Book Review: Selling Out the Church, by Philip Kenneson and James Street
Churches often center their sense of mission around the goal of evangelism. Their primary purpose is to see individuals commit their lives to Christ, building both excitement and the numerical ranks of the church. And so it is popular to rethink the objectives and methods of the church in light of this mindset. “What kind of church do we have to be, to be the kind of church that people find attractive?” A church’s primary preaching ministry, style and content of worship, composition and mission of small groups—and myriad other ministries—are reinvented in the name of outreach. More specifically, every aspect of the church is reconceived to fit the interests and appetites of the surrounding community.
For those who understand the Scriptures to define a mission for the church that extends beyond growth and outreach, however, this trend is unsettling. To be sure, churches should work hard to avoid erecting unnecessary barriers that would obscure the purpose of the church and the message of the gospel. The church is, after all, never more than a single generation away from extinction. But if the church is to be more than institutional evangelism—if it is to be a distinct and living reflection of God’s character in the midst of a sinful world—then we risk great harm when we pander to the tastes and desires of the world around us.
As much of this modern vision of the church stems from the discipline of “Church Marketing,” Philip Kenneson and James Street’s Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing is a useful and refreshing critique of an influential philosophy. Most importantly, the book departs from a general discomfort with church marketing and precisely identifies where this school of thought departs from the Biblical model of the church. Kenneson and Street (of Milligan College and the Emmanuel School of Religion, respectively) contend that the market orientation preached by George Barna, Norman Shawchuck, and others, changes not just a church’s style but, contrary to the assertions of church marketing proponents, changes its substance as well. Though the basic outline of the gospel may remain in tact in a marketing-oriented church, the God-given mission of the church has been exchanged for a focus on “effectiveness” and “customer satisfaction.” The book succeeds admirably in summing up the theological and practical implications of the church marketing movement, identifying logical flaws in the thinking that underpins this movement, and casting a vision for what the church ought to be: “a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of God’s present but still emerging kingdom.” (page 23) In a tone that is neither shrill nor unkind, the authors explain their fear that church marketing is compromising those elements of the church that are distinctly Christian, rendering it no different from any other “effective” community service organization.
OVERVIEW AND ACCOLADES
Proponents of church marketing suggest that the message of the gospel need not be affected by the methods and techniques used to communicate it. After all, whenever a church posts a sign, runs an ad in the paper, or hosts an evangelistic debate, it is engaging in marketing. Kenneson and Street’s thesis is that while churches may engage in certain marketing techniques, whole-heartedly adopting what church marketers refer to as a “marketing orientation” does in fact change “the character of the gospel” and “the self understanding of the community of believers.” (Page 29). Because church marketing defines the purpose of the church as serving the needs of the surrounding community, it cannot also serve God’s purpose of reflecting his character and glory to a watching world. While at times parallel, these two objectives will ultimately diverge. To put it in the words that animate the message of the 9Marks.org website, church marketing creates a church that reflects her culture rather than shaping it.
Selling Out the Church begins in Chapter 1 (“Frog in the Kettle”) to paint twelve images of the modern American church (engineered, homogeneous, pragmatic, etc.) that the authors believe are characteristic of the church marketing movement. Incidentally, if you want a quick view of the specific works whose ideas the authors are critiquing, simply refer to the books whose titles form the names of the chapters.
Chapter 2 (“Dying for Change”) attempts to isolate the problem with church marketing. The authors lay out arguments for why a “marketing orientation” inherently changes not just the style, but the message and mission of the church. Though the chapter is too brief to dispense with this issue, it lays the necessary groundwork for later chapters that do in fact put it to rest.
Chapter 3 (“Marketing the Church”) explains the fundamentals of church marketing. It is here that the authors make a clear distinction between marketing techniques and a “marketing orientation.” Though a church may engage in some marketing techniques (such as keeping the needs of your congregation in mind while preaching), this does not necessitate that every element of the church’s mission fit into a marketing framework. Specifically, when one moves from operational activities (like advertising) to activities more directly related to the mission of the church (like interpreting Scripture) it would seem that marketing methodology becomes less applicable, and even damaging.
Chapter 4 (“User-Friendly Churches”) examines the implications of a focus on “felt needs.” Church marketers claim that a church either exists to serve the needs of those around it or the needs of its leaders. Kenneson and Street call out this false dichotomy, questioning the lack of focus on God’s purposes and desires for the church.
Chapter 5 (“The Baby Boomerang”) discusses marketing segmentation and the homogeneous unit principle (the theory that churches grow best when congregants are relatively similar to each other). As the authors point out, the problem with these approaches is that “rather than offering an alternative to the social arrangements the world knows and reproduces, the church simply mimics those same arrangements . . . the congregation is excused from having to be genuinely transformed in order to reach the world.” (Page 93)
Chapter 6 (“Create Your Own Future!”) examines church marketing’s enchantment with measurable objectives. Whereas in business “what gets measured gets done,” the authors question whether this paradigm substitutes goals that can be humanly measured (attendance numbers) for goals rooted in Scripture (holiness and a desire to evangelize).
