Feast upon the Word Blog

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Selling Religion?

Posted by nhilton on May 22, 2007

Sitting in the car on the way home from piano lessons my children heard a new radio ad asking, “What is the purpose of life?” The station was 97.1, pop rock.  We turned up the sound to clearly hear the ad.  This was the same ad we had heard during Sunday School in a video presentation educating church members about the recently launched church media blitz being tested in a few select cities, including our Las Vegas.   After the ad, my teenagers said they felt weird hearing it over the radio, like we were trying to sell people something.  Chelsey wanted to know how the church paid for such expensive advertising.  Mariah said it made her feel like we were “advertising just to get them to join our church.”  Chelsey said, “Now we’re just like every other church.”  Why did they feel odd about the whole thing? 

Check out Mormon.org for the site investigators are being directed to via this campaign.  The tag-line is: Truth Restored.  I have a pass-along card in my hand…very contemporary and clean–even black and white, unlike the usual pass-along cards.  “THE TRUTH ABOUT LIFE’S GREAT QUESTIONS IS NOW RESTORED” is printed on one side with a close up of an African American woman in a black hat and turtleneck with pearl earrings and a “knowing” smile.  There are several different cards with faces of different people on them, but each a head-shot and in black and white with gold text.  The other side simply has the name of the church and “TRUTH RESTORED    mormon.org”  on the back.  Provacative?  Definitely.  Curiosity killed the cat.  People WILL check out the website if they get ahold of this card.  This media blitz includes TV, radio, internet and billboards.  I can hardly wait to see a billboard, in our city-of-billboards, sporting the name of the church!

The kids really liked the testimonial of a new convert they saw during the Sunday School presentation, the same one on the mormon.org website.  Why would they like this, but not the radio ad? 

How can you offer religion, even promote it, without selling it?  When we advertise religion alongside cars and cable TV does it demote the product?   Why is the church stepping into this unknown realm of missionary work at this time?  How can we aid in its success?  Are we now just like any other church soliciting converts?  How do we maintain our integrity as we step into a commercialized and competative zone?  

22 Responses to “Selling Religion?”

  1. D. Allen said

    I seem to remember more frequent TV advertising when I was a kid in the 80’s. Usually they were some kind of generic moral message “brought to you by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints… (bunch of kids chime in) The Mormons.” Eventually, the ads started to drop off the face of the earth. Come to think on it, I seem to remember a lot more PSA’s on the air as well. This was about the same time period when every kids’ show had some kind of moral message at the end, such as GI Joe’s “knowing is half the battle” bits. There also used to be spots advertising free Bibles during the grown-up shows.

    The point is advertising by the Church is not a new thing. It didn’t really convince me to call for my free Bible, but twenty-some years later, the messages were in the back of my mind when I came across the best advertising ever: I actually met a Mormon family. After a few more years and meeting other Church members I finally got the idea.

    Where I’m going with this is that I don’t mind the media advertising, but it wasn’t very effective on me. What worked is having members witness to me and lead by example. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to list meeting times and places in the local papers. I didn’t even know there was a chapel in my area until I joined.

  2. BrianJ said

    D Allen: “I don’t mind the media advertising, but it wasn’t very effective on me.” At least not directly effective, because as you also wrote, “twenty-some years later, the messages were in the back of my mind when…I actually met a Mormon family.” One of the main goals of all advertising is brand recognition—creating a familiarity with a name, even if there is no knowledge about the product. That way, once a person comes in contact with the product, it is not some scary “unknown,” but rather an “oh yeah, I’ve heard of this before….”

    That said, I think the pass-along cards are an attempt at more direct advertising. But for those who do not get a pass-along card, and only see the new commercial spots, this gives them a “Mormon face” they can relate to when “{knock, knock} Hi, we’re two missionaries from the Church of….”

  3. Eric J said

    I am in the camp of those who feel queasy about advertising. I hate advertising in general because it is filled with so sneaky and deceptive, especially when advertising products that are harmful. To see the church use the same medium makes me feel very uncomfortable, especially when I consider how my non-member firends might react. But to assure myself, I remember this passage from Alma 18:

    22 Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee.
    23 And the king answered him, and said: Yea, I awill believe all thy words. And thus he was caught with bguile.

