The world’s population continues to grow at a dizzying pace, yet there are fewer people practicing religion than ever before. Certainly, the economic crash of 2008 hurt every aspect of the country, but a severe toll was taken on churches. The numbers show they experienced an approximate 30-percent drop in income.
The amount of distractions and the overall magnetic pull of the material world makes selling faith a difficult venture. There are so many competitive alternatives to whatever product or solution you seek. So, imagine the challenge of selling the most intangible solution that the world has ever seen.
Faith cannot be touched. It cannot be packaged, branded, or measured. In many instances, however, it is the most cherished possession of many people. But, there are an infinite number of alternatives to going to church, and attracting people is more difficult than ever. In other words, selling faith, building a congregation, and the financial details of running a church remind us that it is a business.
So, when the topic of religion and profit come up in the same sentence, the business side of faith generates a lot of questions.
How does a church know that its members will give enough to support its staff? Has religion become consumerized? Is faith for sale?
In Pineville, North Carolina., just south of Charlotte, Harrison Church provides services for around 700-800 members every weekend. The Methodist Church headed by Pastor Shane Page resists the notion that he has to “sell” faith. “In my perspective, it’s almost impossible to sell church,” he says.
Page says that the word “selling” is a consumeristic term connected to the exchange of goods and currency. And that’s not how a church works. “Christianity does not work well with a consumer mentality. Jesus says to sell everything. Give to the poor. Make sacrifices. Those commands do not sell very well. There is no following of Jesus without some suffering on your part, and therefore, there is no equal exchange.”
“Christianity does not work well with a consumer mentality. Jesus says to sell everything. Give to the poor. Make sacrifices. Those commands do not sell very well.”
– Shane Page, Head Pastor at Harrison Church
In American churches, parishioners succumb to God as the capitalist. For example, “If you do this for God, your life will be better.” But Page says that’s not the promise of the scripture. “It is not in any way compatible with an American Dream.”
But because a church needs money to operate, there is a conflict. How do you ask for donations from people who are on a personal religious journey? Can you really expect them to pay to be there?
Gregory Haswell, senior pastor at Northlands Church in Atlanta, says the “corporation” part of the church – budgets, fund allocation, staffing, salaries, HR issues, etc. – can often get lost on churchgoers.
The bottom line is that churches have to keep accurate records of donations for tax purposes just like everybody else. And when they don’t, you see it in the news. “You think about the mistrust of institutional church, and I don’t blame them,” Page confesses.
Haswell says that financial sloppiness or mismanagement taints the reputation and calling of every church.
So, how does a church remedy this? Page says you have to show people what their money is doing – how it serves God and supports the church’s efforts. “Church leaders, especially those who focus on this aspect of church life, have all the same challenges other business leaders face,” Haswell says.
But they have added challenges as well. “Our challenges are different because we don’t have executive authority over the people who voluntarily donate their time, talents, and finances to our church. Although we have staff who work with people, their authority and leadership abilities are not derived from their superior place in the organizational chart.”
A byproduct of faith
The only way that churches like Harrison and Northlands survive is through the giving and tithing of its respective memberships. But, as either pastor will tell you, money is not at the tip-top of his to-do list. It’s simply a byproduct of faith.
Page says his parishioners don’t give money to the church so that it can pay the bills. They give because of their relationship with God.
That puts the onus on a church’s leadership to build and maintain its numbers. Similar to any corporate brand, churches must offer a strong product, build and maintain its community and seek to gain as many referrals as possible.
The most coveted marketing strategy in the modern landscape is word of mouth marketing (W.O.M.M.) where referrals, key influencers, and peer relationships matter most. In a similar vein, 70 to 90 percent of people attend church services because somebody they know recommended it or invited them. Haswell says, “satisfied customers are a church’s best marketing tool.”
And the outreach doesn’t stop there. Northlands Church employs many of the same marketing techniques you see every day. It uses billboards, mailer postcards, and Google ads.
Today, its most effective strategy centers on digital and social media marketing. It drives traffic to its website via SEO (search engine optimization), live sermon streams, archived sermons online, blog posts, tweets and Facebook posts.
“It is remarkable to me,” Haswell says, “that most people who visit our church for the first time have been visiting with us online for an average of a month before they set foot in our building.”
While church may have a lot of competition, it is still a compelling solution. It may not be the trendiest business on the block, but it’s still a cool business. Regardless of the alternatives, it will find a way to succeed.
Perhaps Page says it best: “I am of the opinion of Pope Benedict XVI, who anticipated and almost looked forward to the smaller church. It’s always been the most alive when it was the minority.”
Selling faith may be challenging, but when you have a devout following getting a pretty compelling return on their investment, then churches don’t need to worry about cutting checks. The brand of of faith is as old as time.