The difference between Secular and Christian marketing

I got an email this morning from my close and personal friend, Pastor Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church in Columbus Ohio. Pastor Parsley, if you haven't heard, has founded not only World Harvest Church (with over 5000 members) but 9 other ministries, including the Center for Moral Clarity. He also hosts the television show "Breakthrough", on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

And apparently I'm his good friend. Really, I had no idea! But today he sent me a "personal invitation" to become one of his few "Platinum Covenant Partners".

Okay, yes - I have no illusions about my relationship with Pastor Parsley. The email I received is a very slick marketing campaign designed to get me to part with $50 of my money (or MORE, because this isn't a payment, it's a voluntary donation with a $50 minimum!)

I've mentioned Christianity before as a modern "Den of Thieves", where radio preachers on the Bott network hawk their products as faithfully as any soap commercial. And there was the amusing case of Christian book stores selling all sorts of religious kitsch, some of which is created in Chinese sweatshops. (What Would Jesus Sell?)

This campaign from Rod Parsley is pretty slick. Not only is the email well made, It has email tracking technology built into it (Smartmailer), so his organization knows that I've opened and read this. (I'll probably get future offers now too. Whee!) And since the tracking goes to, it is probably created and managed by PitneyBowes as a "business solution". There is probably some targeting involved too. It isn't their fault that they emailed an Atheist, after all - I sign up at many ministries and religious-political organizations. (I wonder how many people on the CVAAS mailing list are religious moles? I don't mind, I'm just curious.)

Really, I sympathize with Pastor Parsley. He's trying to grow his organization. I've been trying to do much the same thing. I've given away "secrets" in growing our membership, and I've written on how to communicate (or not) with the local community. And in all honesty, the marketing terms "Product, Price, Place and Promotion" are things that I keep firmly in mind when advertising Secular events, like the upcoming James Randi lecture. (You DO have your tickets, right?)

And I really can't be too hard on churches who sell religious-themed products. Everything from bibles to prepackaged sermons to Christmas cards. CVAAS has been seriously investigating selling items too. If it is done right, it might be a good way to boost our operating budget - of which we have darned little! Our first "product" is a yearly membership.

I'd like to take the opportunity here to say, "Hi" to Pastor Ken, "a pastor starting a new church", who seems to be going through much of what I'm going through. In his comment he gives me some pretty useful tips in building our organization.

Ken, I really do appreciate what you are doing here with the advice. But I think there is a basic difference in our members and how we operate.

As an ex-Christian, I have some familiarity with the way that a church might be run. I've discussed tactics and strategy with my ministers before. And I think that the very basic difference in Secular and Christian methods could be summed up as the difference between house cats and squirrels.

In this parable analogy, I think that pastors use methods based upon the squirrel. To make a living as a pastor, you've got to put everything you have into it. You live, eat, breath your new church, you invest your time and money as assiduously as the squirrel hides away his winter food. In a very real way, you are providing for your own future. And if you have a family, you are providing for their future too. The congregation you build will determine if your children go to state college or to a private university. The only time you have to indulge your areas of interest outside the church is after you have worked hard on "stocking up".

Every son or daughter of a pastor that I've been friends with has spoken of how little time they get to spend with their father.

As the President of a secular organization, I have to use the methods of the house cat. I have a full time employer who takes care of my needs. I have to sit in his window and rub against his knees to ensure that I'm being taken care of, but doing so gives me a large portion of each day (and weekends and vacations) where my boss allows me to do as I like. But even though a large fraction of my day is technically "free" from work, I'm only allowed to spend a portion of that time building a secular community. There are other demands on my time. I have to take care of me and mine during this time. Clothes need washing, the pantry needs stocking, the car needs servicing. And I invest time with friends and family because they are important too.

I am aware that the analogy isn't perfect. I realize that a lot of new pastors have a "day job". But still, things are different. I do use my own money to support my secular organization, but I do so because I can afford to do so. It comes out of my money for hobbies. (Which is why I haven't bought that new table saw or band saw for my woodworking hobby!) A pastor with a day job would invest a great deal more into his new church - even going so far as to turn his own home into a church.

