The minefields of money and marketing

By day I’m a web editor for a cultural institution. I’ve always seen my role as informing, educating and engaging people; definitely not selling.

But with the financial squeeze all that’s changing. The organisation needs money, and that means an ever-increasing emphasis on sales and marketing. And as of September my role is being moved into the Marketing team.

The thing is, I’m just not comfortable with marketing; it feels unethical to me. Yes, it’s fine to communicate the good of what we do and the genuine benefits we offer people. And yes, cultural organisations need money in order to survive and do more good things.

But this way of going about it doesn’t feel right to me. In going all out for selling, it feels like we’ve, well, sold out; that we’re putting money before people, and before the good things we’re meant to stand for. It feels inherently dishonest, underhand and unscrupulous, a shabby con-trick to induce people to part with their hard-earned.

Oh well, it’s just work, right? Maybe. But all too often it feels like the church is playing the same dubious game, and that really does bother me.

Necessary evils?

So is marketing always just a product of a greedy capitalism that puts profit above people and money above honesty? Is it the slave of Mammon, something Christians should never engage in? Or is my discomfort just a symptom of British reserve about blowing one’s own trumpet, and of British distaste about ‘filthy lucre’– a feeling that money is an indelicate subject and that self-marketing is akin to selling your body or your soul?

Are there good, honest and ethical ways of marketing that Christians can endorse, or is it all inherently mired in a market system that’s totally out of alignment with Christianity’s core values?

And what of money itself – that mysterious, ubiquitous, troublesome and unfortunately essential entity which Jesus hinted that Christians weren’t always the most prudent in handling (Luke 16:8-9)?

Is finance just a dirty, messy, earthly system that we have to put up with for now until the kingdom comes, or can we work to reform and transform it, to model better ways based on a different set of values?

Because of course, we can’t get away from it. In this world we all need money, and it’s not just businesses that engage in marketing – charities and churches do it and call it fundraising. The techniques may be different, but it’s marketing nonetheless, and often just as subtly manipulative as that of secular advertisers.

These are issues here for me too. Just in the last post, I was asking you all to vote for a song I’d written – not for money, but still self-promotion. And longer term I’d like this blog to have a larger readership (though there would be downsides). I’m thinking about using social media to increase the blog’s profile, but even the phrase ‘increase its profile’ feels wrong. Of course, I’m not making money from blogging, so perhaps it’s different. I want what I write to reach people who might find it helpful. But I also secretly crave popularity and admiration, which isn’t so healthy.

The ‘Christian market’?

I’ve touched before on the hideous concept of the ‘Christian market’. A huge set of industries have grown up to service (or fleece) this market, flogging Christian books, music, films, greetings cards, jewellery and anything else you can slap a fish, cross or Bible verse on. Again, yes, there’s a degree of need – and certainly a desire – for these things, and many of them are beneficial.

The problem comes when companies are cynically creating products just to fill a gap in the ‘Christian’ market, or are using manipulative marketing techniques to persuade Christians they need stuff they don’t. And the very idea of turning the Christian family or community or body into a market feels like the corrupt moneylenders in the Jerusalem Temple, whom Jesus drove out with a whip. The family of God is not a market to be exploited for cash. You cannot serve God and money.

Marketing Jesus?

Moving from products to less tangible goods, what about marketing the church, ‘selling’ Christianity or even Christ himself? Isn’t this what a lot of our ‘evangelism’ really boils down to – just another form of marketing but with a spiritual product?

Lots of big businesses now employ ‘evangelists’ to extol the salvific virtues of their goods and services; to preach the corporate gospel of Coke, Google or whoever. Of course, this is a travesty of Christian evangelism, but unfortunately the church often seems to have bought into the same model.

Are we in danger of turning Jesus, or church, or Christianity into just another competing commodity on the market, another corporate brand to buy into? Are we flogging salvation as another hyped product that promises to sort out all your problems and give you a happy and successful life, or else a guaranteed golden ticket to the right kind of afterlife?