    It would seem that if our motives are pure, any approach we can take to encourage people to consider the gospel is OK. And are we not fishermen? Fishermen use lures and bait to attract fish before they catch them.

    Now that I turn it over in my head, I can’t really think of how the church could go wrong in their advertising unless they started to lie and exaggerate like regular advertisers do. Our ads simply attract people to the fact that the gospel of happiness has been restored and your life will improve if you live it. We could say many more truthful and provocative things, but that little bit is enough.

  4. Robert C. said

    I think this is a great move on the Church’s part. We live in the world and this is a major way that the world conveys information (for better or worse…). I have to say that I frequently felt that our finding efforts as missionaries (in an area with very few members to guilt-trip into helping us find investigators…) were rather less effective, or at least a drop in the bucket, compared to (or at least without) more carefully planned media efforts like this.

  5. cherylem said

    I just went to http://www.mrqe.com and there was an advert for mormon.org. Interesting . . .

    It was in the main advertising box, which changes. But going there again, there was an HBO advert in that spot. Still, interesting.

  6. Jim F. said

    When I got there, the first thing I saw was the advertising box and a large quotation: “Answers to Life’s Greatest Questions.” That was followed by the name of the Church and a link to mormon.org

  7. Ray said

    I am an educator by nature and original occupation. I used to view sales negatively (and I still view many common sales techniques and practices negatively), but I learned to embrace sales when I found something in which I believed so strongly that I wanted to help schools implement it. That required learning how to sell it. Now, over ten years later, I still am selling for a living – something different, but something in which I believe just as strongly.

    In my mind, to be more than a bit simplistic, sales and marketing are “bad” when they are employed in a way that is deceptive or blatantly dishonest – and that occurs most often when those selling something view it, deep down, as just another commodity. If differences have to be invented or fabricated, then the ensuing sales and marketing are based on a fraudulent foundation. On the other hand, sales and marketing are “good” when they are based on a sincere attempt to share something of worth with others who do not have it.

    Teaching and convincing and sharing the Gospel all involve “sales” to some degree – even if it only is in the attempt to help someone else see and feel what you see and feel. In that sense, I want the Church to be as good at sales and marketing as it possibly can be – not the manipulative, coercive, dishonest type of sales that are the stereotype, but the type that looks for ways to phrase and frame and explain that will resonate with potential buyers.

    Can non-professional salespeople share the Gospel effectively? Most certainly, but they still are “selling” it in a very real sense. Can professional salespeople botch efforts to share the Gospel by an over-reliance on technique and their own abilities? Most certainly, but they often are able to initiate conversations that would not occur naturally specifically because of their sales training. I believe strongly that the Spirit accomplishes true conversion, but I also have come to realize that the initial presentation can affect the likelihood that someone will pay attention enough to feel the Spirit in an ensuing conversation.

  8. Cheryle, oooh, thanks for that link! That was kinda a weird place to see the Church’s ad: a movie review cite. But, I guess, why not? If people are conscious enough to consider a movie before going to it, perhaps that’s exactly the kind of person who might be thoughtful enough to consider the kind of questions posed on the ad: Is there a reason for me being here? Does God really know me? etc. It feels strange to see these ads in unpredicatable places. It’s almost like having a picture of ME pop up on the internet…very personal. Nanette

  9. cherylem said

    I believe you mentioned that this had all been introduced to you via a SS class. I’m trying to think how church advertising like this impacts our teaching, if at all. For instance, this is a BIG advertising push, and I think TV commercials are going to be appearing shortly. When the church makes this kind of effort, does this in any way impact the way we think about teaching, about providing “answers,” about providing excellence at church, as part of the overall church experience? Does this emphasize even more the need to teach clearly, intelligently? With the Spirit?

  10. cherylem said

    #7 Ray and everyone:
    So, as SS teachers, are we also persuasionists? In what way? What are we persuading? I am thinking of Paul and Agrippa: Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian . . .

  11. Jim F. said

    Are we “persuasonists”: “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Much of what we do is persuade people of and to that hope that is in us.