There are purely secular organizations which are able to afford full time officeholders. But there are far fewer, in my opinion, than churches. I think the difference may be the deep obligation that religious congregants feel toward the church. There is a long cultural tradition that encourages tithing of time and money, and this tradition comes bundled with a large sense of guilt for those who shirk what they think is their responsibility. Congregants come with a built-in "carrot and stick" that ethical pastors use sparingly to encourage participation. (I have my doubts about Pastor Parsley.)

Secular members are cat-like in that they are fiercely independent. I try my best to teach people to think critically, so I can't act surprised when they question my goals and motives at every turn. You don't "herd cats".

But I can take a lesson from someone I admire, fellow blogger "Berlzebub" who was able to raise thousands of dollars for a fellow atheist in need. What Berlzebub discovered is that although critical thinkers don't herd, they do respond to events. Like a cat responding to a laser pointer, secular people will respond to a narrowly focused, interesting, and worthwhile event.

Ken, developing a "presence" and an "identity" is good. But long term campaigns don't seem to work for freethinkers. Although it is possible for a secular organization to set a long-term goal, most members of that organization won't be interested in the day to day effort required to get there. It's not like being a "footsoldier" in "God's Army". It's more like being a member of a fanclub. To get them to participate, I need to have an event that they can focus on.

I could be completely wrong on all of this. I'm an engineer, not a business or marketing major. I've had classes in leadership in the military, but military leadership has more in common with the Church than with a secular organization. This is just me trying to get a handle on the things that I've noticed, and the differences that seem apparent to me as an ex-Christian.

I think there is much that secular groups can learn from churches on the subject of building membership. But I also think that many things won't apply because of the difference in basic cultural expectations. In some cases we will have to use different methods. And we'll need to invent some methods of our own - like the laser pointer.


Ken L. Hagler said...

Interesting...I have been known to be a bit squirrely. Am I becoming too transparent?

I can track with you to a point. I say that only because I think the pastor "role" and "job-description" has changed dramatically in recent years. Will my children say dad gives more time to church? Sure, but then I usually eat breakfast with them every morning and am there at dinner most every night. I set-up boundaries around my family and friends in the midst of this. I have friends who are secular who see their kids far less than mine see me.

Personally, I don't think I can afford to "stock-up" my time. My kids are only their age once so I try to spend time with them all I can. Heck, I fight with my son over my own Star Wars legos! I don't know how to be a pastor without living life. To me, the Christian faith is lived daily, in family, in the community, and in the world.

But keep in mind, in starting a new church, I too am trying to connect with people who are secular and free-thinkers. I've learned from hanging out here, we may have some different definitions on that. Personally, I'd rather have a church full of atheists and free-thinkers, than Wesley's "Almost Christians" at times.

Nope, not gonna touch Rod Parsley. Yet, to speak about the "carrot and stick" is a bit much. I began tithing not because of a pastor, but because of a need. I adopted a kid through Compassion International and gave till he was 18. During that time, I grew up too, along with (I hope) a generation who get that we have a responsibility to give, that there are incredible needs in this world. It isn't just out of guilt but compassion.

And I can agree with you on long term campaigns. It is the difference between a sprint and a marathon. Most people prefer to sprint.

Maybe it is just me. I just don't think I fit the image you have regarding pastors. But there is some truth in all stereotypes and I can't let your words go by without examining myself.

Thanks for allowing me a place at the table.

Calladus said...

That's the problem with stereotypes. They don't come in "one size fits all". (sigh)

I like thoughtful people not afraid of self-examination. "An unexamined life is not worth living." You let me know anytime you're in my neck of the woods, and I'll buy you a meal. I have a feeling we have a lot we can talk about.

