What do you think, Greg? (Part 2)

Last week I posted Part 1 of my interview with Greg Stielstra on his new book, Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide to Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers. Greg was marketing director for Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, the fastest selling hardcover in American history.

Read Part 1 to see what's going on, or jump right into some heated action below.


NBoA: But that first marketing tip sounds like a Power Juicer or ShamWow line at midnight. And the second, well, I appreciate real handwritten letters, but never generic, mass-mailed appeals with a font that looks like handwriting. These land in my round file every time. Same with the business person or clerk who sells like this face to face. I say thanks and leave the store.

Greg: I don’t like high-pressure tactics either, but realizing there is a deadline does encourage people to consider the offer rather than putting off that consideration. It’s certainly not unfamiliar to Christians: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?”

NBoA: I need to push harder in this next question, Greg.

In several places, including one called “Commercializing Christianity?”, you address the concern about marketers exploiting Christians. Yet I finished the book with an odd, if not bad, taste in my mouth.

I appreciate the local business/local church connections, but the “corporate” and “national” thread throughout (E.g. Walmart) conjures up the monster, consumerism. The church is too plagued by consumerism as it is. We need to be a cultural model of simplicity and stewardship, not a new frontier for any and all marketing explorers. You’re right to say that Christians fail at Kingdom values like stewardship as often as everyone else, but we’re still called to do it. Help me, because this seemingly unfiltered access-granting by two influential insiders like you and your co-author, Bob Hutchins, makes me want to re-subtitle your book: Building Corporate Marketing Arsenals to Infiltrate the Church.

Greg: I think you’ve woven several questions/issues into one and I’d like to identify and answer them individually.

First, Local Business/Church Connections = Good; National Corporate/Church Connections = Bad. The appropriateness of business/church relationships depends on the nature of those partnerships and not on their scale. Wal-Mart isn’t bad because it’s global. And Fred’s carwash isn’t good because it’s local. Corporations are legal constructs and, like money, morally neutral. They’re also filled with people that the Bible commands us to love as ourselves.

The same stereotypes and impersonal attitudes that make it easy for Christians to demonize “evil corporations” are what often cause business people to demonize Christians. It’s time that stopped.

Second, Does Faith-Based Marketing Encourage Consumerism? It’s not as if Faith-Based Marketing will suddenly cause Christians to be exposed to advertising; that’s happening already – at an average of 3000 ads per person, per day, regardless of religious beliefs. Rather, Faith-Based Marketing will help ensure that the ads we already experience respect Christians.

In the book we expressly warn business against appeals to greed or encouraging people to covet. If anything, our advice should result in more responsible advertising that better aligns with Christian beliefs.

NBoA: I do hope you’re right about this.

Greg: Third, Unfiltered Access by Insiders allows Corporate Marketing to Infiltrate the Church. The idea that we should restrict access to the church, or that the church has “insiders” and, therefore, “outsiders,” is very troubling to me. Restricting access to the church flies in the face of the Great Commission. Should we send missionaries to the remotest parts of Africa but stop business people at the church door? Are churches bunkers that protect believers from society or a haven of hope for all the people God made and loves? Are churches private country clubs for believers or field hospitals for all people wounded by sin?

Fourth, the overall theme of this question seems to be, “When Business and Christianity Meet, Christianity Loses.” Whether you fear collaborations between businesses and churches, or Christians and those who haven’t yet found Christ, depends, I suppose, on which you believe is superior: the corruptive power of greed or the redemptive power of the gospel?

My God created the universe. He is more powerful than Satan, sin, and death. He has preserved his church throughout history and will continue to do so. And he will save whomever he chooses and nothing, NOTHING, can stop him. Wal-Mart is hardly a threat.

NBoA: This still doesn’t clean my palate, but I appreciate your idealism and shared belief in the redemptive power of the gospel.

One thing I do like about Faith-Based Marketing is the focus on local and personal business/church collaboration. We discussed this earlier and I have a really practical question about it. I attend a large church and our big service day is coming up. Last year, over 1,000 folks volunteered to serve on various projects in the community. What are some practical ways local businesses could serve, and sell, on this project?


