Jesus Christ, Superstar

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What do the Rolling Stones have in common with Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois?

They both rely on live spectacle as their savior.

In an era of dwindling CD sales and illegal downloads, the Stones wisely reinvented themselves as one of the world’s most lucrative concert acts to demand some sympathy for the devil. Meanwhile, in the December 24 Chicago Tribune, Dahleen Glanton cites Willow Creek as a growing number of megachurches relying on dazzling live spectacle to depict the story the birth of Christ.

As the Tribune reports, the Willow Creek “Imagine Christmas” program “features a Cirque du Soleil-style show with professional acrobats, musicians and flying angels” in order to inspire church goers looking for an alternative to the predictable candle-lighting ceremony and a few Bible verses to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

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From “Imagine Christmas” at Willow Creek Community Church

Similarly, the First Baptist Church of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, features a $1.3 million Christmas pagent choreographed by Broadway producers.

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From the First Baptist Church of Ft. Lauderdale annual Christmas pageant

“Imagine Christmas” and similar programs cited by the Tribune exemplify how Christian churches have adopted savvy marketing techniques to sell their message (to the point of becoming models for secular businesses as discussed earlier in Superhype). The Tribune reports that the megachurches are relying on “a new advertising technique known as experiential marketing, which essentially takes the focus off a product, which is not unique, and places it on the experience, which can be one of a kind.”

Big churches have also adopted left-brain market research techniques commonly associated with the secular world, too. As Manya A. Brachear reported in the November 24 Tribune, Willow Creek recently used customer research techniques to understand why some people are leaving the 20,000-strong congregation.

Willow Creek relied on consumer scientist Eric Arnson to segment its churchgoers just like customers and survey them to rate their experience at Willow Creek. His research has helped the church realize that although the church does a good job attracting members, it needs to do a better job giving people a reason to stay as their spritual faith matures.

The findings are painful for church leaders to hear. But like a good customer satisfaction survey, the results offer helpful insight — so valuable that Willow Creek now conducts similar customer satisfaction surveys for other churches around the world (evidently secular businesses don’t have a lock on coopetition).

So why would churches adopt marketing practices made popular in the secular world?

For one thing, they’re just keeping pace with everyone else vying for the attention of an increasingly finicky, multi-tasking consumer. As Susan DeLay of Willow Creek told the Tribune, “In today’s world, the church must compete with movies and even restaurants for audiences. Everyone wants to be entertained.”

Hence, the megachurches employ stadium seating and production values befitting a rock concert to engage the MTV generation.

But, just as importantly, the Christian megachurches have to think like savvy marketers. Depending on who you listen to, Christianity in the United States and globally is either stagnating or on the decline as a percentage of the population. Willow Creek didn’t do a customer satisfaction survey because it has been succeeding — but because it has been losing members.

Commenting on Willow Creek’s use of market research techniques, Rev. Erwin Lutzer of Moody Church was quoted as saying, “The marketing approach might have some benefit, but we must be careful that we simply not consider our members to be customers who we need to satisfy.”

Rev. Lutzer definitely has a point. Faith, whether Islam, Christianity, or any of the world’s other beliefs, is not so much soap to be sold on supermarket shelves.

At the same time, if you consider the life of Jesus, whose birthday inspired “Imagine Christmas” to begin with, you have to admit that he was a masterful marketer.

He knew it wasn’t enough to simply have an inspiring message; he also had to sell his teachings through astounding parables that resonate today. Moreover, Jesus cultivated a small group of disciples that taught the world a lesson or two about effective word of mouth marketing. He also enjoyed a little spectacle, as witnessed by his triumphal entry to Jerusalem at the height of his ministry.

And, of course, Christians believe he set the gold standard for dazzling showmanship by performing stunning miracles like turning water into wine, healing the sick, and even raising the dead.

It’s impossible to say whether Jesus would approve of the extravagant experiential marketing techniques employed by the megachurches. The Gospels tell us that he admired sincerity and conviction of belief.

I think if he perceived the “Imagine Christmas” show to be genuine, he’d be right up onstage playing some incredible lead guitar, though.

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