  12. joespencer said

    And yet I can’t help but think of Paul’s discomfort with persuasion generally (preferring weakness, scandal, paradox, and foolishness). Hmm…

  13. Jim F. said

    Joespence — Another way to put your point: There is a tension between understanding that the wisdom of God is the foolishness of men (1 Corinthians 1:18) and finding a way to persuade non-believers of the hope that is in us. I wonder how we resolve that tension.

  14. mjberkey said

    So help me, is Joe’s point that we should not try to persuade people that the gospel is reasonable. Is he saying that apologetics is a worthless pursuit? Or perhaps that the work of apologetics is not to prove the gospel, but to disprove any assertions that it’s impossible?

    That’s why I’ve never cared to hear about Book of Mormon proofs. However convincing they may be, none of them prove that the Book of Mormon is historically acurate, let alone that it is actually the word of God. I can always come up with pretty decent refutations of such “proofs”. The point is that I don’t have enough confidence in them to share them with my non-member friends, and I certainly don’t want anyone building a foundation of belief on such proofs. Helaman 5:12 right? The only good the Book of Mormon proofs could have is the extent to which they strengthen the framework of my testimony (and of the testimony of others who already have a sure foundation).

  15. Jim F. said

    Is the resolution to the tension to be found in thinking about what it means to persuade someone “of the hope that is in [us]”? Perhaps I have been contruing 1 Peter 3:15 too broadly.

    The hope in us is hope in Christ, which is very different than knowing that the Book of Mormon is true, that we have a prophet, etc.

    As the context and Peter’s use of courtroom language makes clear, I think, to persuade someone of the hope that is in me is to answer their accusations. Faith in Christ brings accusations and it is those accusations that Peter admonishes his audience to respond to, in order to prove that the followers of Christ are not evildoers.

  16. Robert C. said

    Interesting question about this tension—I think it gets back (again!) to Isa 6:9ff where the word of God can either blind people or make them see. Notice Peter raises this tension himself by contrasting 1 Pet 2:12 with 1 Pet 3:15-16, where in the first case the accusers are converted and in the second they are “ashamed” (“put to shame” in most modern translations). But, as we’ve discussed before, I think this being blinded and/or shamed may be importantly related to conversion.

    Coincidentally I was recently reading about the Hebrew word for “covenant” and the phrasing “to cut a covenant” which reminded me of the analogy of God’s word with a sword. I’m not sure if there’s any direct relation, but I’ve been wondering about the way in which words, in the form of a defense (apologia = apo + logos) or a promise/covenant can have a forcing, divisive effect on others. For example, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Abraham, that once God called him to sacrifice Isaac, he didn’t really have a decision to make (in Derrida’s sense of decision) regarding Isaac per se, but his decision amounted to whether he was going to respond to God’s call or not. If Abraham decided to obey God no matter what, then sacrificing Isaac would simply be a consequence of that decision….

  17. Righteous advertising is just laying out information: who, what, when, where, why, how.

    In the early days of the church, in the 1800’s, when the missionaries would go to a town, they’d place an ad in the newspaper announcing that they were there.

    They would also print up hand-bills (flyers) and pass them out, announcing any big meetings.

    We did it on my mission in South America in the early 80’s. We’d have a big to-do or movie at church for investigators, and pass flyers around town to announce it.

    Whether you get the message out one-by-one with 19 year olds knocking on doors, or via mass media, there’s not much difference, technically it’s still advertising.

    Mass media is less expensive, per eye-ball reached, than missionaries spending $400/month each knocking on doors one at a time.

    If there are 54,000 missionaries, spending $400/month each, times 12 months, that’s $259,200,000 per year. That comes from the missionaries themselves and their parents.

    That works out to what? About $1,000 per convert on average, worldwide. That doesn’t count the church’s part of the missionary budget, dozens of MTCs around the world, mission office expenses, travel, mission president homes, flying everyone to/from the mission, missionary medical costs, etc.

    No one is going to join the church just based on a TV or radio or billboard ad. But, it is going to greatly add to the investigator pool. And when spirit-filled missionaries teach and testify to someone who is honest and sincerely seeking God, they will feel of the Spirit.

    Years ago, back in the 80’s, Elder Packer specifically said that righteous sales techniques are legitimate tools to spread the gospel.

    Here’s another prediction. Have you ever heard this before? I believe the church will soon test mass mailings direct to people’s homes.