  • Equipment rental businesses could donate tools like pressure washers and ladders. Get a list of the various projects and then suggest the array of tools that would make the volunteers more efficient and effective.
  • Local restaurants could feed the volunteers. Give people a free meal on the day of their service and coupons for subsequent trips to the restaurant. “You served the community, now let us serve you.”
  • The local newspaper could cover the event and provide a free paper to participants. Follow up to see if they’d like a subscription.
  • Local lawn care companies could volunteer to work alongside the church volunteers. Offer discounts on lawn care to service day volunteers. Offer to mow one elderly person’s lawn free for every ten church members who become customers.
  • A local photography studio could volunteer to capture the day in photos and create a webpage to display them. They could supply those photos to local media outlets and make them available for church members’ Facebook pages. The exposure would increase participation next year.

You get the idea. The point is that by discovering what the church is trying to accomplish, helping by complimenting or multiplying the church’s efforts, and then positioning their business to benefit (but not requiring it), businesses can do good things for their community, forge relationships with local Christians, and, ultimately, prosper themselves.

NBoA: Very helpful, Greg, and I’m sure you could think of dozens more (Readers, there are many in the book.).

I’m thinking now about ad majors and folks who work in an ad agency. Advertisers often get assigned to projects that take advantage of consumers’ weaknesses and that don’t model Jesus’ love. How might adopting your “Serve, Don’t Sell” approach toward Christians affect the agency where they work?

Greg: I’ve worked in marketing for almost 20 years and have never discussed “taking advantage of consumers’ weaknesses.” I’ve never been in a meeting where that topic was discussed either. Agencies recognize that the consumer is in control and that for advertising to be successful it must understand, acknowledge and respect the consumer’s beliefs.

NBoA: I’m glad you haven’t discussed this, and I imagine the conversation is rarely, if ever, so overtly named in any agency, yet thousands of commercials tell me it’s happening on some level in many places. Here’s a humorous example:

Perhaps this is another topic for another time. Let me restate the question. How would you recommend that a Christian advertiser influence her agency in a “Serve, Don’t Sell” direction?

Greg: I’d remind the agency that the consumer is in control. Consumers select and time-shift programming. They block pop-ups and skip ads with their DVR. They expose false advertising claims in consumer product reviews. If you want their attention you must be relevant. If you want their patronage you must serve them. And, since 77% of Americans consider themselves Christian, agencies had better learn how to serve and be relevant from a Christian’s perspective.

NBoA: Five years – and the book’s success – from now, what indicators will make you and Bob say, “It worked, praise God!”?

Greg: One indicator will be business people, agencies, and media talking about reaching and serving Christians as often, and with as much respect, as they talk about market segments like African Americans, Hispanics, Soccer Moms, or Gays and Lesbians.

Another indicator of success will be Christians encouraging their friends to support businesses sympathetic to Christians rather than boycotting those that did something insensitive. I’d like Christians to be known for their love of the things they support instead of their angry protests against the things they don’t.


Greg, thanks for joining us here. You are gracious and I pray that your work with Bob will encourage healthier relationships between marketers and consumers.

Readers, check out Part 1 of this interview here, and the book at www.faithbasedmarketing.com. Learn more about Greg at www.pyromarketing.com and about Bob at www.buzzplant.com. Finally, let me know what you think. Greg and Bob welcome your feedback, too, so don’t be shy.


Erin April 15, 2009 at 9:51 AM  

After following this fascinating exchange, I was reminded of marketing’s historical shift from a sales orientation (the “I-have-products-that-you-must-buy” focus) to a marketing orientation (the “you-have-needs-that-I-want-to-meet” focus). If corporations have embraced a consumer focus of meeting existing marketplace needs, then we don’t have to be suspicious, even if the companies are specifically serving a Christian audience.

As part of the industry, however, we know that much of marketing communications is in the presentation: persuading the market to believe a particular product and brand is a necessity. It is this part of the proposed Christian–marketplace relationship that I find myself suspicious of (even as I agree with Greg that God is more powerful than a marketing pitch).

But Christians are not immune to persuasion; we are capable of poor choices, sinful choices . . . even more so if the communications coming at us use Christian-culture lingo. We are warned in the Word against blind acceptance of any message or messenger (see Col. 2:8 and 1 John 4:1). With messaging crafted for the Christian market, we would need to take extra precaution.

