Monday, April 24, 2006

Can Marketing Replace the Gospel?

Gordon Smith at Times and Seasons wrote a post exploring the way that the Mormon Church advertises itself. In the comments, Mike wrote a lengthy recommendation for what the church might do to be more appealing. His suggestion was to immitate a successful Methodist church in his neighborhood.

The Methodist church that Mike described had a full complement of community programs including Scouting, music, preschools, and sports. The congregation was over 4000 people. Mike's wife (presumably a Latter-day Saint) worked for the Methodist organization in some capacity.

I'm attracted to part of Mike's argument. He points out that it is hard for youth to get excited about activity programs (like Scouts or Young Women) that only have a few kids. Because the groups are small, the youth are less likely to invite non-member friends to participate. Meanwhile, over at the Methodist church, the community is flocking there in droves. First they come because of the good activities. Then they choose to stay with the congregation because they want that sort of positive moral environment for their children.

One thing that Mike got exactly right is that the church needs to do better at pulling in young couples who are just starting their families. These young parents are just coming to the realization that they need to give their own children some solid foundation to grow up on. The Mormon television ads seem to be targeting this demographic, but the local congregations are not always prepared to carry out the promises.

Here's the rub. I perceive that joining a Methodist congregation is easy. Just show up. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, recall often the quote from our founding prophet Joseph Smith, "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."

So Latter-day Saints don't pursue the Methodist model advocated by Mike because we don't want a passive congregation. We don't want the activites to eclipse the broader message of the gospel. We don't want to start up a giant community program that will require paid staff to support. We don't want to compete against other groups that might be doing similar things. We want the focus of the gospel to be on Jesus Christ and on our need to sacrifice. We don't want it to be easy.

But isn't it better to have the "barely committed"--those who are not yet prepared to make many sacrifices--sitting in our congregations and hearing the truths of the gospel week after week rather than having them sit in a Methodist congregation down the street where they will learn fewer of the truths available to mankind?

Where is "the family" in all this? Does a 4000 person congregation, with the paid support staff to provide every sort of activity, reduce the perceived necessity of the family unit?

It is not an easy question. I'm not committed to an answer. But is something I will definitely be pondering.


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  • I am a little torn on this as well. I look at D&C20:37 (at least I think that is the verse) that covers requirements for baptism, and they seem pretty high. On the other hand we baptise in the temple for any name we can find. Christ also said the thing about every creature.

    I do believe that what we want is long term growth, and steady retention. We don't just want the youth we want the parents too.

    By Blogger Eric Nielson, at 4/24/2006 8:37 AM  

  • Mike sounds pretty bitter. His criticisms are not without merit, but they seem rather skewed. I wonder what percentage of the 4000-strong Methodist congregation attends worship services weekly. I wonder how many fully tithe. I wonder how many actively serve in a 'calling.'

    The LDS model requires much of its adherents. It takes serious conversion to be willing to donate time and means at the level required. The LDS model also works with a sort of New Testament flavor to even things out between its congregations. There is a desire for all units to have as much of the church's programs as their respective members are able to bear.

    So we don't build mega congregations with fantastic services that can be easily obtained outside of the church. Instead we build intimate congregations where everyone can (and needs to) serve each other. You know, President Hinckley's point about every convert needing a calling.

    Not all worldly methods are worthy recruiting tools for Christ's true church. These kinds of things grew in the original Christian church as authority and revelation waned. Probably everyone that has served a mission has seen the misuse of recruiting techniques that resulted in the baptism of someone that wasn't truly converted. So I'm not sure how winning some kind of worldly popularity contest with a religious tilt is going to prevent the retention nightmares Mike references.

    If our congregations are uninviting and our fortress to protect from evil so strong that the good cannot peer inside, we've got a problem. If our congregations are not alive with the Spirit, we've got a problem. But I'm not sure that professional daycare, sports, and music programs are the proper way to address those problems.

    By Blogger Scott Hinrichs, at 4/24/2006 2:28 PM  

  • Thanks for those comments. The point you both raise about baptism is a very valid one. Would it be appropriate in our church to have a large number of "investigators" that attend but are not baptized?

    I suppose that if we had a bunch of people that were attending but were not holding callings it would make a lot of the problems of a small ward even worse in the short term. (Good luck finding enough primary teachers!) But in the long term, as more people were converted...?

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 4/24/2006 7:31 PM  

  • Who says more people would be converted under this model? I know people that have attended church meetings for years (they usually have family members that are church members) without being baptized.

    I also have to wonder if the average level of activity would remain constant once the need for the desired services (child care, music lessons, etc.) was past, since individual conversion would simply be a desirable byproduct rather than the main focus.

    The idea, I guess, is that some of the casually committed would eventually become truly committed. I have seen this occur in the lives of a few people, but I have also seen it go the other way.

    I think it's important for the church to focus on its core responsibility and to be very careful about involvement in non-essentials that tend to carry high overhead costs. Most of the church's resources should be applied to its core mission.

    But we're not purists in this respect. A friend of mine that works for the church says that he thinks it must offend the Lord on some level that we have nice gymnasiums in every full-size ward building, while we don't have baptismal fonts in all of these buildings.

    By Blogger Scott Hinrichs, at 4/25/2006 6:17 AM  

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