    The bottom line is that we don’t have enough full-time missionaries and active member-missionaries (who are willing to talk to people) to reach everyone. And the church is likely sitting on a lot of liquid assets (cash reserves) and can afford the advertising.

  18. ack. I messed up the closing /italics after “righteous” in the sentence about Elder Packer. [Fixed now!]

  19. nhilton said

    Cheryle #9, sorry for my delayed response…I’ve been out of town.

    My bishop, in fact, asked that each SS class be opened with an answer to one of the “man on the street” questions that are posed during these ads. I chose to simply include the questions/answers during my lessons instead of divert attention from the lesson. I think each lesson addresses many of the questions being posed in these ads.

    I do think that the questions of the ads brings focus to our teaching. Instead of giving a plot summary, which too many teachers think is their job in GD class, we direct the class to relevant questions many people have–even life-long members. One of the questions is: Does God know me? This question is a real question many people have more than once in their life. The scriptures teach that, yes, He does indeed know us individually. This message is so clear in the Gospels and especially as we approach the Atonement in these coming weeks. It was both a universal and an individual atonement: miraculous but imperative information.

    #14 &15 our job isn’t to persuade, I believe, but to offer an opportunity for the Spirit to persuade. We’re a catalyst to the moment when the Spirit can bear witness of Christ. If it were my job to persuade & I really had this weight on my own shoulders, I’d be doomed! I am simply a vehicle for the Spirit to kick in. I think that’s how these ads are meant to act, as a catalyst to sincere investigation during which the Spirit can persuade.

  20. nhilton said

    As an update to this post for anyone interested:

    Truth Restored- Status Report Email

    After eight weeks, the number of visitors to the mormon.org Web site continues to be significantly higher than pre-campaign levels. The mission breakdowns are as follows:

    Total Visitors % Increase
    Missouri Independence Mission 7,479 visitors 218%
    Nevada Las Vegas & Las Vegas West Missions 19,845 visitors 285%
    New York Utica Mission 4,097 visitors 193%

    Wonderful stories continue to be reported by the test missions. Here are some examples:

    1. A 17-year-old girl used the mormon.org Web site to request that the missionaries visit her and her family and deliver a copy of the Together Forever video. The family had lost their father several years earlier and had some very specific questions concerning death and the purpose of life. The missionaries taught the entire family a first lesson and committed them to attend Church with them, which they did. The family is continuing to be taught (New York Utica Mission).
    2. A lady was invited by a member friend to visit mormon.org. She visited the site and found answers to many of her questions. After viewing the site, she called the mission office and requested missionaries visit her as soon as possible. When contacted by the missionaries, she asked if she could be baptized that day. They explained that a few things needed to happen first. She was subsequently taught, and was baptized on June 15, 2007. She has since given Truth Restored pass-along cards to a number of her friends and is excited about her membership in the Church (Nevada Las Vegas Mission).
    3. During a garden party for friends and neighbors, a member of the Church took the opportunity to give everyone in attendance a Truth Restored pass-along card. Upon receiving the card, the husband of a young couple said, “We are Catholic and believe in Christ just like you do. What difference does it make if we are Catholic or Mormon?” The member asked them to go to mormon.org to see what the difference was, which they agreed to do. A few days later, the husband of the young couple called the member and, in an emotional voice, said, “Oh my goodness, there is a difference, a very real and wonderful difference. I am so glad you shared this with us.” He and his wife are currently being taught by the missionaries (Nevada Las Vegas West Mission).

    Media Campaign Training:
    Since the beginning of the Truth Restored media campaign, over 4,249 visitors have now logged into the online training provided by Elders M. Russell Ballard and Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Elders Quentin L. Cook and Richard G. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Seventy.

    (NOTE: If there are still stake and ward priesthood leaders, or ward and stake council members who have not watched the online training, please encourage them to watch it at: http://www.mormon.org/truthrestored.)

    Member involvement and training continue to be essential to the success of the media campaign. As previously mentioned, numerous things have been, and are continuing to be done at stake and ward levels to help train and encourage members to be more involved in missionary work. The results of some of these activities appear to be:
    · Priesthood leaders and members are more excited to do missionary work.
    · Pass-along card use has significantly increased.
    · Members are speaking to others about the campaign and introducing them to mormon.org.
    · Missionaries are finding it easier to engage people in gospel conversations because of the Truth Restored campaign.
    · Member referrals and baptisms have increased in some mission zones.

