The Death of Church Marketing, or A Return to Communications

A year ago, I made the decision to launch Sacred Language Communications. I didn’t put “marketing” in my company name then, and ever since I have tried (not as successfully as I’d like) to avoid using the term.

The traditional marketing approach is failing--two-way communications is the next step.

The traditional marketing approach is failing–two-way communications is the next step.

Marketing as a concept for faith communities, I believe, is largely dead. Buried initially by the introduction of social media—which exposed to all how little marketers can really influence people’s habits. And increasingly buried by a return to sanity—at the end of the day, it’s your ability to connect to the people you serve that makes the difference.

Traditionally, people talked about doing this work as “marketing.” I prefer to talk about “communications.” The term is clunky, to be sure. Maybe I’ll invent a better word or phrase someday. But until then, there’s value in using this longer, five syllable term for the work we do. It describes a dialogue, a discussion–not a one-way funnel of information trying to convince people to join something.

A recent event demonstrates the difference between marketing and communications very well.

Cantor’s Lesson: Be Real

If you follow politics, you no doubt heard about Eric Cantor’s defeat to a relatively unknown challenger in the recent primary. Of all the bluster and verbiage that has come from this election, Matt Bai of the Washington Postsaw past the obscure to the obvious. And his observation applies to more than politicians.

Rep. Cantor learned the hard way that talking points and marketing efforts don't trump real communications.

Rep. Cantor learned the hard way that talking points and marketing efforts don’t trump real communications.

“I can tell you this: Cantor didn’t lose because his opponent, who was backed by radio hosts and tea party activists, articulated some brilliant distillation of conservative thought. Brat struck me, when we spoke, as affable and well intended but nowhere near fluent in the complexities of policy or government…. But, hey, at least Dave Brat talks like an actual person and engages in something resembling an actual conversation. There’s not a lot of that going on in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol.”

And there’s not a lot of actual conversation going on in church-speak or church-marketing, either.

In this work that we are engaged, listening trumps everything. Listening to those in your community. Listening to those you hope to reach. And only after listening, do you talk. Not in the puffery of marketing lingo, nor the obscurity of theological lingo, but in the language of the community you leave.

Data-Crunching: Stay Real

Many, sensing the communications break-downs that are occurring in our world, aim their ire at the tools. So anti-technology people have enjoyed something of a renaissance in our age, blaming the tools for the breakdowns that we see.

Social media tools are just that--"tools." Used for communication, they're powerful arrows in your quiver. Used for marketing, and your aim is off. Photo Courtesy Rebecca Bollwitt

Social media tools are just that–“tools.” Used for communication, they’re powerful arrows in your quiver. Used for marketing, and your aim is off. Photo Courtesy Rebecca Bollwitt

But the frustration is misplaced. The tools are just that—tools. And generally speaking, people who excel in communicating in their communities will do well across the spectrum of communication tools. Unfortunately, because modern tools—social media, e-newsletters, and related technologies—allow us to not guess, but know exactly, how well our communications are, many use the raw data they provide (click rates, open rates, Likes, Follows, etc.) to measure goals and punish people who can’t “produce the numbers.”

But data—for all that it shows us about how people react—is not a tool for punishing people. It’s a tool for learning. “OK, this doesn’t resonate with people. Why?” And the discussion goes on from there.

Data should keep your language and motivations “real,” not become a tool for judging people’s performance.

Live Real

Marketing isn’t a four-letter word. You need to carry out campaigns, organize events, recruit volunteers, etc.

But don’t mistake this work for communications—listening to, learning about, and talking with those you serve and work with.

This is communications.

Sacred Language Communications works with you to advance your communications efforts in order to strengthen your existing community, and grow it for the future. Feel free to call us at 540-498-5994, or write us at


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