Marketing, Self-Promotion, and the Christian

Last week I was on a professional website where a marketer highlighted one company’s clever means of drawing readers to click on the articles. The company entices readers by posting a link titled to make visitors think one thing, but when they click and read the article the wordplay becomes clear. Readers might see a news (not humor) article titled, “Man Eats Entire Dictionary!” (I’m making this one up.) After they click the link they discover the story is that a man ate a bowl of alphabet soup. He ate every letter used to spell every word in a dictionary, but he didn’t really “eat” a dictionary. That doesn’t matter. The user clicked and the company’s model for supposedly great marketing once again prevailed.

I don’t usually reply on forums or comment feeds, but that time I did:

The problem with this is that it is dubious. It misleads people, and that deception is what draws them to the page. When they get there, they learn that [they were cleverly tricked.] False pretense is not how I would want to attract people. Marketers can, and should, strive for better than that.

When I was a teenager (I’m still embarrassed by this story), I helped plan and promote a teen abstinence event at church. I came up with the sign/slogan “FREE SEX …or is there a price to pay?” The pastor didn’t like it for obvious reasons, including that it was deceptive. People’s eyes were drawn to the two biggest words as the hook. He advised against us using it, but he let us experiment and promote the event with my catchphrase. And we did. When the day came, except for the same youth group kids who were always there, nobody showed up. It was a flop and served as a lifelong lesson for me. Actually two lessons, at least.

The first lesson was the lesson about marketing. Don’t bait-and-switch. Don’t be clever to be deceptive. Don’t draw people to your event/website/company and then make them feel dumb for falling for whatever snare you set to lure them there. It’s OK to pique interest; that’s marketing, but don’t be deceptive about it.

The second lesson was that pastors have wisdom. The pastor was around 35 and already had been in ministry for about 10 years. He had wisdom, and he was God’s man to lead the church. My credentials were that I was about half his age and thought I knew better. I also failed to take into account that my flyers were not just promoting an event, they were representing a church—a church in the community that he was responsible for. If someone called to complain, he was the one who would have to answer for it, not me. A pastor is not God. But, he is God’s leader of that local fellowship and should be respected. When he is biblically correct, he should be heeded. (I include the “biblically correct” caveat because I’m not talking here about domineering, bullying pastors who are not held accountable to anyone and use their positions wrongly.)

Later, when I was in my early 30s, I was getting into a field that, by its nature, required self-promotion. It was Christian ministry, but it was also a form of self-employment where I wasn’t marketing products, I was the product. To be successful I would need to create and promote a brand around…me. I was uncomfortable with the idea, and then other unrelated dynamics came into play anyway, so I walked away.

Besides the secular marketing approach I read about last week, Thom Rainer had a helpful blog article for those aspiring to write and publish a book. Key #4? Establish a platform. Mr. Rainer explains this, “If you can demonstrate to a commercial publisher that thousands of people are tuned in to your voice through social media and other channels, you have a good chance of getting published.” He’s right. That’s what the secular publishing industry expects, and now Christian publishers do, too. Publishers have a right to a good return on their investment–and as the author, you are that investment. But as Christians, how do we reconcile the requirement to build a platform, to garner Twitter follows or Facebook “Likes” with, say, John the Baptist’s marketing approach, “He must increase, but I must decrease”?

Paul’s approach was much like John’s. He was “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9) and “the least of all the saints” (Eph 3:8). He never made a platform for himself. Rather, he said, “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor 1:12).

Our Lord humbled himself in his time on earth (Phil 2:8) and Paul’s statement that we have the same mind in ourselves (2:5) is not a suggestion; it’s an imperative. Promotion is a precarious thing for us Christians. The temptations to deception or pride are wide ditches on either side of the straight and narrow path we are called to walk. We had better tread lightly.


  1. William Thornton says

    I wouldn’t have objected to your ‘free sex’ promo sign as long as the entire message was on it nor would I use the term ‘deceptive’ to describe it. The message was not deceptive although it may be too edgy for some pastors or some churches.

    I’d guess that the message was a pretty good attempt at getting the attention of those who pass your church, accurately portrayed the issue being taught, and could not possibly have misled anyone except those who cannot read more than two words in a sentence.

    If the pastor was preaching on the subject, the message would make a good sermon title and appropriate for the church sign.

  2. John K says

    We could use Jesus marketing approach.

    John 6:53
    So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
    John 6:54
    Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
    John 6:55
    For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
    John 6:56
    Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

    Not very Americanized, but it is Biblical.

    • says

      To be fair, that passage in John 6 was a response to people following Jesus for the wrong reasons. He intended it to send those away who were only looking for a free lunch.

      Jesus’ primary method of promotion was to send out his disciples early on. Then the people came. So he performed signs and wonders to validate his authority as Messiah and more people showed up for the parlor tricks than for the teaching that led up to his ultimate work of redemption. So he had to send them away.

      • Christiane says

        “To be fair, that passage in John 6 was a response to people following Jesus for the wrong reasons. He intended it to send those away who were only looking for a free lunch.”


        were you kidding when you wrote that?

        • says

          Of course not. It’s in the text. In short, look at verse 26, then look at verse 66. It’s a true teaching, but Jesus used it to cull those who were following him whose motives were untrue.

  3. says

    You have highlighted one of the most strange conundrums of our westernized Christian culture. We want to make a name for ourselves so that we can reach lots of people with the Gospel and so forth while we are simultaneously preaching and teaching a message that says over and over again that the first will be last and the last will be first. Thanks for offering the post and I hope we can have some good discussion on how to strike a good balance.

    • Christiane says

      The paradox is this:
      if you want to express the kind of faith that the WHOLE world notices,
      you may find that it exists in the more quiet places
      among people who seek no worldly attention,
      but whose Christianity is lived so vibrantly
      that it takes our breath away:

      The five slain girls were buried in simple white dresses hand-sewn for them by their mothers. The Amish came in numbers and attended the funeral of the shooter, the murderer of their children, and surrounded and supported his wife, his children, his family.
      From the core of their faith, the Gospel was lived out in witness to their Savior . . . and the whole world noticed.

      That kind of forgiveness that the Amish showed was not ‘rational’ in the way of this world,
      it was an act of obedience of a quiet people of deep faith who were filled with the Grace that comes from beyond this earth and time . . .

  4. says

    When promoting a class I’m teaching at church, I often just ask some of the questions that will be answered in the class. You want to know the answers? Come to the class.


  1. […] Irony Alert – It’s a little strange to say, “Hey, here’s my article about why we must be wary of efforts for self-promotion,” but, uh, well, here it is. In the sum total of my life, all I can say is that I hope I’m not promoting myself, but Christ. You can check it out here. […]