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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Look Who's Using the E-Word

I serve on the Board of our local Habitat For Humanity affiliate, and recently I attended the Habitat National Conference in Kitchener. 

As with most conferences, participants could sign up for a variety of workshops. One that I attended was on "Branding" -- specifically, how to use social media so that people will recognize who you are and know what you're about. It was led by Sean Moffitt, a well known marketing guru and author of the book Wikibrands: Reinventing Your Company in a Customer-Driven Marketplace. 

It was fascinating, but a lot of it was over my head. The information flew past at warp speed, and Sean talked about social media and technologies I had never heard of. 

But there was one moment that made me sit bolt upright. 

"It's no longer about product promotion," he said. "It's about brand evangelism."

Did I hear right? Did he just use the dreaded E-word? That word that Christians invented but that most of us are ashamed to utter? 

Did he just say EVANGELISM?

Evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion which means "good news." It's been central to Christian identity since the beginning. We have heard good news, and we need to share that good news with others. 

But what our churches have mostly stopped doing, marketers are embracing enthusiastically. Brand
evangelism assumes that it is not the corporation that calls the shots anymore, it's the customer. Companies are realizing that if they want their brand to take hold, they need more than high priced advertising. They need millions of ordinary people who will spread the good news for them. 

Brand evangelism is based on a few key principles. 

1.   The EXPERIENCE matters more than the PRODUCT. 
Branding is not just about the practical merits of this car, shampoo, cell phone, yogurt over its competitors. It's about the promise of a certain experience or lifestyle. It's about how this product will change your life. 

2.  PARTICIPATION matters more than PURCHASING
Brand evangelism takes off when people have a sense that they are participating in something bigger than themselves. By aligning with this particular brand, they are joining a movement. They are connected to others who share the same experience. 

Marketing used to appeal to people's long-term loyalty, loyalty that could last for generations. ("My Granddaddy was a Ford man, my Daddy was a Ford man, and I'll be a Ford man till the day I die!") Marketers today know that the ground is constantly shifting. Because people are looking for an experience, not just a product, they will quickly move on if something else promises to deliver that experience better. So companies need to be constantly thinking ahead and be ready to change their approach on a moment's notice, or they will be left behind, as former giants like Sears, IBM, GM and Blackberry have found out.  

4.  STORIES are critical
Marketers have become great storytellers. Or, more precisely, they have created the conditions in which their customers can become great storytellers. Brand evangelism relies on personal testimony that connects at the level of the heart. 

One of the best examples I've seen of this is the Tim Horton's commercial where a woman and her husband are cleaning out her parents' house in preparation for downsizing. It's the
house where she grew up. You see a flashback of her as an excited child on moving day. In the garage they find a cardboard box of Tim's cups, each marked with a significant event -- "Moving in," "Jess's first hockey game," "Dan proposed to Jess." They take the box out to her Dad who looks at the house he will soon leave, so full of memories, and then writes on the Tim's cup in his hand.

This commercial has nothing to do with coffee and donuts. It's about relationships, family and the creation of memory and meaning. The message is that Tim's is there in all the important moments of your life. 

And, it's a true story. 
If you haven't seen it, here's the link:

Church people get nervous when we talk about marketing. It sounds exploitative and manipulative and it certainly can be. 

But our critical Number One Question today is:  Do we still believe we have good news that's worth telling people about? Do we still believe that we have something that can change people's lives -- something of vastly greater value than even the best computer, car or cup of coffee? 

And if so, why are we so afraid to share it? If marketers can talk unabashedly about evangelism, why can't we? 

I know why. That word has a lot of baggage. It's caused a lot of harm. And we don't want to simply emulate the purveyors of religious consumer products. 

But what can we learn from today's marketers about how to get a message  into people's hearts and homes? 

Some questions:

How can we offer people an experience of God that rings true, and that touches their lives at a deep level? 

How can we foster a sense of genuine participation so that people are connected by things that really matter?

How can we become more responsive to our fluid cultural landscape without losing our souls? (A special challenge for churches that were created to resist change.) 

How can we free people to tell personal stories and find ways of sharing those stories with others? 

Of course, it all has to start with the message. We need to do some soul-searching there. It's clear to me, anyway, that companies believe more passionately in their message than many churches. 

Sounds like plenty of material for at least five more blog posts. 

Stay tuned. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Searching for a Faster Horse

Henry Ford once said, "If I asked people what they want, they would have said, 'A faster horse.'" 

It's human nature to want what we already have -- to default to the known and familiar. And that is the basic flaw in our current JNAC (Joint Needs Assessment) system. We ask our congregations, "What do you want?" and, surprise, surprise, they tell us that they want more of what they already have -- a minister who will fulfill their desires for topical sermons, pastoral visiting and ability to relate to all ages. 

It's the equivalent of looking for a faster horse.  

And that works well if our goal is maintain our churches they way they are now and to satisfy our present congregations. 

Except that most of our churches are NOT satisfied with the way they are now. Most of our churches are not content that they are becoming smaller, older and more tired. 

It requires an act of courage and imagination to ask, not "What do we want?" but "What do we need to do?" If we ask ourselves what we want, we will say "A better version of what we already have." Henry Ford was a visionary who was able to see beyond the limited horizons of people's current wants and desires. 

The real question that is facing the church today is "What do we need to do to be faithful to the task that has been given to us?" What is God asking of us? What does faithfulness to Jesus look like? Those questions require a different level of vision and imagination. 

And the answers to those questions might have little or nothing to do with what we have now. 

As long as we keep asking ourselves what we want, we'll just get more of what we already have. 

And how is that working?