How to Think Outside the Box About Advertising

When it comes to advertising a new church plant, we can't afford to get it wrong.

There are different schools of thought out there regarding advertising and the church, each with their merits. I don’t want to get into the debate surrounding advertising and the church, but perhaps what this post will offer by way of insight is something to chew on and a potential third way to move forward with advertising.

Before I launched IKON, a church plant in downtown San Francisco, I knew I didn’t want to go the standard route of advertising through postcards. I didn’t think that it would resonate well in the city, especially from an environmental waste standpoint. However, we had a dedicated budget line for advertising, and it was generally understood that we would use this money for postcards. So if I wanted to bypass this medium, I had to think of a different way to use the dedicated budget.

My friends at REUNION Christian Church in Boston launched a few years before us and found some success in advertising on the T platform (the city’s public transportation line). I was fascinated by this as a medium but wanted to think of it a bit differently — not as an invitation to join us but as a means of communicating truths to the masses. This is how our first MUNI (San Francisco’s public transportation line) ad came to be.

We paid an artist from Seattle for the rights to use his artwork in our advertising scheme. He had developed a series of wood etchings called “The Fruits of the Spirit” that were “ironic” in nature. We chose two for our MUNI advertisements: “Love” and “Peace.” 

We paid for a six-week run in three different MUNI stations; however these signs stayed up for more than six months. When inquiring about the longevity of the advertisements, we were told by the ad company that there was a California state assemblyman who really liked the powerful statements that were being communicated. He asked if they could remain up as long as possible. As a result, the ad company took a bit longer than usual to sell our spots.

I received a great deal of encouragement and support from people throughout the city for these ads, many of whom were not Christians and didn’t really have or want a connection to the church. The message resonated well, and opportunities for beautiful conversations surrounding Gospel truth began opening up.

We also printed 1,000 postcards of these images and set them in coffee shops around the city, like many other businesses do. They stood out like a sore thumb — but in a good way. It wasn’t outside the norm to see these postcards on people’s desks around the city (most of whom had no connection to IKON) or attached to mirrors in people’s homes (again no connection to IKON and no clue that I was responsible for these postcards when I was invited into their home for coffee or dinner).

Our second MUNI campaign was also very well received by non-Christians within the city; however Christians were very critical and disparaging. Again, the idea was to communicate truth and create opportunities for conversation. As a community, we were walking through the Gospel of Luke and specifically hitting on a section of the Gospel where the love of Jesus was becoming explicitly clear. We decided to borrow from a book title for our sermon series and naturally thought the truth that was being communicated was too good to pass up, so we turned it into a MUNI ad. The truth? Love Wins.

Christians inside and outside of the city immediately accused us of promoting Rob Bell’s controversial book by the same title and claims that our church was a cult increased in the Christian community (always a fun battle to walk through). I responded time and again to harsh emails, nasty phone messages on the church voicemail line, and disparaging comments from Christians.

However, non-Christians resonated with the message and appreciated a church that was promoting love. (This always struck me as odd that we were appreciated by non-Christians as promoting love. Isn’t that what the church is supposed to be doing all the time?).

Our third campaign was in its final stages of design and testing before IKON closed. Unfortunately the campaign never saw the light of day. Of the three MUNI ads we did, It was my favorite. This one, however, was a bit more bold than the others and actually received some great feedback from non-Christians, especially when asked what they would do if they saw this on a MUNI platform while standing with a friend or co-worker.

The general response from non-Christians? “I’d talk about it … not about whether it was right or wrong to have the name of Jesus out there, but I’d talk about what the name of Jesus meant.”

I want to advocate that you shouldn’t use advertising to get people to come to your church service. If that is your goal, I would argue that you’re not only caught up in but perpetuating a cycle of consumerism, creating and catering to consumer Christians. Most non-Christians won’t see your ad and think, “Yeah, I want to go to there.”

I do want to advocate a different type of advertisement for the church. In fact, this is what I learned about advertising. When you advertise the truth about the Gospel in creative and bold ways, when you initiate conversation through a MUNI ad, when people are ready to have those types of conversations in a spiritual group, you’ll be the first place they turn.

Advertising shouldn’t be a short-term strategy for experiencing numerical growth. Instead, take the long-term approach and let people know that when they want to have honest conversations about truth and Jesus, they know that you’re the church community to jump in with.