Friday, April 8, 2011

Reaching Out...To Whom?

Chuck Klosterman was on Bill Simmons' podcast earlier this week talking about the greatest game ever invented - basketball.  About an hour into the conversation, their attention shifted to marketing professional teams and how management styles will need to change based on the impending NBA lock-out.  In classic Klosterman fashion, he takes a topic and offers an obscure analysis that ends up making total sense to me.

I feel like the problem with sports leagues is the idea that they need to expand their fan base to people who don’t really like the sport.  The idea that somehow watching a basketball game isn’t interesting enough for a lot of people.  If we’re going to have a real wide audience, we need to appeal to people who don’t like the game.  And any time any product tries that – whether it’s basketball, music, film, religion – when the idea becomes that for this to be successful we need to appeal to people who don’t really care, it gets worse.  The NBA is too concerned with people who don’t really like pro basketball.

When people freaked out when Jordan retired the 2nd time, and there was this idea that there was no interest in the league, and that ratings are down, and all these things.  And it was because the people they were losing were not people who liked basketball, they liked Michael Jordan – the persona of this guy.  I wish leagues were less interested in people who are uninterested in the league.

If you can get a guy to go to the game, and he can also bring his wife and two kids, even though 3 of the 4 people in the car driving to the arena would rather be doing something else, because they’re charging those people $80 to get in or whatever, they’re like 'let’s find ways to do that.  Let’s play music during the game or get the cheerleaders to shoot t-shirts out of those guns at the audience, because that’s going to make a nine-year old kid who’d rather look at his phone, want to go to this basketball game.'

Naturally, my ears perked up when Klosterman inserted religion to a conversation about basketball.  He's clearly annoyed with organizations that go out of their way to attract people that wouldn't otherwise be interested.  Frankly, I'm kind of annoyed with the need of our churches to create new programs, gimmicks, or hooks to get erstwhile disinterested people to show up.

Two things jumped out at me in his rant.  First, it's interesting to replace "Michael Jordan" with "beloved Pastor _____" and consider the implications.  Second, I wonder how many families attend church in the same way Klosterman's fictitious family attended a basketball game.  That last paragraph might read:

If you can get a lady to go to worship, and she can also bring her husband and two kids, even though 3 of the 4 people in the car driving to the church would rather be doing something else, because adding to the number of people in worship and put a few bucks in the offering plate, they’re like 'let’s find ways to do that.  Let’s show video clips in worship or have the youth group play wacky games, because that’s going to make a nine-year old kid who’d rather look at his phone, want to go to church.'

The fundamental question worth asking is, "should churches bother reaching out to people who don't want to be there in the first place?"  Is marketing the same as evangelism and outreach?  What would happen if our churches stopped employing "attractional" models of ministry and focused on a basic, stripped-down, rudimentary expression of our theology and doctrine.  Would that be too stale or boring?  Do we need to offer high-tech worship services, quality programs, and modern facilities reach out to new people for the sake of the gospel?

Darn you, Chuck Klosterman...


  1. One problem with the basketball/religion analogy is that not all of us have been called/reconciled to basketball. Basketball doesn't necessarily choose it's fans. I do believe that we all have been called/reconciled to Christ. Obviously, just like folks can choose to like/dislike basketball, they can like/dislike religion. However, most of us are familiar with what basketball SHOULD look like, but how many people really know what church/Christians should look like...

    In a time where some are disinterested in church because of our inability to demonstrate our beliefs in action or in practice, I think that evangelism and marketing can/should walk hand in hand. IMO, we should be marketing the heck out of churches...with the understanding that we should be marketing Christ, His love, and Christ's work in our lives... not just our fancy worship sites or video/audio stimuli. Sure, we can all think of at least 1 example of a church who has marketed themselves to the detriment of the 'church'.

    In the end, I guess it makes me scared to think that we would only preach to the interested, as I was once uninterested but drawn back (in part) through evangelistic marketing/conversation!

    Good article.

  2. I sure liked Michael Jordan, yes, and honestly l like basketball or any spectator sport when I know someone who's playing, but all analogies break down at some point...what I take from this is the importance of relationships - authentic relationships. A simple smile says a whole lot more than a pastor's personality, donut, or weekly movie clip. Trappings can attract; I believe people are looking for authentic relationships.

  3. Thanks for this article. I often think that churches are "marketing" all the wrong things. If we shared a message of some of our core beliefs, I believe a certain population would find it incredibly compelling. We have a message of grace and acceptance without being just a self-help book. Exhibit A: when I post things on Facebook about decisions at the churchwide assembly, many of the gay men I work with in musical theater are surprised that there is a Christian church that accepts them. We don't want to be all about that one soapbox issue, but we do want to convey our core theological messages. Our "brand" of theology does not have a strong voice in the common spaces of our culture.

    Many churches glob on to the gimmicks of marketing instead of doing the real work of marketing: define your audience, create a message, include a call to action, etc.

    And to your main question: sometimes the use of a gimmick to get people in the doors is justified by saying that once they are there they can hear the message. But how often is that message really, truly crafted to reach the person once they are there?

    Thanks, Erik!

  4. Brian M here (I never can figure how to comment on these things)

    The very problem of the church (as a whole and not just the ELCA) is that we've been so concerned with getting people in the door (or at least not to leave) we've forgotten the reason folks should be there in the first place.

    If shooting t-shirts out of an air cannon or showing a video during worship aids in the proclamation of the Gospel, I'm all for it. If the only reason you are doing it is to get people in the door (or keep them there) then ditch it. An air cannon or a video isn't going to save anyone. Only Christ can do that.

    However, we should continue to ask questions about how we might use all kinds of things to communicate the truth about Jesus Christ through our corporate worship and in our programmatic life. But when the purpose of doing something is to attract people and not proclaim the Gospel, then it is to no avail.

    Now, to argue with myself. If, as Christians who happen to be Lutheran, we believe that the Holy Spirit works through the Word to transform lives. And we are faithful in proclaiming that Word in the worship/programming we do. Wouldn't doing a gimmic to get people in the door provide a wider audience on which the Holy Spirit might work? People who might not otherwise have been there to encounter that Word?


Thank you for taking the time to be a part of "koinonia"