April 4, 2006
A "Different" Kind of Church: how secular marketing is fueling church competition
General Motors launched its Saturn brand in 1990 with the tag line, "A different kind of company, a different kind of car." GM believed they could carve out a market niche by addressing the collective American psyche's negative view of car dealers. They were right. Saturn's "no-haggle" sales policy earned it awards for customer satisfaction. In the car business, it pays to be different.
Dave Terpstra, pastor of The Next Level Church in Denver and a regular contributor to Out of Ur, has observed that many churches are adopting the "different is good" marketing strategy used by secular companies. (Who can forget, "Little. Yellow. Different."?) But by championing our differences, are we treating other churches like fellow communities of Christ, or like competitors?
Because my church's primary service is on Tuesday nights, I have the opportunity to visit other area churches at least once a month. I call it my church-of-the-month club. This past Sunday I read this in the bulletin of the church I visited: "[Church Name] is a different kind of church." They went on to explain how their church is for those who don't like organized religion or for people who have not had their needs met by a traditional church.
Another church I have visited was "different" because it was a place where there's "no pressure or guilt." Still another church I know claims to be different because it is for a new generation. I searched Google for "a different kind of church." Here are a few examples of what I found:
"Your first impression of [church name] may be, "This doesn't seem like a typical church." And we think that's good."
"[Church name] is a different kind of church, making a difference."
"Even if you didn't think you would ever feel comfortable in church, this is a different kind of church. We want to be your church."
Google returned 924 results. It seems "different" churches may not be so different after all. But that got me wondering - why do church leaders feel the need to advertise how different their church is from others? Admittedly, I have used this terminology when talking about my church. And it was in the not-too-distant past that our church used similar terminology very regularly.
The simplest answer is that we are marketing to Christians. If we are targeting the "already convinced," and if our growth is from transfers and people new in town, then we need to distinguish our product from the neighboring churches' product. That's not a new idea. In the past Protestant churches in America used to make distinctions based on theology. Now we do it with our ethos - captured in a snappy catch phrase.
In previous generations we advertised our theology - like infant baptism, or entire sanctification, or speaking in tongues, or making it clear we didn't believe in those things. Now we make sure the world knows our ethos - we care about families, or we stand for truth, or we are young, or we are accepting.
None of the new statements are necessarily bad. My problem is when they are attached to the phrase "a different kind of church." When we say we are different because we [fill in the blank]; what we are really doing is making a judgment about the churches around us. I hope your church does care about families. I hope you do stand for truth. I hope you are accepting. But the moment those ideas are labeled as "differences," you have condemned other churches by making the assumption that they do not do these things.
If your church is a place where there is no pressure or guilt, just say that. Why do you need to imply that my church has pressure and guilt? If your church is for a new generation - great! Let everyone know. Just don't imply that other churches are not for a new generation.
If we were selling Pepsi, I would tell you to attack Coke. But we are in the business of Christ and His Kingdom, and there is no benefit in smearing one expression of the Bride of Christ to make our version look more appealing to religious consumers.