Take every system away and the people are lost and don´t know what to do anymore.

    (begin with ask God if you should tithe this sunday? ask God yourself if you should come to church or sleep in? Stop the worship music before the service! Do it once in a while but not as a system! Preach only for 3 min if this is God´s will for this sunday! (why does the pastor always have to have a big message) Tell the crowd you are free now to do what God told you this morning to do. Don´t be shocked Brady, it would be a very sad moment but a true picture of the situation.

    Note: I am not talking about NLC, talking about church in general.

    I hope my thoughts weren´t to long and at least a little helpful. Was longer than I wanted to write.

  9. How telling it is that even when a Pastor of a mega Church is asking some of the right questions he gets criticized…its almost laughable…if it didn’t burn so many leaders out…that’s another blog though.

    Advertising has an element that the Church should avoid like a plague…the gimmick. Using an advertising gimmick to lure, entice or appeal to the carnality of man is best left to the beer, automobile and toothpaste manufacturers. From easter eggs with a plasma tv inside to free pony and roller coaster rides…how hard we make it for them to find the way to heaven.

    Someone once told me that God weighs His sheep, as well as, He counts them….maybe we should want fat, healthy sheep….however many of them that there are.

    The “stories” of our People will be one of the only means to their survival…the Blood of the Lamb…the word of their testimony….and that they love not their lives unto death…this is how we overcome the world.

    Thanks for being willing to go there….would you be my Pastor?

  10. Pastor Brady, a good diagnosis, but you can’t accept Peterson’s principles without accepting his practices. He intentionally refused to pastor a church larger than he could shepherd, knowing all the members personally. Peterson has plainly said, in so many words, “Big is bad.” Until American pastors and churches slay the idol of bigness, your words won’t work. You cannot have it both ways.

  11. Wow. Great blog post. I’m especially glad you are focusing on “stories”.

    I believe we need more and more practical examples of how Christians are living out their faith. Thanks for focusing on this need.


  12. I saw your blog on Facebook. I don’t know where you are. I am in Texas at a Cowboy church and a lay pastor. We are “big” for the little area in which we live and made up of many former jail mates, old cowboys, motorcycle riders and plenty of every day Christians. The stories are awesome, the service draws them and our marketing has been primarily word of mouth…. Now the hard part. With so many who don’t even know what church is about, we have many needs to fill and words to teach. The difficult thing is getting them to incorporate the teachings of Christ. So many times we want to “church” without getting our hands dirty visiting many of these folks and dealing with the problems they have created for themselves. Us good
    “church” folk are learning what Jesus did by serving those who he came to save and seeing the community churches not understanding. We are doing well.
    I appreciate Pastors who re-examine every facet of our motives to make the CHURCH (the folks in it) be responsible and pertinent to the WAY that He taught us. Today would we see Jesus on Facebook? I do most everyday… along with the stories, gossip and misunderstandings… Just like at the fast food house.
    May God bless your ministry and all those whom have taken time to reflect on your comments.

  13. I loved reading this blog. I normally don’t read them, (sorry Pastor Brady! ) but an atheist friend of mine found it on huffington post and sent it to me. He and I have been discussing quite a while why I go to New Life and contribute as I do. I was hurt when I read the responses on huffpost to this blog, but those are the exact people that we need to reach out to with love, prayer, and acceptance instead of lashing out, being overly defensive, and spewting out words of ridicule.

    Shortly after he sent it, he said, “i thought it was a sincere attempt by him… by acknowledging there’s an issue w/ mega churches consumed with attendence, he gains some ‘street cred’ in my eyes “.

    street cred is short for credibility not in the books, but in society for those scratching their heads wondering why my attempt at grammar failed. =)

    This is proof that your message is getting out to not only the city of Colorado Springs and our congregation. You’re doing a great job Pastor Brady. You need to be recognized for that. I thank you.

  14. Brady
    thanks for the post
    I serve in a church with 600 in worship. I would love to know every story–but I can’t. This week I prepare for a funeral after a murder-suicide. We aren’t marketing to reach people this week. We are telling them about Christ at their own invitation.
    Meeting with the family its clear just how limited our human capacities are; and it’s a joy to recognize, in the midst of brokeness, that the most important thing we do is not have human relationships with everyone in the church but help every one have a relationship with God the Father.
    Peace to you

  15. That is very attention-grabbing, You’re an overly professional blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look ahead to looking for more of your great post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

  16. Pastor Brady, you may not believe me when I say AWESOME POST (as I’ve been a “fruit inspector” of yours for the last four years as you may know)….but I am sincerely appreciative of what you seem to be saying and questioning.

    For years now, starting (it seemed) with the Saddleback and Willow Creek “seeker sensitive” movement, the church in America has been more concerned about making the seekers and attendees comfortable, to improve their self-esteem, to honor their “dreams” and “ambiions”. These messages and underlying tones were supported in the most recenter aberation of the gospel in the “emergent” movement or “post-modern” movement. The result has been about a gazillion (supposedly) born again believers who have demanded consumeristic church. The bible is chock-full of scripture that warns about friendship with the world being at-enmity with God, but shepherds have failed to see that their “marketing” and “positioning/vision” statements were reflective of worldly ambition and didn’t reflect humble, repentant, submitted believers. This post will anger some but others who are feeling that slight tug on their hearts by the Holy Spirit will hear this….the tug is the Spirit saying: come back to Jesus….do the things you did at-first…..repent….love the Lord (your first love) your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and your neighbor as yourself. Humility and broken-ness before God is always honored by Him….I really want to affirm your questioning of what I consider areas that can decieve us into becoming more like the world, and more worried about “nickles, noses, and numbers” vs. the hearts of the lost and the maturity of our sheep….thank you. Jim Kulka

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