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Learning from Maxwell House

CC BY 2.0, tsakshaug

Over the course of the last year, a number of The Community’s bloggers have approached topics like marketing and branding. And each time, the conversations that followed have been somewhat polarized. One recent post inspired both of these comments on our Facebook page:

“My first reaction is that this approach is dreadful. Marketing faith?”

“I feel pretty sure that Paul would have used the m word,”

Words like marketing make some people uncomfortable. But so do words like evangelism. In the end, both refer to the presentation or offer of something from one person to another (I’m avoiding words like exchange, convert, invest, transaction, sell, and the like). And in regards to the Gospel, we’re called to do it: it’s part of the great commission, it’s tied up in our baptismal covenant, and the first and second Marks of Mission speak to it.

But when it comes to religion, marketing is a two-way street. Whether we know it or not, both Christian and secular businesses market their products to the religious world. They don’t do it blindly: campaigns aimed at faith-based audiences are based on plenty of research and statistical analysis. Case in point: at any time during the last church season, did you find yourself rolling up the rim of your coffee? Tim Hortons’ Roll up the Rim campaign is launched each year at the beginning of Lent, discouraging would-be-abstainers from giving up their daily fix. Lent also brings a sudden barrage of fish sandwiches: every fast food joint reveals its own interpretation of the classic deep-fried fillet with mayo, lettuce and tomato on a bun. Do you remember the time when McDonald’s offered one of its sandwiches each day at a discounted rate? You don’t need a degree in religious studies to guess which day of the week the Fillet-O-Fish was featured! If you’d like to explore the connection between Lent and the Fillet-O-Fish further, check out this page from The Smithsonian.

Is marketing to faith communities a bad thing? I don’t think so, at least when it’s done respectfully. It makes good business sense, and when it works, it offers something helpful to faith communities. But what can we learn from this kind of marketing? What could it teach us about evangelism? I found myself asking these questions during Lent, as I reflected on a blog that pointed out the connection between Maxwell house coffee, Passover, and Jewish culture. Maxwell House identified a cultural need, provided something that added value, did so in an organic and non-intrusive way, and enabled communities to establish new rituals. Read the article, and join with me in considering how this kind of targeted approach might be helpful in our mission to proclaim the good news.

What would happen if we rephrased these principles?

1. Branded content must serve a consumer need.

  • The Gospel we proclaim/the community we invite others into must serve a need. Church does not exist for its own sake.

2. Branded content needs to add value.

  • The Gospel/the community needs to add value to the lives of those we serve.

3. Branded content should be organic, not intrusive.

  • Evangelism/fresh expressions/church plants/etc. should be organic, growing out of existing communities and ministries. The days of colonialism are over.

4. Branded content should enable communities and establish new rituals.

  • Successful evangelism should equip believers to be the church in their own time and place–not in ours.

What do you think? Do any of these four principles speak to you more than the others? Have you seen, or been part of any helpful ministries that fit into this model? Do you know of any other helpful tools that encourage us to step away from the fear of evangelism-as-marketing and towards knowing, loving, and living among those we are called to serve?

About Jesse Dymond

I'm a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.
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One Response to Learning from Maxwell House

  1. The illustration reminds me of a church “joke” that went around in the late 80’s, in which the sign on the closed church says “Gone out of business; didn’t know what our business was”.

    Unfortunately, even today we’re still not sure of our “business”. All too much of what passes for church business today, when you peel off the noble descriptions and inspiring words, boils down to survival. In my own diocese, in my memory, we have gone through at least four “visioning” exercises, counting the one we are presently on. I remember, in the last one, being a part of a large group which was to “distill” about 10 “manageable” goals out of hundreds of ” future church”  suggestions that had come in from parishes and deaneries, etc. After about 7 hours, a very perceptive lay person suggested what we had come up with was “the same old monkeys in different trees”. Unfortunately, as I see it, a lot of that is still happening.

    As a church, we preach a message that, at least in part, contains the principle that out of dying comes eternal life, that resurrection happens after death. Institutionally, we refuse to take that seriously, and as a church, as dioceses, as parishes, we struggle against dying, even if it means going on life support. Maybe, just maybe, at least some of our efforts ought to focus, not on what we need to do in order to struggle on living, but what we should allow to die, or maybe even kill off, in order that something new can emerge.

    Maybe we just need to trust that God has a mission, that God knows what God is doing, and that if  that needs a church, it may not be the church we presently have.

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