Churches Get Religion on Marketing

Number of Nonbelievers Is Rising, but Is Marketing the Solution or Problem?

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YORK, Pa. ( -- Marketing may or may not have played a role in American's increasingly fickle relationship with religion, but it's certainly playing one today as organized religions scramble to get consumers' attention.

Call it modern-day malaise or attention-deficit religion jumping, but the "nones" are on the rise as more as more people are labeling themselves as having no religion. Today, 15% of Americans say they are "unaffiliated," up from 8% in 1990. It's an even more pronounced change among young people -- 46% of people ages 18 to 34 consider themselves to have "no religion," according to the American Religious Identification Survey by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture at Trinity College.

METHODISTS BECOME MARKETERS: UMC's website targets young demographic.
METHODISTS BECOME MARKETERS: UMC's website targets young demographic.
"To use consumer terminology, brand loyalty is way down," said John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum and professor at the University of Akron.

Brand loyalty should not be confused with a lack of faith, however. That is, "nones" aren't necessarily nonbelievers, just non-church goers. Sixty-two percent of 18- to 34-year-olds consider themselves spiritual, and another 43% have prayed in the last two months, according to a survey by Bohan Advertising/Marketing, the Barna Group and the United Methodist Church.

Marketing is seen as both the source of the problem and a potential solution.

Faith as brand
"Look at the parallels between religion and marketing, and it's almost identical. People become attached to a religion in the same way someone takes on a brand," said Mara Einstein, author of "Brands of Faith," and associate professor of media studies at Queens College. She and others contend that it is marketing, and our consumerist society, that has given people the idea they have a divine right to choose whatever they like -- and to treat faiths just like they'd treat any other brands, switching religions or choosing to have none.

"We're so used to having our products created for us that fill our needs ... that it makes all of the sense in the world we'd expect the same from our faith," Ms. Einstein said.

Marketing alone isn't to blame for religions' faltering -- an influx of new religion choices via immigration, the rise of the megachurch and widespread criticism of organized religion all play a role -- but marketing is increasingly the tool of choice for religions seeking to reverse the trend.

The United Methodist Church launched a $20 million campaign last week to specifically reach 18- to 34-year-olds with a "Rethink Church" message. The UMC has done national advertising for several years, but this effort is aimed at not only the younger generation, but also at changing the image of the church from passive to an active community of believers "redefining the church as a 24/7 social interaction," according to Rev. Larry Hollon, the general secretary of United Methodist Communications.

Street teams, door hangers, T-shirts, Twitter and Facebook are included as campaign media, along with network TV, radio print, mobile, e-mail, outdoor and event sponsorships. The efforts all point back to the website, where users can do everything from posting prayer requests and purchasing malaria nets for charity to finding daycare.

"Whatever level you might want to be involved in, here are entry ways to a church experience," said Kerry Graham, president at Bohan, which is headquartered in Nashville.

Beliefs in transition
If the effort seems weighted toward a young demographic, there's a reason: The period between 20 and 40 is when one's religious affiliation becomes pretty well-sealed.

The almost half of Americans who switch religions in their lifetime do so on a common age timeline. In general, they quit their childhood faith before 24, settle on their current religion by age 36, and almost never switch again after 50, according to "Faith in Flux" from the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life.

"This is the demographic everyone wants. Because if this market is not reachable, the establishment is probably doomed," said Brad Abare, founder of the Center for Church Communications, which hosts the blog Church Marketing Sucks.

Of course, marketing isn't new for churches and religions. One could argue that event marketing, custom publishing and many PR techniques have always been a part of building a faithful following. But even in the narrower sense of advertising, groups such as the Mormons have used TV and radio ads for more than 30 years, while local churches have long posted cheesy/clever messages on their outdoor bulletin boards. Most gave up worrying that overtly advertising themselves is somehow unseemly long ago.

Indeed, part of the problem is that they've been outmarketed for years. The megachurches and seeker churches are packing the pews by offering professional-level entertainment, while traditional churches struggle to drum up enough in the collection plate to pay expenses.

"Why go to the old boring stale church down the street when you can drive 15 miles out to the suburbs and feel like you're pulling up to Target? They've got music, lights, sound, things for the kids to do. It's DisneyWorld inside their doors," Mr. Abare said.

'Necessary evil'
Ultimately, the question is: Can marketing work for any religion?

"Marketing is sort of a necessary evil. It's part of our culture at this point, and if faiths want to be part of the culture, they're going to have to do marketing, or they'll get lost in the conversation," Ms. Einstein said.

Mr. Hollon acknowledges that there's only so much marketing can do. However, the UMC is also making changes that they hope will make sure they are walking the walk. They're now hiring staff to start 600 churches each year for the next few years -- not building buildings, but using storefronts or rental spaces or whatever else is appropriate -- to reach out to young adults and others. The church is also training existing churches on how to be more hospitable and open to any one who walks through the door, Mr. Hollon said.

Marketing 101

In an effort to draw new followers, the United Methodist Church and agency Bohan are going by the book.

Step 1. Do your homework
UMC and Bohan commissioned a survey that found 62% of 18- to 34-year-olds consider themselves spiritual, and another 43% have prayed in the past two months.

Step 2. Identify your target
Americans who switch religions generally quit their childhood faith before 24 and settle on their current religion by 36. Even in matters of religion, the 18-to-34 demographic is a sweet spot.

Step 3. Speak their language
Cause marketing and social media are big draws for the demographic. "Rethink Church" messaging is meant to redefine the church as a more active "24/7 social interaction," using tools such as Twitter and Facebook to do so.

Step 4. Cover all your bases
Obviously, social media can't do it all. UMC is using street teams, door hangers, T-shirts, network TV, radio print, mobile, e-mail, outdoor and event sponsorships. The efforts point back to the website It's all part of a cohesive $20 million effort.

Step 5. Make sure the product delivers
Says UMC General Secretary Rev. Larry Hollon: "Advertising makes a promise, and if you live up to that promise with integrity, that's as much as you can do."

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