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 smartmailer.net, 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.