And similarly, could Jesus’ warning against serving God and mammon be extended to a critique of running the church as though it were a business enterprise – of running it according to principles of capitalism and consumerism rather than Christianity? I’m not talking about fundraising, though that can be part of it. It’s more the kind of corporate attitude towards church, and the ‘sales’-focused or marketing-led approach to mission.

Jesus and marketing

So how did Jesus do marketing? He didn’t, that I can see. He certainly didn’t do fundraising or money-making, and I can’t see that he did advertising either – unless you count public preaching and miracle-working. But his miracles were never just for show; he got annoyed when people turned up just to see signs and wonders.

On the contrary, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to make it difficult for people to follow him. He preached unedited, unpopular and often unpleasant truth and didn’t seem to mind who he put off in the process. He gave obscure and difficult – sometimes downright off-putting – teachings. He told stories with hidden meanings that only those ‘with ears to hear’ would understand.

When people came to Jesus he didn’t say ‘Join my club! Sign up here for eternal life (you can pay by Direct Debit)’. Instead he warned them of the dangers and difficulties ahead, the real cost of commitment for anyone wishing to follow him. There was no gloss, no selling or upselling, no advertising double-speak. ‘Take up your cross and follow me’; ‘Go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, then come, follow me’ – hardly slogans that any self-respecting marketing agency would recommend.

Yes, Jesus did and does offer great and unique benefits to his followers; as Peter put it, ‘only you have the words of eternal life’. But he said this in the context of Jesus just having upset and driven away most of his erstwhile followers by saying they must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6). Jesus wasn’t trying to attract as many people as possible. He was seeking out those who would truly see and accept what he was offering – life in the coming kingdom of goodness and love, and in the meantime many sufferings, sacrifices and troubles.

My favourite Bible verse on evangelism is ‘Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him’ (Mark 8:30). Of course that’s in a very specific context with specific reasons; but it makes the point that Jesus wasn’t exactly in the business of self-promotion. After many of his miracles too he gave strict orders that the witnesses should keep quiet about what they’d seen, though they rarely did.

St Paul and marketing

With the apostle Paul the picture’s more mixed. Paul was pretty much the prototype for evangelism, and though he decried rhetorical eloquence his letters and speeches are full of it – not exactly a marketing technique but not far off. He also wholeheartedly embraced fundraising – albeit always on behalf of the poor rather than himself.

And it seems to me that Paul wasn’t above using mildly manipulative techniques in his fundraising. Parts of 2 Corinthians 8-9 come across this way to me, with Paul using eloquence and psychology to persuade his readers to ‘excel in giving’. In chapter 9 he tells them he’s been boasting about how generous they will be, and that both he and they would be ashamed if they turn out to be less generous than he’s painted them – a fairly major guilt trip. But perhaps it’s just me who’s uncomfortable with it.

Living without?

Of course there are no easy answers. We need money. And there are good things we have to offer and to tell others about, even if not to sell exactly. But I’m still uncomfortable with both marketing and fundraising – and indeed evangelism.

Above all, I don’t want to be part of a consumerist capitalist culture which commodifies and commercialises everything and everyone, where value is defined primarily in terms of financial profit. I don’t want to be part of a church that ‘buys into’ this either. But am I really prepared to live without the benefits of such a culture? And what are the viable alternatives?

If anyone does have any answers, please do let me know…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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9 Responses to The minefields of money and marketing

  1. Actually – I’ve been learning about this sort of thing in my OU course. It’s about tackling environmental problems with a ‘systems approach’. This means identifying all the different ways of looking at a situation (economic, social, environmental, etc.), all the different ‘stakeholders’ (interested parties – groups, individuals or even local wildlife) and trying to come up with solutions that try to give the best compromise for all concerned. I’ve been wondering how this can be applied in a church setting, or Christian NGO setting. I think it is a necessity for the survival of the church in the 21st century, but it needs well-educated, thinking, adaptable people. Do we have these people?

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    • That’s an interesting thought – I’d like to find out more about this kind of approach. I’m cautiously optimistic that we do have well-educated, thinking, adaptable people, though in some parts of the church it may not always feel like that!

