What About Marketing?

Today is Packing Day. We are packing up the trunk of my teenage son. Tomorrow he leaves for seven weeks at a traditional boys camp in western Maine. It’s a place that he loves and is a home away from home. In a few days, my daughter will leave for a music camp, just a town or two away from where her brother will be at camp. In August, my husband and I will head out to western Maine and spend an entire weekend at a lovely bed and breakfast for “camp pick up weekend.” We’ve done this for the last few summers and we’ve stayed at the same bed and breakfast, completely full of families who descend upon this sleepy part of Maine to pick up children from various area camps.

At the bed and breakfast where we stay, most of the parents (some the same year after year, so we’ve gotten to know them a little) are picking up their daughters from an entirely different camp, a camp whose name, when uttered, requires that the chin be raised a little and, without even trying, one finds oneself clenching one’s jaw and speaking with a Beacon Hill accent (remember that Mass General doctor from MASH?).

After that first “pick up” weekend when we encountered these other families whose daughters were clearly attending a much posher camp than the camps that my children were attending, the very first thing I did when I got home was to find that camp’s website. Yes, the camp was yet even more expensive and more exclusive sounding than the expensive camps my children go to summer after summer.

In perusing the website of this much posher camp, I was struck by the amazing way in which the marketing firm they hired managed to describe this “extraordinary” camp that provides an experience like no other. They even managed to spin a little tale on why parents should essentially want to pay more for a camp that proudly and unapologetically refuses to allow electricity in camper cabins.

Is it really all about marketing? Should churches and denominations do more to focus on how they sell themselves and their mission? Should we find ways of spinning our “old fashioned” ways of doing things to lure people into the fold?

One of the newer members of Old South, a man about my age, has been talking a lot about marketing and how Old South needs to do more to sell itself. He offers these comments boldly and without hesitation. I’m not sure, though, that he sees the confusion and terror that his comments bring to those who are listening to him. I’m not even sure that he appreciates the silence that accompanies the comments he so enthusiastically shares.

Churches talk a lot about wanting more people to come and join them on the journey. Yet, when it comes to engaging in ways that might actually do just that, there’s hesitation, confusion, fear.

First, there’s just that difficulty that many in the mainline have about concepts such as “marketing.” Should the church really lower itself to engage in such activity? Isn’t marketing unseemly for a church?

And, then there’s the long-standing hesitation when it comes to evangelism. There are certainly some at Old South who feel that the sign on the front of the church offers just plenty of evangelism. Who could want anything more than that? Never mind that many people in our community cannot even pronounce “congregational” let allow define it.

We juggle two very important things in my part of the world. One is the reality that because of demographics, we may simply not be able to survive—even if we do everything well. And, the second is, that we need to engage in a very uncomfortable place and start telling the community about who we are and what we do and why we think people should join us.

I’m hoping that the first one doesn’t offer enough of an excuse to ignore the second. Whether or not we are able to encourage others to join us, we should at least know for ourselves who we are and why we do what we do.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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