Philippians and Church Growth and Marketing

In my campus ministry this year, I am teaching through Philippians. One of the commentaries I am using is Frank Thielman’s commentary (part of the NIV Application Commentary series). In his comments on Phil. 3:1-11, Thielman has this to say about church growth and marketing:

“Christian worship and fellowship not only extends to distinctions based on race, but to socioeconomic and age brackets as well. Some of this can be attributed to simple racism and classism, to a selfish unwillingness, often fueled by ignorance and fear, to share our lives with those who are different from us. Most of it, however, seems to come from contentment with the status quo or from a fear that change in our homogeneous units will adversely affect the growth of our churches.” (p. 189)

Then, in a footnote to the last sentence, he says:

“Thus the ‘homogeneous unit principle’ has become a standard doctrine of church growth strategists….The principle works, of course, but that is beside the point, It is hard to imagine that Paul, who parted company with Barnabas, Peter, and ‘the other Jews’ in the church at Antioch in part over this issue (Gal. 2:11-13), would consider it theologically valid.” (p. 189n38)

A couple of pages later, he addresses church marketing:

“To become distracted from the church’s primary task of Spirit-empowered obedience to God and to allow the world or a particular program to set the church’s agenda instead is to cease placing confidence in Christ and to begin placing confidence in the flesh.

“The leadership of churches can also adopt programs and strategies that, although intended to aid the propagation of the gospel, are fundamentally flawed with the world’s perspective. Thus Christians should be wary of applying the marketing strategies of the business world to the church. Those who use these strategies often have the laudable goal of communicating the gospel as clearly as possible to the greatest number of people and are frequently motivated by the bad experiences that some people have had in some small, uncomfortable and boring church of the past. But the price of marketing the gospel with programs developed in a fallen and unbelieving world is too high for the church to adopt them wholesale.

“An example from the world of church marketing will suffice to illustrate the problem. One church marketing strategist begins in his handbook on marketing the church by referring to a standard marketing textbook. The textbook describes four basic marketing principles: ‘product,’ ‘place,’ ‘promotion,’ and ‘price’….

“The author of this handbook carefully explains that he does not intend the church, in following this strategy, to change its ‘product’ or view ‘price’ in terms of money. But the question continues to nag, Can the ‘business’ of the church be shaped into the mold developed by a consumer-oriented society for selling its goods and services? The goal of secular marketing strategies is to enable businesses to design products people will buy and then to persuade people to buy them. If people do not already see a need for the product and if they cannot be persuaded to see such a need, good marketing principles dictate that the product-line be radically changed or its price reduced, or that it be dropped altogether in favor of something more marketable. The success of the strategy, in other words, is measured in terms of the response of people.

“Preaching Christ and him crucified, however, is a marketing strategist’s nightmare….” (pp. 190-91)

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