Churches use social networking to sell themselves to a new generation

Minneapolis, USA - Eyes roll when Rabbi Hayim Herring tells his fellow clergy that they should spend an hour a day on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Listeners at his seminars exchange smirks when he says blogging should be considered mandatory. They look aghast when he recommends posting short video clips from their sermons on YouTube.

It's a lot better than the reaction he used to get.

"They used to look at me as if I'd just said a four-letter word," said Herring, the former senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn., and now the executive director of Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, or STAR. But in its seven years, the organization has seen more converts to what many call one of the dirtiest words in religion: marketing.

Across the country, religious congregations have turned more to marketing to keep the members they have and attract others to their emptying pews. The trend is accelerating as the Internet and its explosion of social networking sites add entirely new ways to connect on spiritual issues.

But the growing emphasis on new salesmanship tools alarms others who say the onslaught undermines the idea that spirituality should be a respite from the constant clamor of commercialism.

"It's considered heresy in some circles," agreed Greg Smith, a research fellow for the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. "They consider consumerism shallow."

But, Smith said, "Whether they like it or not, religions are being forced to compete for members."

Smart-phone spirituality

That debate has intensified with this spring's follow-up study of a 2008 survey that discovered that 44 percent of adult Americans have a different religious affiliation than the one they grew up in. Surprised by so much movement, researchers went back and asked the respondents why they changed.

Along with the expected answers -- marriage to a person of a different faith, the arrival of a new minister, disagreement with church rules -- came the discovery that people have started to shop for churches the same way they shop for cars. They test-drive sermons and check out the "accessories," which can include everything from the music to children's programs to the co-ed softball team.

"We live in a competitive religious marketplace," said Pew researcher John Smith. "You have to be competitive if you are going to attract and keep members."

More than just bragging rights are at stake. Maintaining membership is critical for church finances, especially at a time of economic distress when contributions are dropping and endowment funds have taken a beating in the stock market. If belt-tightening members drop less money in the collection plate, the congregation needs to pack more people into the pews to make up the difference.

Like a cutting-edge political campaign, the use of electronic marketing is spreading across all religions. In a recent speech, Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, urged his religious organizations to use "smart-phones with BlackBerry, iPhone and Symbian." While they were at it, he suggested, they should check out Flickr, Habbo, hi5, Skyrock, Tagged, Bebo, Netlog, MyHeritage, Odnoklassniki, Sonico and VKontakte.

"Use new technologies to create a dialogue," he said.

The younger generation's reliance on these electronic social networks leaves religious leaders no choice, Herring said. "If you're not out there, there's no chance of your message being heard," he said.

For Aricka Johnson, a member of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Mound, Minn., the Internet is a way to stay connected with her faith emotionally when she can't do so physically.

"I felt very alone after moving a lot throughout my life and hopping to church after church," she said. "When I go onto Web sites like, and, I feel more connected with others. Before, I almost felt awkward in speaking about my beliefs in God, but after talking more and more about it with other Christians on these Web sites, I feel way more comfortable in sharing my beliefs in depth with others. These Web sites have changed my life for the better and have brought me closer to God."

A slippery slope?

Count the Rev. Troy Dobbs as one of the unconverted.

"Unfortunately, so much of what I see in the church today is already being driven by the perceived needs of the consumer and not the glory and honor of Jesus Christ, which can lead and has led the church down a slippery slope of theological compromise," said Dobbs, pastor of Grace Church of Eden Prairie, Minn., an evangelical Christian church.

"My advice is: Look at the stats but stick to the Scriptures and let the Scriptures inform the ministry philosophy and practice of reaching out and into the community."

Some of the debate stems from how one defines marketing, said the Rev. John Mayer, executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis organization that tracks religious demographics.

"People see it as too worldly or gimmicky for the church to be marketing itself," he said. "But most of the same people who say it is sacrilegious also expect their church to have a Web site, a listing in the phone book or an ad in the phone book. To me, this is marketing."

In fact, he said, one of religion's classic icons could be considered a marketing tool: the church steeple.

"Yes, it's there for artistic reasons and to symbolize pointing to God," he said. "But it's also like a big sign to people saying: 'We are here. Come and check us out.' "

The rules have changed

The criticism is evolving. A few years ago, books such as "Selling Out the Church" by Philip Kenneson and James Street and "Shopping for God" by James Twitchell took hard-edged stances against consumerism.

These days, the criticism focuses more on how the marketing is being done. Even the bluntly named Church Marketing Sucks Web site ( limits its lambastes to poor-taste advertising. The bulk of the site offers tips on designing eye-catching Web pages.

Increasingly, religious leaders are realizing that the rules have changed. Gone are the days when people went to services simply because they were supposed to, said the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop (top official in the United States) of the Episcopal Church.

"It used to be socially expected that people would go to church," she said. "That's not true with the current generation. We have to find ways to reach them. We have to be willing to try new things."

Some of the fastest-growing congregations -- suburban, mostly evangelical Christian megachurches -- embraced marketing from the start. Their success has caused more traditional congregations with dwindling memberships to take notice.

Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie has held services in which young worshipers used their cell phones to send text messages with questions they wanted the ministers to address.

Using technology to spread the word is centuries old, said the Rev. Leith Anderson of Wooddale, Minn. He reminds critics that when Johann Gutenberg developed the movable-type printing press in the 1400s, one of the first things he printed was a Bible. "Christians have led the way in using new technologies to communicate about Jesus," he said.

The Rev. Scott Anderson at Eagle Brook Church, which has three campuses in the northeast metropolitan area of Minneapolis, said that tailoring the delivery of the message to its intended audience is nothing new. One need look no further than Jesus, who used fishing metaphors when he talked to fishermen and farming metaphors when he talked to farmers.

"We have to reach people through the culture we find ourselves in," he said. "If we want people to hear our message, we have to get them through the doors first."