It would be wonderful if corporations chose more wholesome messages to promote their products. Sadly, those companies are doing just fine without catering to a more conservative market . . . what if the 77 percent of the market that is Christian would put their purchasing power toward companies with complementary ideals? Perhaps that is what Greg is suggesting, that the void in the marketplace is wide and ready for companies willing to meet that need.

Sam Van Eman April 16, 2009 at 4:31 PM  

Great observations, Erin. I hope you AND Greg are right.

I need to be able to trust a marketer to care for me. Many do, but imagine a world where I never had to be suspicious or cautious.

Hiram April 18, 2009 at 5:02 PM  

Sam, thanks so much for posting this. as a Christian, a consumer, and also a producer of goods, these are all issues I'm attempting to understand. I have to say that I tend to distrust anything that has (or seems to have) an ulterior motive. I would prefer that something simply be what it is than that it pretend to be otherwise. As long as pretense is avoided, my choice is simply, in product AA vs AB, 'which meets my needs/wants best'? As a Christian, we have the added question 'does it honor Christ and what He would have me do with the gifts He has given me?' - a question which I answer imperfectly.

I hope that, as the 'green' movement in marketing targets consumers who care about the environment and has actually changed products to some extent, an awareness of Christian values will make producers pay closer attention to the human component involved in production so that we will have more products that value the poor and downtrodden in society. Yet this also adds another layer to the puzzle - meaning we will have to discern more carefully which of these products are real and which have just a 'veneer' of valuing what Christians value. I guess humans haven't changed in 2,000 years.

Sam Van Eman April 19, 2009 at 7:00 PM  

Good word, Hiram, and thanks for tuning in.

Veneer of any kind bothers me. Interestingly, the alternative isn't products that lack flash or attraction or the promise of pleasure. The inherent truth in many products is flashy, attractive and pleasurable. The challenge is finding that truth and conveying that truth without adding veneer...to the green movement or any cause of Christian interest.

My prayer is that Greg (and Bob) convinces companies to do just this.

Bradley J Moore April 23, 2009 at 6:05 PM  

Sam - Great interview! Man, you are one mover and shaker... And I like how you push hard on the interview questions. Great job.

These guys are fascinating - and obviously have been very successful. I guess it's easier to digest when you think of marketing large-scale exciting projects (Narnia, Purpose-Drive) to Christians and cross-over appeal to "nominal" christians. But as you point out, it can get possibly creepy when generic products are "marketed to Christians." I personally don't ever see Christians becoming a market-segment, like Soccer Moms, but what do I know. (I guess the politicians have done that on a regular basis, right?)

GREAT, fascinating stuff.

Sam Van Eman April 24, 2009 at 7:57 PM  

Thanks, Brad. I like Greg and I'm glad he let me push against the content.

You're right about politicians, especially (it seems) in the last few campaigns. Sometimes I have trouble seeing the possibly pure motive behind reaching a specific group because my default setting is to think they (politicians) just want numbers.

I'm sure God will have a long list of times I crossed the line in accusing folks in this way. As much as I want to make assumptions, I really don't know their hearts.

Every Square Inch May 2, 2009 at 6:18 AM  

Sam - a great, tough, honest interview. Marketing is constantly shifting but I think one of the primary shifts has occured over the last 5 years and is ongoing. With the maturity of web 2.0, social media channels, marketing is less "transactional" and more "relational"...it's about a conversation, not just a pitch.

The implication is that "the conversation" IS the brand and it isn't just 1-1, between vendor and prospect, rather it involves community of stakeholders - users, experts, etc...

I wonder if Greg's book speaks to that at all? What does that conversation look like in the context of marketing to Christians?

Sam Van Eman May 2, 2009 at 4:13 PM  

Thanks, ESI. The book is primarily about the conversation between seller and buyer, but it's as much about the conversation as it is about the seller and buyer. In other words, Greg and Bob show their awareness of current marketing trends.

How does it look when marketing to Christians? Sometimes great and sometimes not-so-great. I think the five bullet point examples in Part 2 demonstrate good conversations.

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