Chapter 7 (“The Responsive Congregation”) gets to the heart of the church marketing framework: a focus on meeting consumer needs. Once a church views the Sunday morning worship service as the primary avenue for introducing non-Christians to the gospel, it introduces strong incentives to make this experience as “accessible” as possible, because a church that makes people feel uncomfortable is a church that will be ineffective in reaching out to its community. The authors rightly point out that this consumer mindset actually destroys the church’s greatest asset: its distinctiveness from the world. “The real problem,” Kenneson and Street write, is not that the church seems “strange” to the world, but “that unbelievers have so few reasons to endure the church’s strangeness.” (Page 149) Making the church more accessible by making it more like the world will only exacerbate this problem. The church should be a microcosm of God’s coming kingdom, complete with the distinctiveness that such a calling will present to the surrounding world. Rather than seeing evangelism as “bringing people to church,” congregations should see themselves as God’s primary tools of evangelism, living distinctly in word and deed among non-Christians, displaying the value of following Christ and prompting their friends, family, and co-workers to explore the strange and different world of the church.
The book concludes with Chapter 8 (“The Man Nobody Knows”), several pages reminding the reader that the methods we use to build on the foundation of Christ (I Corinthians 3:9-13) have lasting consequences both for ourselves and our congregations.
A FEW QUIBBLES
Selling Out the Church is extremely valuable as a carefully constructed critique of church marketing. There are, however, several factors that limit its usefulness and applicability. For one, the book will likely fail to convince those who do not agree a priori with the authors’ understanding of the God-given mission of the church. The thesis of the book depends on the assumption that God’s primary reason for calling the church into existence is that it might be “a sign, a foretaste, and a herald of God’s present but still emerging kingdom.”
Church marketers, on the other hand, suggest that the mission of the church should be that of a service organization—to effectively meet the needs of the surrounding community in whatever way that community defines its needs. For those who agree with Kenneson and Street’s vision of the church’s mission, the book is a logical extension of the conviction that God has already clearly defined what the church is and why it exists. For the many pastors in America today who are not so convinced, however, this book rests on an assumption that they will not readily accept. Unfortunately, while the authors refer at length to the fact that the church has a specific, God-given mission, they never defend this assumption from Scripture.
Second, the book is of limited utility for those who are new to the field of church marketing—those who, perhaps, are trying to decide whether this is something in which their own churches should engage. To represent the views of Church marketers, the authors have chosen the work of George Barna and Marketing the Church by Shawchuck, Kotler, Wrenn, and Rath. Of the more than 100 quotations from church marketers found in the book, nearly 85% are from one of these two sources. If volume of book sales is any guide, the authors have made a wise choice in their sampling of church marketing literature. But for those trying to evaluate the use of church marketing in their own churches, the question may arise as to whether these specific individuals are the best representatives of church marketing, or simply the easiest to critique. Had the authors chosen to defend their somewhat narrow selection of church marketing literature or (better yet) quoted more widely, they would have made the book considerably more useful for those individuals new to the discipline of church marketing.
Finally, despite the careful thought pervading most of the book, Selling Out the Church occasionally loses logical clarity, particularly in its first three chapters. One such example is a section in Chapter 3 devoted to the idea of marketing as a free exchange of products and services. Marketing as a discipline (including church marketing) is focused on promoting voluntary exchanges between various parties. But to explain why church marketing is misguided, the authors devote fifteen pages to the idea that salvation is a free gift of God and not an exchange. Of course, they are correct. But to my knowledge, church marketers are not in the habit of actively promoting a works-based salvation. What is more, the section is completely absent any citations that would show how church marketing advocates are in fact making this argument—odd in a book that averages close to two church marketing citations for every three pages. As a result, the pages of material devoted to defending salvation by grace alone seem aimed at an orphan argument that church marketers are not defending. While not a critical flaw, such logical missteps in the book’s early chapters will likely reduce its credibility in the eyes of true skeptics.
In sum, Kenneson and Street have composed an excellent critique of a discipline that has become almost second nature in many church circles. In particular, the way that the book reaches beyond church marketing as a discipline and questions some of its commonly-held implications (such as the homogeneous unit principle, or the role of Sunday morning worship services as churches’ primary evangelistic tool) is well conceived and worthy of thoughtful consideration by pastors everywhere. Though the book’s flaws limit its applicability as a stand-alone resource in some situations (with those who do not agree with Kenneson and Street’s vision of the Biblical church mission, with those uninitiated to church marketing, and with hard-core church marketers), it is a worthy contribution in an area of practical theology that is sorely needed by today’s pastors.