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  2. Jenny Rayner says:

    Once again, Harvey, you have echoed my train of thought (if a thought can be echoed). Now working for a Christian charity which has recently taken on an “operations and marketing manager” , I too have questioned the ethicality of this, but I like your phrase “always on behalf of the poor rather than himself”. And now I am so tempted to do some marketing of my own, promoting the work of Hope into Action (please see our website!), which enables churches to house the homeless and vulnerable. I think the story of the lepers in 2 Kings 7 says it all: “We are not doing right. This is a day of good news; if we are silent…punishment will overtake us…” If we have good news, whether it be the good news of the gospel, or of hope for the homeless, or whatever that genuine good news is, we do wrong not to share it.

    I also love the parable that Jesus told of the dishonest steward in Luke 16, which you alluded to. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon (deceitful riches, money, possessions), so that when it fails, they [those you have favored] may receive and welcome you into the everlasting habitations (dwellings). It is a parable that many of us struggle with, as it appears to commend dishonesty. I have heard it justified by saying that he was actually forgoing the extra interest he had already added on for his own benefit, but be that as it may, i think it does justify the use of subtle ways of influencing people to do good.In fact, when we are thinking about evangelism, I believe it is often far more effective than the more overt approach, which can be very off-putting.

    Having said all that, I do find myself wondering about the “techniques” that are often used. Some years ago, we went to some healing meetings where the evangelist was using what to me are similar techniques to those used by a hypnotist – telling people what sensations to expect when he prayed for them. I also saw, on a Christian TV channel, an appeal that gave a scriptural reference, say Isaiah 59.4, promising special blessing for the first 594 people who donated $59.04! And sometimes I wonder about my own way of approaching things, (dare I say “technique?) which is to subtly influence people by showing Christian love and compassion, telling relevant bits of my own story, and thereby sowing seeds over as long a period as it takes, and then taking them to a meeting where someone who has the gift of evangelism can “close the deal”. Definitely the sort of marketing techniques my husband experienced when he worked for a company promoting “buy-to-let” mortgages.

    I suppose it all boils down to the age-old question of whether the end justifies the means.

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    • Hi Jenny, interesting thoughts!

      I think there’s an important distinction to be made between ‘sharing good news’ (if it’s genuinely good news) and ‘selling a product’. Unfortunately in our marketing-saturated culture it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference! And I think we’ve all too often turned the good news of Jesus into an improve-your-life product, or else a get-out-of-trouble insurance policy.

      Then there’s the question of whether or not the gospel really is good news, at least at first sight. If you’re the last and least of society and have nothing left to lose, the gospel of Christ may come as genuinely good news – ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom’. But to most of us comfortable well-off westerners with possessions and positions to lose, I’m not sure the gospel always does come to us initially as good news – look at the rich young ruler of Mark 10:17.

      On ends and means, my view is that good ends don’t justify bad means, but that bad means do corrupt good ends. So however righteous the cause and however noble the aims and outcomes, I don’t believe that unethical or manipulative means can be justified.

      Re Simon Guillebaud, by coincidence he was a speaker at the New Wine conference I was at last week and which I intend to write up for this blog! I missed his talk though. I have to admit that my reaction to his blog, as well as to much of what I saw at New Wine, is a strange mix of admiration and cynicism – hope that it’s genuine and also fear that it is, because if it is then I have to re-evaluate so much of my own theology and practice.

      All the best,
      Harvey

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  3. Jenny Rayner says:

    Further to the above, I have just read a completely different blog on evangelism. Really makes you think! http://www.simonguillebaud.com/blog/1-general/150-miracles-galore-on-the-way.

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  4. Jenny Rayner says:

    I’m sure it never does us any harm to re-evaluate. I hope not, as I seem to be doing it all the time (often with your help)!

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    • No, you’re right of course, constant re-evaluation is good and necessary! Most of the time it’s just minor course adjustments to stay on roughly the right track. Sometimes though you’re forced to re-evaluate so comprehensively that your whole overarching paradigm is called into question, and that’s scary. Far easier to retreat into cynicism and dismiss it all as bogus!

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  5. Jenny Rayner says:

    We’re not called to tread an easy path!

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