The Skeptic Pastor: Marketing or ministry?

ipod-ad“At the end of the hospital service, we can pass out a brochure about the church.” I will never forget that moment. It was one of my first ministry jobs, and after discussing offering a worship service for people whose loved ones were in the local hospital, the conversation turned to marketing.

I will never forget it because it was the first time my skepticism was let out of its box in a church meeting. I was obviously shocked or irritated or some combination of both because someone asked me what I was thinking. With as much calm as I could muster, I said, “Don’t you think people would be offended if we tried to push our church services on them in such a difficult moment?”

My irritation was matched only by their bafflement about my comment. I had come in a little late to the meeting as college students do from time to time, and had missed the beginning of the discussion. They informed me that they were discussing ideas for how to get more people to attend the church, and had already talked about bumper stickers, a chili cook off, and now were zeroing in on an opportunity that had just come available because the rival church in town had stopped providing Sunday services at the hospital.

I totally understand how getting a really solid bowl of chili would make someone want to come to Jesus and what person hasn’t followed someone with a bumper sticker that said “Follow me to _____.” But something felt wrong about using ministry to hurting people as a marketing tool.

The reason it’s wrong is that it betrays the core purpose of worship — healing, and restoration. Worship is an opportunity which seeks to connect people with the power of the living God in order to place their souls and lives back in order. These are intimate, delicate things. They are tender moments of privilege in which God allows his people to be the conduits through which his grace is communicated. THAT is how they are to be used.

Co-opting spiritual things to make yourself or your organization look good is nothing new. In fact Jesus felt it important to give some specific instruction on that. When talking about giving to the needy, praying and fasting, he repeated phrases like, “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4b)

I can’t tell you how many people I have known over the years who have been disgusted by Christians who use devastating times or holy moments to advertise. Which brings us to the point I’ve been circling for this entire time: Apple iPod advertisements.

Apple had an incredibly successful and famous advertising campaign several years ago that featured silhouettes dancing on video or billboard. There was no talk of features, no litany of why they were better than everyone else. It was just music, a silhouette and the gleaming white iPod and earbuds in the silhouette’s hand.

They had so much confidence in their product that they said nothing. They showed the product and left you to come try it out yourself. They didn’t even tell you where it was available for sale.

Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

The most disappointing thing about the hospital idea was that serving those people anonymously, caring for their souls and wiping their tears was great advertisement. It was great because it was lifting Jesus up.

Maybe those people would come to church next Sunday, but if not maybe they would come to Jesus knowing that in their time of need he sent someone to be there.

Jeremy Steele, UMR Columnist

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry and the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. You can find more of his writing and a list of all the places he contributes at his website:

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14 Comments on "The Skeptic Pastor: Marketing or ministry?"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Albert Hahn
There seems to be a strange and probably false dichotomy between compassionate act of being present in their grief and invitation to an authentic faith community. Given the current state of many local churches desperate attempts for institutional survival, skepticism of these "marketing tools" are understandable. However, an invitation to a an authentic healing and compassionate community that we belong to is one of the most compassionate act we can do for hurting people. One time act of compassion, may shine the light of Jesus Christ, but it rarely translates to sustainable transformation in the people's lives. In addition, unfortunately,… Read more »
Anne Hawthorne

Beautiful. Thank you!

Amen, Brotha! That's a third of the purpose of the church, to care for the needs of people, physically, spiritually, emotionally. The next third is to bring them to a restored relationship with God, to lead people, not to the church, but to God. I am fast learning that true evangelism involves creating relationships with people, as they will indeed resent feeling that they are your 'project.' Jeremy, you obviously have a heart for people, and might be interested in ordering the book, "Just Walk Across the Room," written by Bill Hybels, I found this book in our church's… Read more »

The pastor at my grandfather's funeral not only handed out business cards, he used the time to try to "save" the deeply grieving friends and family by getting us to "accept" Jesus before we die. I left in the middle of his sales pitch to go outside and throw up.

It's a special kind of person who can take advantage of people on one of the worst days of their lives.


Great article! On target for all of us!


I love this, and wish that more churches were after God's approval, not the approval of men. Romans 12:2 says "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."

We are conforming to the world when we use the world's marketing practices. Cool marketing may bring people to the church the first time, but it is GOD that keeps them coming back. Marketing is empty, God is FULL.


Bazinga! We nurture, console, help, because that's just what we're supposed to do. Jesus said so, Paul said so, Wesley said so. The simple, quiet doing is beacon (marketing) enough. And even if it's not, we still do it. Your actions, compassion, and selflessness are your "Brand" – period.

Church Mom
I think there's no better time to invite people to your church. No better time to say, there's more than just these words I'm preaching right now, but you can come be a part of a whole community that can support you if and when you need it. Call it marketing or call it evangelism. Apple advertises. A lot. If you don't mean it, or if it's inauthentic, I can see where it would be pretty distasteful. If the church is only there to boost numbers and not to serve people who are hurting, well, that's terrible. It seems pretty… Read more »

I love this! Never have I read anything more moving!

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