In a discussion with one of my pastors, he spoke about "kingdom growing" - which is how he talked of growing his congregation. He pointed at only three ways to grow a "kingdom" - from within (by birth rate) from other kingdoms (what some pastors dismiss as "stealing sheep") and from the unaffiliated.

Ken, there is a common thing that I saw often on the local university campus - Campus Crusade for Christ would often put up a mirror with the sign "Empty?" above it. Their take was that without Christ, you were obviously empty.

On the flip side, I've seen religious people respond to an Atheist as if he had just proclaimed he was "empty". When one Christian asks another what faith he or she is, he might hear "Catholic" or "Pentecostal" and then nod and move on.

But when someone answers, "I'm an Atheist" too often the religious person hears, "empty" and immediately thinks, "Well, I've got something that will fill him!"

I'm glad to hear you are connecting with secular people. I try to do the same with religious people. But I do so because I think an open dialog between us is important.

I don't think you are doing this, but I'll say it anyway - don't seek out secular people just because you think that they are waiting to be filled with the Spirit and added to your kingdom.

Some secular people have become sensitized to the constant and pervasive diet of proselytizing in this country, and they can be very vitriolic in their responses to a well-meaning gesture. It's got to be disconcerting to extend a hand of friendship and pull back a nub.

Not everyone will do this, and even the rude ones are capable of being nice too. I think it has little to do with religion, and more to do with being human.

I like the idea of tithing out of compassion - but I have to agree with Aristotle in that virtue can start as a habit. And habits must be encouraged. In decreeing tithing, the Church sets up a habit that, in time, members of a congregation will feel is a pleasant obligation.

It is in this teaching of virtue that many (perhaps most?) of us learn compassion.

And this is where Secular Humanism and Positive Atheism and even Freethought differs from mere Atheism. Atheism isn't a moral philosophy - it is only a very simple statement that one is not a Theist.

But these other philosophies teach us that ethical questions are best answered when based upon empathy and sympathy for others. They encourage the teaching of virtue, but they can not demand it.

Ken L. Hagler said...

I'll certainly look you up come meal time when I come out west. Anytime you're out by the ATL, you can count on some good southern cuisine on my tab!

I don't think you are doing this, but I'll say it anyway - don't seek out secular people just because you think that they are waiting to be filled with the Spirit and added to your kingdom.

Thanks for recognizing this. The idea of "Empty?" kind of makes me cringe. I could just as easily put that on my own mirror some days.

Trust me, it wasn't easy to post my first comment here. Just like you with "Empty," I've been around Atheists who have heard, "Christian" and thought "Idiot! I've got some knowledge to impart to him."

My parents were a professor and librarian. Education and critical thinking is something I value. Right alongside those are relationships. I think friendships are built on what people have in common.

I'm grieved by what you all in the atheist community have had to tolerate. Is it even fair to say you've just had to tolerate it? I've read what trolls write. I've read the stories others have shared from their experiences.

I think it has little to do with religion, and more to do with being human.

And maybe that is the point, that in our faith we take for granted our belief that God cared enough to become human. Maybe we should be reminded of that before we try so hard to be gods.

Calladus said...

I grew up in the South, I love Southern cooking. Cajun food mostly - I make a spicy jambalaya, and my gumbo is black as sin and as hot as hell... if you'll pardon me poking fun.

Californians are (usually) clueless about good Southern food.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Parsley sounds like a characher from Veggie Tales

Ken L. Hagler said...

Poke away! ;) You'll find on my blog, I don't tend to take things too seriously.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Anonymous, you rock! That is the funniest thing I've read in a while. I'm so laughing my...whew, caught myself.

Calladus said...

Anon, funny as that is, if you decide to post again please read my Comment Moderation Policy first. You can find it to the upper right of my blog.

Calladus said...


I've refused to let your comment through due to it violating rule 5 of my comment moderation policy.

The first was a freebie, and I thought it was funny.

All you need to do is choose a name while posting in my blog, and stick to it. You seem like a nice enough person and I'd love for you to comment - but I'm afraid I need this rule to tell one anon from another. Thanks.