    Missionary Proselyting Tip:
    Seek to make your teaching simple, clear, and concise. Avoid using words or phrases that are only understood by Church members. Study the “List of Terms” found in each pamphlet and the “Key Definitions” at the end of each lesson to help teach more clearly (Preach My Gospel, p. 182–183).

    Also be clear, specific, and direct when inviting people to keep commitments. Practice extending invitations with your companion, and during district or zone meetings (Preach My Gospel, p. 197).

  21. This is a recent update on the church media campaign in test cities:

    The total number of visitors to mormon.org during phase one of the Truth Restored media campaign, which concluded on 15 July 2007, was 34,794 visitors. The mission breakdowns are as follows:

    Total Visitors % Increase
    Missouri Independence Mission 8,509 visitors 222%
    Nevada Las Vegas & Las Vegas West Missions 22,188 visitors 283%
    New York Utica Mission 4,097 visitors 195%

    After the first two weeks of phase two, which began on 30 July 2007, the number of visitors to mormon.org continues to be higher than pre-campaign levels. The mission breakdowns are as follows:
    Total Visitors % Increase
    Missouri Independence Mission 1,529 visitors 160%
    Nevada Las Vegas & Las Vegas West Missions 4,124 visitors 220%
    New York Utica Mission 624 visitors 78%

    Media Campaign Training:
    Since the beginning of the Truth Restored media campaign, over 5,028 visitors have logged into the online training provided by Elders M. Russell Ballard and Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with Elders Quentin L. Cook and Richard G. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Seventy.

    Elder M. Russell Ballard has provided a brief introduction as the second phase of the Truth Restored campaign begins. He explains how extremely important it is that members use the Truth Restored campaign and mormon.org Web site to connect with their non-member friends. Samples of the new phase two TV, radio, and print advertisements are also available for viewing and training purposes.

    This new online instruction is about 18 minutes long, and can be accessed at: http://www.mormon.org/truthrestored. Stake and ward priesthood leaders, ward and stake council members, mission presidents, and all full-time missionaries should watch and become familiar with this new information.

    Test missions continue to share wonderful stories. Some examples follow:

    1. A young man named Travis saw a Truth Restored TV ad and went online to mormon.org. Although he had a belief in God, he had no religious affiliation. After watching the testimonies he decided to refer himself. The missionaries met and taught him, and invited him to Church. He now has a baptismal date (Missouri Independence Mission).
    2. A set of missionaries were coming back from Pahrump, Nevada, when they came upon a truck that had broken down. They stopped to help, but a wrecker had already been called. While they waited together for the wrecker to come, they gave the driver of the truck a pass-along card and invited him to go online to mormon.org. When the wrecker arrived they also talked to its driver and gave him a pass-along card too. The driver of the wrecker took the card and later mentioned it to a lady in the office. This lady then went online to mormon.org, felt the spirit, and referred herself. She is now taking the lessons (Nevada Las Vegas West Mission).
    3. Following a dinner appointment, the full-time missionaries role played for a member family how they might share the gospel with their friends. Following the presentation, the members talked about their friend Justin Griffith. The missionaries committed the members to share mormon.org with their friend, which they later did. After being invited to go to mormon.org, Justin later went on the Web site and ordered the Book of Mormon. The same missionaries that had role played with the members how to share the gospel received the referral from the office and contacted Justin the next day. Justin has since come to church with his wife and two little kids. The members have been surprised that their friend has been so interested (Nevada Las Vegas Mission).

    Missionary Proselyting Tip:
    Use the Preach My Gospel pamphlets (The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Plan of Salvation, and The Gospel of Jesus Christ) as you teach to help investigators better understand the doctrine. Be sure to leave these pamphlets behind and follow up on all reading and study assignments at the beginning of each new lesson (see Preach My Gospel, p. 190).

    Also encourage investigators to utilize mormon.org as a means to learn more and get answers to questions between visits.

  22. brianj said

    Thanks for the update!

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