The New York Times carried an instructive article on church marketing this weekend. The key graphs concern Willow Creek Community Church, a well-known non-denominational mega-church in Illinois:
“Willow Creek’s shift in strategy mirrors moves by other houses of worship across a number of denominations to overhaul the programs they offer to build their congregations. These organizations say they are modeling their outreach practices on proven business and marketing strategies — not unlike what Wal-Mart is doing by adding more-fashionable clothes or what Borders is doing with its smaller “express” bookstores — to reach potential new members or to keep existing ones. They are also changing how they deliver those messages, using videocasts on cellphones and other new technologies, including an increasing emphasis on blogs and podcasts.
Bill Hybels, the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek, has used business-world strategies — notably branding and word-of-mouth marketing — to help the church grow from 125 congregants 30 years ago into the megachurch it is today. While Mr. Hybels says he does not use marketing techniques to spread God’s word, “we do attempt to harness the full potential of modern technology and business strategies to communicate with our members and our community.”
“The new messages — from Willow Creek and other nondenominational churches to mainstream denominations like the Episcopal and the United Methodist churches — tend to focus on connectedness, theology and shared values.
According to academics, including Robert B. Whitesel, who teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University, that change represents a shift from some past marketing efforts, which sought to make church more fun and inviting to baby boomers. ”