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Evangelism: Sales or Marketing?

In many small businesses, sales are all that matters. Sales = revenue. Sales = top line. However, the more sophisticated a marketplace becomes, marketing comes into play. Marketing is often viewed as the processes that support sales, but that’s a rather insufficient definition. Rather, Marketing is everything that you do to reach and persuade prospects. The sales process is everything that you do to close the sale and get a signed agreement or contract. Often, these two dynamics in an organization can create a lot of friction, as evidenced by this article where it opens with the stereotypical debate:

Marketers generally think of salespeople as lowbrow monkeys or pushy parrots whose sole calling is to repeat the same sales pitch ad infinitum to new prospects.

Salespeople generally thinks of marketers as lazy liberal arts graduates who use the word “branding” to describe activities that are in actuality “a colossal waste of money.”

Ultimately each function needs the other if the company as a whole is to succeed. What’s less obvious is how they should work together.

And this is no simple or localized debate. Nor is it limited to the business world. It seems that while we haven’t named it as such in the context of church, I think we have a similar struggle when it comes to evangelism. Is it sales or marketing?

And then furthermore, who does what? Is the church a marketing organization or a sales organization? Are you about getting the word out? Or do we exist to close the sale? Perhaps the debates that are being pitched back and forth between denominations and movements like the emerging church are from one perspective critiquing the other? When in actuality, it appears we need both sides.

In my experience with business (albeit fairly limited and sporadic), there is a mentality change that occurs at a critical juncture when in product marketing the focus shifts from sales to marketing. A failure to do so is to underestimate the activity of the competitve landscape, an assumption that you have to “dance with the girl that brought you” to succeed.

I recently went to an afterparty (don’t know if that’s the right word) to this conference (where I met Bruce Reyes-Chow in the flesh).  While there were many Presbyterians around, some of them were very confused by the emerging conversation, asking, “What’s the big deal? We’ve been talking about contextualization for a long time. This is not new.” But Bruce quickly responded, “No, it’s not new to us, but Emerging is giving us language to reach out to the culture. The focus is outwards.” One conversation partner responded, “Oh yeah, we don’t do that very well. I mean we’re open and people feel comfortable once they come in, but they do have to stumble in on their own.”

To my “marketing” ears, that translates to poor marketing, great product.

That mentality persists in business because the underlying notion is — the product is so great, it should sell itself. But that’s a false assumption because in a crowded, mature marketplace, that’s not true. The “best” product doesn’t always win (see betamax). Good products demand a strong investment in marketing in order to ensure its success.

I think this is the fundamental thought process behind the success of megachurches across the country. While you might detest the commercialization of it, at least its putting production quality to the most important message ever told. After all, what is a non-Christian supposed to make of legions of churches that go bankrupt or simply subsist?

And yet, I think that ultimately, if we are the church–we are the product. If God cannot create forgiveness or generosity in me, then those whom I might approach in my everday relationships about Christ, will simply not buy. I am the sales and marketing department, I am the church, and the greatest irony of it all…is I am broken merchandise. Try marketing that.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

6 responses to “Evangelism: Sales or Marketing?

  1. elderj

    Interesting post and insightful analysis. Might I recommend the book Reimaging Evangelism?

    I agree with you, but I would suggest that the church’s problem during the modernist era (last 200 years or so) has been that it has handled the gospel primarily as a product to be marketed and sold. This places us in the same category as WalMart (megachurch) or perhaps your local home grown organic food mart (smells and bells “emergent church”), both of which need to market themselves to some audience trying to convince them that “we” have a superior product. “Now with more miracles!” “New & Improved Worship, with greater angst removing power!”

    Perhaps we would do better if we saw ourselves as a confessional and invitational community to which people can belong, and in which they can find meaningful relationship and a coherent framework in which to live their lives. A secular example might be the military or perhaps WoW

  2. Some interesting thoughts elderj. If we adopted a more confessional or invitational framework to re-imaging the church, what impact will this have on who we attract? I would garner to say the outcast, the socially awkward, the misfits would eventually fill our pews. Is this the intent of Jesus when he invited the downtrodden and broken-hearted to follow him? Perhaps.

    But do not lose sight of the fact that the ones that fill the pews will be called to lead the church eventually, and the reason they are in the confessional church is because they could not lead or fit in anywhere else. Do we feel good about leaving the mission of the church in such hands?

