Marketing and branding isn’t a non-biblical activity, far from it actually. I actually see a lot of connection between the basic ideas of marketing and the ways we communicate the story of Jesus. If Jesus is our model for how to pray, how to do leadership, and how to serve people, then perhaps he could also our model for the basic marketing of a church plant.
A great place to start thinking about your communication strategy is with the ABCs of marketing: Assessing Your Audience, Building Your Brand, and Creating Community.
A – Assessing Your Audience
Any kind of a strategy begins by identifying who you want to reach, your customer. I know that language is a bit different than what we usually use in the church, but stay engaged and stick with me for a bit, because I think you’ll find this really helpful.
Jesus had a crystal clear audience that he was looking to reach. Jesus himself put it this way, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was looking for a clear group of people who would acknowledge their need. These were his “customers” if you will.
Some people say that they want their church plant to reach their whole city, and yes, that’s completely true. But the nature of the gospel implies that it’s aimed at the same people Jesus was aimed at. And the way you do stuff: the kind of music you play, the graphics you use, even the way people in your church dress is going to attract and repel certain types of people.
Who is it that I’m willing to offend?
I’ve found it very helpful to ask this question: Who is it that I’m willing to offend? In my context, the people I’ve been most willing to offend are “the religious people”, the folks who want church to feel a certain way so that they’re comfortable. The folks I don’t want to offend are the people who are exploring faith, and especially faith in Christ.
And of course, I do hope that every single person in our city could find something they like about our church community. I certainly don’t ignore people or kick them out because they don’t fit the “target audience”. But I’ve learned to focus in on those God is inviting me to specifically target. Then I’m able to really think about how to engage them with the good news of the kingdom of God in a way that will help them experience the presence and power of Christ.
B – Building Your Brand
Jesus knew exactly who he was and why he was on earth. In John 14: 6, He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s a clear and specific brand. We see throughout John’s gospel that Jesus knew who he was and what he was on earth to do.
Your “brand” is what you’re bringing to your audience. Jesus was offering himself. Your brand is uniquely tied to Christ; he’s the one we want to engage people towards.
What are you offering? Again, using marketing language, consider these four areas as you think about your brand:
Our “product” is the thing we offer to people. We've got to offer something that is worthwhile, something that works, something that people both need and want.
Generally, a church offers weekend services, small groups, etc. Think about what you hope people get from these experience. I hope they get a life-giving connection with Christ and his community. I want them to get a deeply changed and healed and transformed life.
Your “identity” is your public face. It’s what you look like to others; it’s how they perceive you. I want to be seen as the beloved people of God, who are continually learning how to be, and bring the presence and power of the resurrected Christ to our world in very practical ways, and to do it just like Jesus did.
These are the touchpoints that you’re creating, the way people are experiencing what you’re offering. What is the experience that you want people to have? When people in your community have a need, do they experience the church reaching out to meet that need? Do the people you're leading regularly ask that age-old Vineyard question, “Can I pray for you right now?” Are they welcoming of newcomers or is there a clique mentality?
This is how it feels to be a part of what you’re doing, the ethos you project. Is it positive, exciting, and fun? Or worried, stressed, and mad? Are people hunkered down or reaching out? Do people like getting together? Do they love to serve? Here’s the key question: Do the people you lead exhibit your brand?
When you don’t build the brand of Jesus and deliver on the promises you're making as you teach the scriptures, then we’re not really being the church of Jesus, right?
You may want to spend some time here, to think about words and phrases that express your brand, the words that will help you express these four things that build the brand. You can talk about offering a real transformative experience, a healthier life, a place where there’s room for them at the table. How can you communicate that each person is a deeply loved child of God and that they’re invited to authentically show up to be loved and cared for?
C – Community
Your very best marketing tool is your community. Old fashioned word-of-mouth is still the very best form of advertising. People who have experienced life change will want to talk about it. People are hardwired to be great at this. Think about it. When you have a great experience at a restaurant or using some new technology, don’t you then want to tell people about it or post it on social media? And when you do, you’re becoming an evangelist of that experience. I believe all of us are hardwired to be great evangelists! What if church planting was simply about creating a community of people who have a deep transformative experience with God and who can’t help but talk about it, and invite others into it?
Your very best marketing tool is your community.
To make this practical, we want to help people move from being a spectator to being a consumer to being a sold-out advocate.
At first, people are spectators; they’re watching. They want to know if it’s true? How could you help people experience what you're offering before they buy it? How might you create ways for people to experience the goodness of Christ before they ever have to come to your church activities? How might people come into contact with your church community while they are serving together at a local school? The possibilities are endless.
We want to help people move from being a spectator to being a consumer to being a sold-out advocate.
Once these spectators come into contact with you and begin to experience some of the presence of Christ, some will move into being consumers. Rather than seeing this as a bad thing, I encourage you to see it as a step in their journey. I think we really do want people in our churches who personally experience all that God has to offer! They’ve bought into your “product” and are having a life-changing experience. That’s a very good thing.
This was Jesus’ model: he cared for his earliest followers long before they because his advocates, or witnesses, but eventually they did. That’s the outcome we’re looking for as well. We want to help people have such a transformative encounter with Christ that they become advocates who are inviting others into the same experiences. Our job, as I see it, is to help them have these experiences, and envision them to extend the invitation to others.
As we follow Jesus’ model of assessing our audience, building our brand, and creating communities, we have wonderful opportunities to introduce more and more people to experience Christ's goodness is their lives!
Michael Gatlin co-pastors the Vineyard church of Duluth, with his wonderful wife Brenda. The Duluth Vineyard is an amazingly creative and diverse community of disciples who are learning to live out the reality of the presence and power of Christ in northern Minnesota. Michael is also the national coordinator for Multiply Vineyard: a team of men and women located throughout America that encourages, trains, and empowers local churches; as they multiply disciples, leaders and churches.