Marketing the Word in the modern world

As congregations diminish, the Christian churches are being forced to take more radical measures to market their message. Branwell Johnson reports.

Filling church pews is a growing headache for the various UK Christian denominations as attendance figures continue to fall.

Both the Church of England (CofE) and the Roman Catholic (RC) Church face this problem. The English Church Census, shows that 12 per cent of the population attended a CofE church regularly in 1979, ten per cent in 1989 and 7.5 per cent in 1998. However, it should be noted that the CofE is overhauling its measuring methodology as it feels the “snapshot” of Sunday attendance is no longer accurate when weekday attendance is growing. It believes that monthly figures would be more accurate.

For a religion founded “very much by a pro-active marketer” (according to Andrew Finan, the non-Christian author of Corporate Christ) you would expect the churches to take up the congregation challenge.

While the CofE normally undertakes Easter and Christmas campaigns, there now seems to be a barrage of new initiatives, sometimes using provocative messages.

In December, the diocese of Birmingham is launching a website supported by a controversial poster campaign carrying messages such as “Body piercing? Jesus had his done 2,000 years ago.”

In a pre-Christmas campaign, the independent Churches Advertising Network (CAN) is supplying prostitute-style cards for churchgoers to place in telephone boxes with the slogan “What would love do now?”.

The Evangelical Alliance, which represents more than 1 million Christians in over 30 denominations, is preparing church leaders for the media assault of its “facevalues” campaign next March, taking in TV, radio and posters. The Holy Trinity Brompton’s (HTB) Alpha courses are also being heavily plugged in a campaign worth £1m, using 1,500 billboards and 3,000 buses. HTB is also getting exposure thanks to ITV’s ten-part series: Alpha – Will It Change Their Lives?

Views differ over church marketing tactics and over whether faith can be treated as a brand.

Francis Goodwin, corporate development director for outdoor agency the Maiden Group and acting chair of CAN, says: “It’s not like selling burgers or cans of cola. We are talking about belief systems and the effect is not felt overnight.”

Church initiatives, he explains, are designed to get people to try the product, rather than achieve the conventional consumer marketing aim of delivering a central, clear message about a product.

Goodwin says one problem is making Christianity appear relevant in the 21st century, when in many ways it seems a “hangover from the 19th century”. He says that there are “multiple brands of Christianity” which can confuse non-church goers and adds that the CofE, unlike the RC church, is not “hierarchically robust” so campaigns are tough to co-ordinate and implement nationwide. He says: “There is no guy at the top of the company who can make a decision.”

He says that initiatives can swing between “safe” campaigns of which church goers approve and “risky” campaigns noticeable to the “outside world”, such as CAN’s Easter 1999 ad with its “Che Guevara” depiction of Christ.

Arun Arora, director of communications for the Bishop of Birmingham, believes his initiative is using language necessary to reach young people.

“It is aimed at a non-church audience in the 14 to 25 and 18 to 38 age groups. All the criticism has been from people who are outside the age group or are church goers – these are not the target market. When you were a missionary in the golden age of spreading the gospel, one of the things you did was learn the local language – we are learning the language of young people.”

Bryon Jones, director at The Redbox Agency handling The Evangelical Alliance campaign, does not see the planned ads as employing “shock value” tactics, but offering something “new and fresh”.

He says “being offered coke on a Friday night or the action of adultery are things that happen all the time – people don’t think about it. We want to prompt them to think again.”

CofE Church House and Catholic Media Office (CMO) sources stress that the way Christians are seen living their daily lives has the most impact on people and is more likely to draw them to church. CMO director Tom Horwood says: “There is not an attempt to market our church in that way. No amount of posters will bring people in if they are not interested, although they might help people who are already interested.”

Finan, who besides being an author is also managing director of Challenger World, has the opposite view and says that Jesus was an arch-propagandist and the disciples the first marketing team.

But he does see some muddling of messages in church activity and calls the CAN Che Guevara campaign “

dangerous” because it equates a person whom some see as a terrorist with Christian values.

He says that for Jesus to send his message to the world “from a backwater in the ancient world without the advantage of mass communications, and then to establish a brand that has lasted for 2,000 years, took a lot of energy and marketing talent. The modern church could learn from Jesus.”

This suggests a back-to-basics campaign could pay dividends for all those involved in spreading the word.

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