    The military model is an interesting example, but one that I believe contradicts your point. The drawing point of the military is that it will square you away, get you locked on, and immerse you into a mission far bigger than yourself. It will demand your all for a cause. It demands that you adjust your life to the cause, not the other way around. It will not coddle you or cuddle you. It will demand your lifestyle, may require your very life, but in exchange your life will be about more than you could have dreamed.
    I think that is closer to the heart of the gospel.
    And if the church embraced that more, we would attract a leadership caliber that would make the church unstoppable.

  3. elderj

    The military example reinforces my point in that the military has often been the best option for the least of society. That is why it is filled with poor & working class people and so many minorities. It is one organization in society that operates in a fairly nondiscriminatory way in that it really does not matter how you come in, or who you were before you joined – drug addict or doctoral student – everyone has to go through basic training.

    Interestingly the military doesn’t pride itself on drawing leaders but rather on creating them. It therefore has no qualms about drawing the outcast, the socially awkawrd, the misfits because it believes that they too can become leaders of incredible caliber.

    Think about the ways the military markets itself as over against the church. It shamelessly promotes itself as the place where you can become more than you ever dreamed, be a leader, discover your inward strength, etc. The church however generally markets itself only as a social service agency; a place where experts provide for your and your families needs. The trouble is, I can get most of those needs met elsewhere and I don’t really want church to be a glorified coffeeshop/book discussion club. The church needs to be more than that and call me (and others) to more as well.

  4. Elderj, in your first comment, your last paragraph is actually what the Emerging (the movement, not the commenter) are shooting for, and I would assert that they’re not being commercial about it at all, so they’re avoiding said commoditization.

    As for this military example, I find this more engaging than the initial post. But then there are aspects of military that seem to be contradictory with what most of this generation seem to wrestle with. For instance, the notion of clearly defining an enemy, the notions of distinct and established authority with clear outlines of execution (Iraq, anyone?), and the ways of exercising power and might are problematic when expressed through Christians. I mean, it worked with the Salvation Army and YMCAs of yesteryear, but aren’t we technically in guerilla warfare mode? Aren’t we truly in postmodern warfare mode? This is more like decentralized warfare which requires perhaps churches to be more like boot camp than anything else, but how attractive is that to the non-believer? It sounds kind of cult-ish too.

    But to tie this back into the post again, I think that the decentralization is actually where marketing is headed, so the notions of blogging, word-of-mouth, YouTube, and wikipedia actually are just as potent as traditional methods when it comes to the entire sales vs. marketing debate. But I believe that it is happening in church as well. Many people are not relying on one pastor, one church, one community alone– we’re drawing from a number of wells. I don’t know what this does for leadership, but I do think it affects our ability to represent a broader, more personal, and more welcoming way into the ways of Christ. What do you think?

  5. John Lee

    Excellent post, David, and some keen comments posted here.

    If I understand the gist of your post (and the comments here by elderjand emergingtruth) correctly, while the gospel is a great “product,” the marketing is not only a letdown, but attracts people for reasons antithetical to the product itself. In other words, the gospel which is meant to overhaul and energize a person’s life, ends up attracting (because of warped marketing) the consumer (with his selfish sense of entitlement), and the misfit (with his self-centered sense of wounded needs to be addressed).

    It’s like trying to sell the ipod. Great product, but imagine what a failure it would have been if because of bad marketing, it aroused the curiosity of only the deaf and music-haters.

  6. elderj

    John, I think you’ve grasped the essence of my thoughts precisely. I would go further and say that the way we do church not only attracts the types you mentioned, but conditions those who are not in those categories to act that way. This is one of the challenges students who are shaped in the parachurch experience when they return to the “regular” church.

    It is as if they hear, “Okay, enough of that crazy, missional, give your life away, evangelistic zeal you learned in your campus ministry. It’s time to settle down and become a consumer. I mean those all night prayer meetings, and spiritual conversations you had with non-believers, and social activism, and Bible studies you led just because God told you to, and missions trips you went on where you actually did missions rather than just building stuff was fine for college, but this is the real world now. So settle down and be a consumer.”

    As for the difficulties of the military metaphor, I agree entirely that it is problematic. That is why I posited another metaphor as well: that of World of Warcraft which is a worldwide phenomenon that transcends national boundaries and which is a community unto itself in many ways. It provides many of the same elements of adventure, quest, growth, immersion in something larger than oneself – and yet it does so in a very decentralized non-directive way.

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