Death of a Salesman . . . Please?

Make sure to read the other articles in this series on church organization: Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church OrganizationKilling the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making,  Crack Addiction and Church Transformation, and On Neediness, Dating, and Congregational Transformation

The Creepiness of Modern Sales

As I write this, news of the iPhone 4s has been released for about 48 hours (along with the notice of the death of Steve Jobs, which I find very sad). I’m reluctant to say this, but I’ve been following the rumors of, what I thought would be, the iPhone 5. Anticipation. Would it have the much-rumored Mac Air, teardrop form factor? (No.) Would it have the new 8 megapixel camera? (Yes.) I’m a nerd. I care about these things.

But the thing that really popped was the announcement of Siri, the voice-activated assistant. You talk into your iPhone in plain English, and Siri parses your request by sending it through space to the enormous servers in Apple-land, does a search for the information you want, and then shoots it back through space to your phone in an amazingly brief time. Unbelievable.

I was listening to a podcast of other people who are nerdier than I am talk about the implications of releasing the 4s instead of the 5, of not changing form factors, of whether you could migrate with the same phone to another carrier. Very nerdy.

But then they started talking about Siri, this voice-activated assistant. One guy made a really insightful observation. Siri, he said, is not so much about giving the user of the iPhone 4s a better experience. Instead, Siri allows Apple to gather more information about you than you would ever knowingly sit down and fill out on any consumer survey.

He went on to explain it this way. He said, "It’s like Google. People think that Google provides all these services for free. They don’t. They sell stuff just like any other company. Only, what they’re selling is information about you and your likes and dislikes to other advertisers, who will use that information to devise ever newer and more subtle ways to sell you stuff. Googles sells a product … You!"

Put that way, the whole thing sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it? When I ask Siri where the nearest Dodge dealership is, that information gets stored in a very sophisticated profile about my likes and dislikes, my needs and proclivities, my health and marital status.

I was listening to NPR the other day about the extent to which, as a result of things like DVR and its ability to skip traditional commercials, the line has been blurred between the entertainment itself and the products being hawked. My Yard Goes Disney, a show on HGTV illustrates the point wonderfully. From the website:

In each episode of My Yard Goes Disney, lucky homeowners get a jaw-dropping makeover inspired by Disney Parks that’s worthy of major family playtime.

Genius! Creepy, but genius!

But that’s the way modern life is headed, isn’t it? Even our reality shows aren’t safe (gasp!) anymore.

We’re used to being sold something all the time. Emerging generations (Generation X and the Millenials) have grown up being marketed to in almost every conceivable space. And they are savvy.

Emerging generations know when they’re being solicited. It’s scary how attuned they are to being marketed to. And the marketers know they know. So, advertising has become this nuanced chess match, an ever escalating war of wits between the prize demographic (18–34 year-olds) and marketers.

The news of the advanced level of marketing sophistication among emerging generations ought to scare congregations.

Why?

Because congregations often think that the only thing standing between them and surefire success is good marketing.

It’s more than just “My church goes Disney”

For the last thirty years or so, the simultaneous prominence of church marketing and mega-churches has made a convincing argument that the metric for ecclesiological success corresponds to the metric businesses use to gauge economic success–namely, by units sold (baptisms and transfer of membership).

And if what you’re doing is selling stuff, modern marketing techniques have proven overwhelmingly, jaw-droopingly successful.

The problem, though, is that the marketing that worked so well on Baby Boomers, feels plastic and inauthentic to emerging generations. They tend to be not so much immune to slick marketing as repulsed by it. To a generation that grew up watching TV and engaging the world online, attempts to package important things (e.g., love, family, faith, patriotism, etc.) via slick marketing sound contrived and hollow.

“But we don’t do any of that stuff … PowerPoint in worship, and fancy direct mail campaigns, and preachers in flip-flops. We don’t have catchy slogans, or do cool TV commercials or anything.”

First, let me just say, “Good. I think most of that stuff is crap. Marketing demeans the gospel when it tries to package the gospel as just another commodity for sale.”

Just so we don’t misunderstand one another, I’m not saying, “Don’t talk about who you are, what you care about, what you believe you do well.” Telling people who you are is not all bad. If you’ve got a great website, use it. Make it better. That’s how most people find information nowadays anyway–including information about churches. So, there’s no virtue in looking inept and sloppy. If you do a spot on the local radio station, maybe that’s working for you. Fine.

Second, and what I’m really talking about in all of this isn’t the stuff you pay for. I’m not necessarily saying that because Geico is really successful at selling car insurance through their catchy commercials that you shouldn’t try to do interesting things, too. In fact, as I said before, though I think most church marketing stuff is horrid, I’m not talking about church marketing–at least in the traditional sense (For a good critique of church marketing see, Philip Kenneson and James Street’s, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing.

No. I’m talking about the sales job churches do without even knowing it.

  • If your congregation has ever considered opening a daycare because you’re convinced it will bring in young families, you’re doing a sales job.
  • If your congregation opens up VBS to the public in the hopes that you’ll get kids from the neighborhood, you’re doing a sales job.
  • If you start recovery groups because you think it will bring in new faces, you’re doing a sales job.

Oh, you may believe that it’s all about helping people, but if you go into it thinking that you might get people out of it, you’re selling something–at least that’s how emerging generations tend to experience it. The message they hear from your church is:

“We want to help … especially if it means you’ll buy what we’re selling.”

It’s like a bread crumb trail you lay out there in the hope that what you’re offering is so enticing, people won’t notice where it leads until they look up and find themselves in the sanctuary. All I’m saying is that people used to ingenious sales tactics can sniff the bread trail out a mile away.

“That’s not true. We really do want to help. So what if we also want people to join?”

I know it doesn’t feel right thinking of it as a sales job, but that’s what it is. You’re saying:

“Look at us. We do good things. We’ve got a great thing in here. You should come in and see. Trust us. You’ll like it.”

Congregations have oriented themselves that way over the years.

  • You’re out there.
  • We think you should be in here.
  • Our job is to figure out how to get you to decide to leave “out there” come “in here” with us.

I don’t think there’s any way to lay out the bread crumb trail without setting up the relationship as salesperson/customer. It’s a war of escalating strategies concerned with marketing and marketing-resistance. Most churches are trying to figure out newer and more subtle ways to offer a Disneyfied back yard, hoping that in the process people will buy what we’re selling.

How could it be different?

  • What if we oriented ourselves the other way around?
  • What if, instead of exerting more and more energy trying to design newer and more undetectable sales strategies so that people would come in and join us, we started pouring our energy into figuring out newer and more creative ways to go outside–no strings attached–just because that’s where Jesus is.
  • What if we quit worrying about swelling the membership rolls?
  • What if we trust that our faithfulness is an end in itself, that following Jesus is what we’re called to do, not just something we do to bring people in here?
  • What if we gave without expecting anything in return?

Don’t kid yourself. People can tell when there are strings attached.

Maybe if people came to believe that we weren’t just doing nice stuff “out there” to entice them to come “in here,” maybe if we showed more interest in getting to know people where they live, instead of trying to get them to come live with us, people might not run the other way screaming when they hear somebody say, “Jesus.”

It’s a thought.