2014-10-01 / Business News

Marketing Religion

Churches find clever ways to attract the faithful
BY ROGER WILLIAMS

FOR MANY, MARKETING RELIGION IS AN imperative, not merely a job like the jobs of marketers who sell cars or real estate or alcoholic spirits, for example — and that appears to be true across a variety of faiths and cultures.

Religion is serious business, trading in the currency of both souls and money, often at Biblical command such as that of Mathew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit.”

In Southwest Florida, the marketers of the Word may either be leaders of religious organizations or the worshippers themselves. But in either case, they do the same thing: They use a range of advertising tools to sell a host of products or services, just as any other business might — billboards and television or radio ads and sophisticated websites and social media, not to mention print ads, all seeking to draw in souls who will share in the joy of salvation by giving.


“B90X” — a program that borrows from the “P90X” workout system — offers the chance to get “spiritually ripped” by reading the Bible in 90 days. “B90X” — a program that borrows from the “P90X” workout system — offers the chance to get “spiritually ripped” by reading the Bible in 90 days. The sky — and the imagination of the marketers — is the limit, it seems.

For example, the Riverside Church in Fort Myers, following the lead of some other groups in the country, displays a sizeable banner on Daniels Parkway where roughly 50,000 drivers a day are likely to see it. The church offers the following opportunity: “B90X” — the chance to get “spiritually ripped” by reading the Bible in 90 days.

It’s a takeoff on the nationally popular workout program called P90X, “a revolutionary system of 12 sweatinducing, muscle-pumping exercises designed to transform your body from regular to ripped,” in 90 days.


COFFEY COFFEY “Jesus wasn’t interested in religion,” says Senior Pastor Bob Reed, introducing his church and welcoming all comers. “I’m not interested in religion.”

Instead, “the church exists to make disciples who love and live like Jesus.” And who can actually claim to have read the Bible in its entirety. Apparently, many have not.

At Riverside this autumn and winter, some parishioners will finish reading the Bible and then make a February journey with the pastor and his wife to the Holy Land. There will be Englishspeaking Israeli guides, three meals a day, and pleasant hotel accommodations — all for a cost of about $4,500, according to the travel itinerary.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, presumably, they will come back and spread the Word — which is, after all, part of the point for many churches.


GLASGOW GLASGOW “People must see what we do, hear what we say, and see how we react, in order to be convinced of true Christianity,” says Pastor Mark Coffey, explaining what it’s like to become a member of the Community Life Center in Port Charlotte.

“It is not reasonable to think that we can win our community to Jesus from behind the pulpit. It goes beyond the pastor and pews into the world where we live. This community must see us reaching out in practical ways in every avenue possible before they will take even a second glance towards Christianity.”

Not all religious groups market aggressively, however. Some rely on a form of anti-marketing marketing that may work from this philosophy: Each man and each woman is his or her own marketer when it comes to the business of religion.

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples, for example, the congregation relies on word of mouth, on superb music from a worldclass pianist or other pros and sophisticated amateurs, on guest speakers from many walks of life, and on this attitude, says Barbara Glasgow, a member of the congregation and chair of the Green Sanctuary Program: “One of our core beliefs at UU is the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”


DIAMOND DIAMOND That’s marketing enough for many, and it’s a low-key style also practiced by Rabbi Bruce Diamond, of the Community Free Synagogue.

“Jews in general have not proselytized in almost 2,000 years,” he explains. “In fact, we welcome participants and treat them as they wish to be treated — we let them self-identify and ‘belong’ through their participation without ‘gate keeping’ or other litmus tests or hurdles.”

Including the collection.

“We do not really do any fundraising, ask for annual pledges or charge membership dues, although that is a widespread American synagogue practice. Unlike the other local congregations, we certainly do not sell tickets for the High Holidays. We also don’t charge for our weekly Sabbath eve meals or annual catered Passover seder suppers. We use email, our website and Facebook page, and the monthly local Jewish newspaper to announce our events.”

It means Rabbi Diamond is not driving big cars or living lavishly as a result of synagogue success.

“I receive a modest monthly parsonage allowance and support myself through college teaching and other income from many years of saving. Rabbis are instructed ‘not to burden (your) community’ and are forbidden to enrich themselves through their Torah — their religious learning. The ancient motto is ‘Torah and a vocation.’ I am not really an ‘employee’ of my congregation. I am their spiritual leader.

“Our mission is the ancient Jewish standard: ‘Prayer, study and benevolent actions.’”

That seems to work for about 350 families in Lee and Collier counties, who are generous without being asked to be.

“When new people walk through our doors,” Rabbi Diamond says, “we don’t regard them as new sources of revenue, and we don’t regard our people as a source of income.”

Sometimes the traditional reaching out and recruiting comes easy — a church might just luck into an advertising opportunity that beats all.

Take the case of the Powell family at the McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, one of the region’s most sizeable congregations with one of the most successful marketing approaches.

Senior Pastor Richard Powell, who has led the congregation since 1999, is father of native-son Alan Powell, a brand-spanking-new movie star and a Fort Myers High School graduate.

The young Mr. Powell, 29, is not only front man for an increasingly visible Christian singing group, Anthem Lights, based in Nashville, but he’s opening as the lead in a new movie, “The Song.”

In the film, according to its notes, he plays a singer and songwriter whose big hit reaps a harvest of fame and wealth that nearly runs him off the road of righteousness and ruins his marriage. The dramatic irony, which probably helps with the marketing, is that his character has written the hit song to celebrate his love for his wife.

McGregor Baptist is a classic newwave congregation when it comes to marketing, and the buzz about the film, which was aggressively promoted in New York before opening last week in the region, is now part of the church’s cachet.

The website offers a range of activities all week, every week, for people dealing with divorce or recovery, or for singles 40 to 55. It also offers a women’s ministry, a children’s ministry, a marriage-mentoring ministry, a sports ministry complete with golf tournaments, and an opportunity for Seminole fans — or perhaps Seminsoul fans — to go hear former FSU football coaching great Bobby Bowden talk about “Educating for Eternity,” for either $55 or $115. The higher price includes a dinner at Carrabba’s Italian Grill (that’s on October 20).

McGregor Baptist also offers this opportunity, in addition to three Sunday worship services that tend to fill the big hall with hundreds of the faithful:

“Watch Dr. Powell on Sunday at 7 a.m. on FOX 4 and WRYX TV and on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on COMCAST Channel 10, dish Network channel 49, and over the air on Channel 49.”

And why does Dr. Powell push himself so hard?

“To challenge all people to radically follow Jesus,” he says — which is the church’s motto.

The marketing may be modern, but the preaching offers a taste of that oldtime religion, a form of marketing in itself, perhaps.

Last Sunday morning, for example, Executive Pastor Russell Howard recalled from the pulpit how the Apostle Paul, on his way to Rome and unlikely to see many of his fellow acolytes again, paused to tell them, “I am innocent of everyone’s blood.”

In other words, he explained, the faithful must try to save those who have not accepted Jesus so they too may be innocent of their blood — if those to whom they minister are forewarned, but make the wrong choice.

“I know how you don’t go to hell,” the pastor thundered. “Compared to that, a cure for cancer is nothing.”

“We don’t want the blood of Lee County on the hands of our church. Do we?

“If you don’t know Jesus this morning, Come to Jesus. Why would you die and go to hell? Why? Why?”

As marketing went, it worked. Buying in, the crowd appeared to be spellbound. ¦

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