When Churches Lie

Last semester, my oldest daughter worked on a presentation for her college English class about truth in advertising. She’d seen the television commercial with Paris Hilton eating the Carl’s Jr. burger (yeah, that one) and was trying to reconcile the implied promise being made with the purchase of a burger. She asked me simply, “Dad, when is it marketing, and when is it lying?”

Great question.

Great question for churches.

When is it marketing, and when is it lying? And even though I’m not the first guy on the block to address this issue (please see www.churchmarketingsucks.com), I wonder if churches could learn to create a rhythm of communal life where three questions were consistently asked?

The Adjective Question
The first question I’d ask has to do with adjectives. The primary (and most courageous) question to ask is this: Are we really using accurate adjectives to describe the object of our promotion?

If something’s not “amazing,” then don’t call it that. The same applies to “transformational,” “inspiring,” and “successful.” If it’s not really a place that most people call “home,” then don’t use the slogan “A place to call home.” There’s nothing wrong with using any of these words or phrases, but churches need to make sure they accurately describe what’s really happening, not what they only hope is happening. Words matter.

The Future vs. Reality Question
The next question has to do with future goals and current realities. The future vs. reality question is extremely important, especially when the copywriter is also a visionary leader. Here’s the question: Are we advertising a future goal as if it were a current reality?

By far the most popular phrase that falls into this category is “life-changing.” Does every worship service have the potential to be “life-changing”? Yes. But in the normal life of a church, is every worship service really “life-changing”? Probably not. These services have the potential to change someone’s life over the long haul, but that’s a future hope and shouldn’t be advertised as a current norm that happens to everyone, all the time.

Another popular phrase is “reaching the world for Christ.” Churches need to be honest about this and ask if they’re currently reaching the world for Christ or if they’re just striving toward that goal.

The Comparison Question
Finally, church leaders and copywriters need to ask the comparison question all day, every day. Simply stated, it goes like this: Are we building up our own church by tearing down others?

The classic example of this type of marketing is this: “Tired of church as usual?” I actually used that in a direct mailer 10 years ago, and I still see it used all the time in my community and on North American church websites. What I was really saying is that we had a rockin’ band with a crankin’ sound system and that we valued relationships over programs. Oh, and that we preached topically. I should have just stated those things, instead of comparing my church with other churches. Honestly, I was a prideful pastor and our marketing campaigns proved it.

Why Does It Matter?
This stuff matters because God doesn’t need exaggerated marketing or false publicity. It matters because God is not a liar. And it matters because of the door-hanger Bill holds in his hand.

Bill and his wife, Kelly, have been arguing more than normal. They’ve mentioned the possibility of counseling, but neither wants to make that call. Their two young boys are beginning to act out. Tommy, the oldest, is starting to withdraw and become more isolated. And the second grade teacher reprimanded Brandon, the younger brother, twice in the last week. Kelly knows the missed call from the teacher was made to set up a parent conference. And Bill holds the door-hanger advertisement for your church in his hand.

What’s the most honest wording your church could put on that door-hanger? Not in the future, but right now. How can your church not bait-and-switch Bill and his family, sending them even farther into skepticism? Describe your church as it really is. Can you write the copy in such a way that gives hope without making empty promises? Bill’s family is real, and they live everywhere.

Sometimes marriage gets tough. But you’re not alone… That’s what I’d write for my church. Yours will look different.

I pray our churches have the courage to be honest about the words we put in front of the blessed people who don’t have any idea who we are.

Or who He is.