Rising Above Manipulative Church Marketing

August 31, 2021

By: Vikki Basinger


Marketing has garnered a rough reputation, particularly with the meteoric rise of big tech and the expansive advertising reach provided to companies online. It’s no surprise that manipulation plays a role in marketing, and, unfortunately, that can extend to church marketing. While the majority of churches market in order to help fulfill the Great Commission, there have been instances where churches prey on emotional responses to their marketing tactics in order to get what they want, be it a new attendee, a new donor, or a new advocate. 

So how do you spot manipulative church marketing, and, better yet, how do you rise above it? 

What is marketing?
First, I want to help you understand a bit that goes on behind the curtain, so you can increase your discernment as you encounter church (or any!) marketing messages. The simplest definition I can give for marketing is telling people what you do and how it can help them. Marketing has been around as long as companies have been around, and advertising is one of the larger slices of the marketing pie. In the 1970s, consumers saw an average of 500 ads per day. In 2021? Up to 10,000. Per day. Let that sink in…

How is marketing used to manipulate?
Today, marketing has turned into a complex, manipulative art form, with algorithms and data mining in place to allow companies to know what you’ll be more likely to buy during different seasons or in line with life events. Responsive retail is becoming more widespread, with appliances alerting us to our depleting groceries, or Alexa hearing, executing on, and retaining verbal orders from within your household. More and more of what you see is crafted for you, for this moment. 

While the frequency and medium of exposure are important, what you say and how you say it matter even more, because those are the things that can evoke an emotional response. 

Emotional responses to marketing tactics build a connection between you and a brand. Since 2009, Coca-Cola has been telling you that they bottle happiness, which is available to you if you just open it. Is that true? Well, how do you feel when you open an ice cold, sweet, bubbly bottle of Coca-Cola classic? Refreshed? Satisfied? Perhaps, happy? What about when you see those cute polar bears with their Coke bottles at Christmas time… do they make you smile? When you read my descriptive words about Coca-Cola, did they enrich your mental connection to the brand? This is marketing at work. 

Why do churches use marketing?
I’ll come back to my definition of marketing at this point. Does the Church have something to tell people that will help them? Yes. Does every local church have something to share with their community that’s relevant to them and will impact their lives greatly for the better? Again, yes! 

Churches market because they have the best thing in the world to share with those who are willing to listen – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We are called to “go into all the world and make disciples,” and today, a lot of our world is digital. Our world includes YouTube, Facebook, and Google. If churches aren’t online and aren’t communicating with people in the places where people are present, less people will hear. 

In Romans 10, it says “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Church marketing can help people hear about Jesus, plain and simple. And that’s a good thing.

How can I rise above manipulative church marketing?
While church marketing is not bad or evil, manipulative church marketing is. Rising above church marketing requires you to do three things: recognize, ruminate, and reconcile. 

In order to discern whether or not you’re staring at a piece of manipulative church marketing, here are three things to look for.

Self-Promoting: What is the main point or solution within the marketing piece? If the solution to your problem, concern, or question is “Pastor So & So” or “This Church,” your discernment engine should start up. Quickly. Jesus should be at the core of every answer.

Competitive: Is this marketing piece trying to deter you from another church, or have you stop attending your current church? Our only competition in the Church is Satan & his minions, not one another. Look for phrases communicating implicitly that…

“We’re not like that other church, we’re better.”

“Other churches are boring, we’re exciting!”

“Other churches aren’t teaching people, but we will!”

Financially-Based: If the top reason this piece of marketing exists is to get you to give the church money, it’s likely going to be manipulative in nature. “Only you can help us reach our goal,” or “You hold the key to unlocking more ministry opportunities in your neighborhood,” sound empowering, but are just attempting to get you to buy in. Next. 

Take a minute to actually think about what you’re looking at. Ask yourself, “What are they trying to get me to do?” Marketing often tries to remove critical thinking from the process. That’s why it often succeeds, because emotions make you incapable of processing things critically. If you actually take a minute to pause, think, and process, you remove the power of the marketing piece and have the ability to decipher what it’s really trying to get you to do.

Ultimately, if you recognize something manipulative and determine after ruminating on its content that it’s trying to prey on your emotions, you need to tell yourself that what you’re looking at is trying to manipulate you, and move on. While this sounds simple, sometimes the emotional reaction to this very process can become overwhelming. Whenever anything related to my Jesus gets twisted or perverted, I get pretty indignant! Take a moment to remember that all men (and women) are fallible, and that sometimes, even people who are trying their best to do right, get it wrong. 

If you’re like me, your faith is an emotional part of your life. There is nothing more emotional than realizing you are a sinner, and that Jesus Christ left his perfect environment in Heaven to come to earth, live a human life, and die in my place, so I could have forgiveness of those sins.

Because faith can elicit so many emotions, turn up the discernment and use it to rise above anything that’s trying to manipulate you, including church marketing. 


On This Episode:

Vikki Basinger
Vikki Basinger

Director of Central Services, Village Church Illinois

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