Marketing Jesus: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Marketing + Jesus

These are two words you rarely see together, yet it happens every day. From churches advertising John 3:16 on the local billboard to the televangelist preaching to the masses, Jesus is being made known through a modern means.

In fact, marketing Jesus is an industry of its own.

A HUGE industry.

The Christian retail market alone is estimated to be well over $4.2 billion, showing that marketing Jesus can be very, very profitable.

I know, because I market Jesus for a living.

I am the marketing director for a Christian missions organization that trains and sends missionaries throughout the earth. Before this, I helped market a national Christian youth conference and ran the social media for a well-known prayer ministry with a fan base in the hundred of thousands. I have designed postcards, built websites, spent thousands of dollars on ads, split-tested Bible verses and spammed your email inbox…

All in the name of Jesus … and I get paid to do it.

I know. It seems sacrilegious. But, where do you draw the line? There are a lot of shades of gray between sharing the gospel with a friend and selling “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts.

There are certainly times I have felt uncomfortable in my vocation, but I can now say with confidence that there is a place for marketing when it comes to making Jesus known.

Some would say that Jesus was a brilliant marketer himself. I’ve heard Flint McGlaughlin say that Jesus crafted a perfect value proposition when He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” in John 14.

Throughout my time marketing Jesus, I have come across some good practices, some bad ones, and some right out ugly ones.

When Marketing Jesus is Good

Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” For myself and most Jesus marketers like me, our goal is to use every talent and resource available in the modern age to make Jesus famous throughout the earth.

While our marketing doesn’t always preach the gospel directly, it is often a means to that end. By marketing an event where the gospel is shared or a resource that will help others grow in their relationship with God, we advance God’s kingdom. Selling t-shirts can often help fund a worthy cause or a well-timed tweet could inspire you to stop and reflect on God’s goodness.

These are all good things. For an example, see my previous post on how God is using social media to mobilize missionaries.

There are even some Christian markets that might not be as beneficial but aren’t necessarily bad either. Christian merchandisers are an example. When it came to purchasing my wedding ring, I could have dropped a few hundred bucks on a fashionable tungsten ring, but I found a simpler silver ring by James Avery with the Hebrew inscription “I am my beloved’s and she is mine,” (which is a modified verse from Song of Songs 6:3). James Avery made a profit from a bible verse and that’s ok. After all, I’m happy to have the ring, his company is happy to make a profit and God is honored in all of it.

Business in itself is a good thing as long as it is done in an honorable way.

When Marketing Jesus is Questionable

Deciphering between the bad and the good isn’t easy. There are many shades of gray that are difficult to discern as you feel the pressure to bolster profits.

In 2014, Mark Driscoll received complaints regarding the sales of his book Real Marriage. He had paid a marketing company $200,000 to game the best sellers list. This in itself is not a bad thing necessarily. After all, the top book lists have criteria, and if you can find ways to legally make it to the top in order to promote a good message while growing a healthy ministry, that’s a win-win. The problem in Driscoll’s instance was that the funds were pledged to go to churches overseas, and yet, his church was not healthy. Still, others will disagree with me that gaming the book system at all is unethical, regardless. There isn’t agreement on where to draw the lines sometimes.

Another area that becomes difficult to discern is the luxury Christian goods market. How extravagant could or should Christians live? Are diamond studded crosses taking it too far? Is an expensive Christian marriage retreat cruise worthwhile? Fundraising for extravagant Christian buildings and churches also are a regular topic of debate.

Another area where marketing in Christianity becomes questionable is when some folks from the Charismatic movement will push a “word from God” through their ministry marketing channels, but if the gift of prophecy is indeed for the day, is it ok to promote it via twitter? #ThusSaithTheLord

You can see that the difference between good and bad provokes more questions than answers, so let’s take a look at what we can all certainly agree is truly bad.

When Marketing Jesus is Bad, Even Ugly

All good marketers are students of psychology, after all, persuading in mass is not easy. We know that we are more likely to succeed if the marketing messaging aligns with people’s existing mindsets and emotions. All marketing students are taught to define their audience and build personas around what influences them and how they think.

The problem occurs when information is used to truly manipulate people out of their money for personal gain or for the gain of things that are contrary to scripture.

I remember when John Oliver made popular the absurdity of some televangelist in this YouTube video.

Televangelism is well rehearsed and constructed preaching that is, in my opinion, well within the world of marketing, especially in the form of fundraising.

(Side Note: Not all Christian television networks and televangelist are bad. In fact, most are good and helpful.)

Sometimes it gets worse, much, much worse.
I heard recently of an organization that raises tens of millions of dollars for seemingly Christian work. But, in reality, is using the funds to support anti-Christian organizations. Behind that fundraising is a marketer exploiting Jesus.
So, let me turn the tables now. Do you believe marketing Jesus is sacrilegious and if not, where do would you draw the line?

Dan Sanchez, MBA

Dan Sanchez is a marketing director, co-host of the B2B Growth show, and blogger. He holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and BS in Marketing Management from Western Governors University. Learn more about Dan »

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