The Church’s PR Problem

Several years ago, my denomination came out with a new marketing campaign, “ReThink Church.”  I thought it was extremely timely. Don’t get me wrong.  I fully realize I am no marketing expert.  I was one of the few kids in the ‘80s who actually thought the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign, the one with the egg frying in a pan, was effective.  A Don Draper of Mad Men fame, I am not.   

But back to “ReThink Church.”  Churches (all churches) in the last decades have taken a hit.  I have to disagree with P.T. Barnum’s dictum that “all publicity is good.”   Because, let’s face it, it’s not.  Like someone tweeting they found rusty screws in their chocolate shake at a popular fast-food chain, some PR is just simply bad.  LIkewise, most of the church’s publicity these days is less than stellar.  And I am not one of those pastors who is going to blame the media.  Sure, we don’t see many stories on our news app like “Christ Community Church Feeds the Hungry!” Or “First Baptist/Methodist/Presbyterian/etc. Collects Clothes for the Homeless!” Why not? I personally don’t think it’s because there is some secular cabal out to squash everything Christian.  In my humble opinion, it’s because it’s not sensational.  Which are you more likely to read and, more importantly from the media’s perspective, be exposed to the paid advertising: “Church Quilters Knit Sweater Vests for Veterans” or “Yeti Eats a Veterinarian!”? Okay, I know, over the top, but you get the point.  Sensational sells. Routine doesn’t.  This is why, when we do hear something in the news about a church, it’s something along the lines of, “Pastor Caught in Sex Scandal!” or, “Church Treasurer Defrauds Congregation.” I think the media is less to blame than we, the media consumers.  

Again, I digress. I believe the marketing campaign and idea itself of “ReThinking Church” is important, because many, or maybe most, people who don’t go to church (and even a significant number who do) have a negative perception of the body of Christ.  Rather than seeing it as a force for good and the loving hand of God in this world, they see the Church as a mere institution filled with hypocritical, judgy people.  And, of course, they’re right!  I say this as someone who loves the Church and who at times is judgy and hypocritical himself.  And that is the paradox.  The Church Universal (all Christians everywhere), the very bride of Christ being transformed into His beautiful, splendid image (Ephesians 5:25-27), is also made up of broken, fallen people—well, like me.    This is why I believe the churches, at least in the United States, have a PR crisis, or at least a challenge, on our hands.  How do you say, “There is something wonderful, divine, and life-changing going on here, and you should come and experience it!”, while warning simultaneously, “we are wounded, fragile, sometimes petty, and yes, judgy, people”?  I think even Mr. Draper would have a challenge with this one. 

I believe the mistake the Church has made too often is emphasizing the first, to the exclusion of the second.  What I mean is that we paint a lopsided view of church as all good, without admitting the messy parts.  It’s like serving an elegant dish at a five-star restaurant.  The patrons never see how the dish was made in the kitchen.  And that is the way it should be in that context, but in the Church, everyone at some point sees the kitchen. They witness how the “dish” is made, and at times, it ain’t pretty. 

Thus, the “ReThink Church” campaign hits the proverbial nail on the head.  We need to move away from the idea that people in churches have it all together (we don’t), and everything we do is on moral point (it isn’t).  Instead, we need to convey to the world (to quote the original “Dear Abby”) that we are “a hospital for the sinners, not a museum for saints.”  If we can do this, we will get people not only to “Rethink Church,” but also to reconsider giving us a try. 



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