Poor attendance year on year, dwindling numbers, vacant pews, cobwebs on the hymn books and a collection plate as empty as the Chancellors budget. That’s the current state of affairs facing churches in the UK. A Church of England statement said “falls in marriages and funerals could be to blame for the decline in church attendance”. It’s a dilemma that has left priests, bishops and the Vatican scratching their heads and desperately trying to find ways to get people back into church. Just to massage the statistics a ‘regular’ church goer is now measured as someone who attends church at least once a month.
Now let’s take a look at the brisk business being done over the pond. It’s by far the biggest but there are 1,500 others like the Houston based Lakewood Church that preaches to a mind boggling number of people each week. The charismatic, charming and well presented Pastor Osteen preaches to his congregation knowing that the deafening sound of the cash tills will calm his nerves as he eagerly mounts the purpose built $90 million, 16,000 seat stadium podium to preach to his weekly congregation that totals 43,000 followers. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A further 7 million watch the Pastor reach out to the ‘unsaved’ on national cable and a variety of network channels across the globe. Osteen happily pays the networks $15 million a year to build his brand. Then there is the 4 million copies of his book, ‘Your Best Life Now’ that help fuel the vast amounts of money needed to keep the church ticking over.
When you are bringing in more than $55 million in contributions per year then it makes sense to reinvest and these Pastors have the marketing down to a tee. Weekly Sunday school Disney style facilities for 5,000 children, free financial and divorce counseling, low cost bulk food, multiple church cafes Starbucks style and free shuttle service from the dedicated parking lot and a plethora of religious and self-help products available in the lavishly stocked shops.
I was in the US attending a marketing conference some time ago at a five star Marriott Hotel. These hotels have several big conference rooms on each floor and they run like clockwork. During my stay there was a ‘Pastors Conference’. This was an international event because I noticed the different habits and religious robes from various countries. In one of the bars during a break one day i found a large congregation of Vicars taking a break. Football sized balloons of cognac in one hand and foot long cigars in the other. I learnt a lot during those 5 days.
The Lakewood church is not alone; it is one of the thousands of ‘mega churches’ in the USA. Pasteur Hybel of Willow Creek, near Texas reeled in $17 million last year promoting marketing and management advice programmes designed for churches. There is also Prestonwood Baptist Church, not a million miles from Willow creek who had a sellout of their 700,000 tickets for last years Christmas festival (the cheapest ticket was $20). More than 16,000 people take part in Prestonwood’s sports program each year on the $100 million, six gym, eight playing field, 140-acre campus. All designed to nurture the younger congregation.
These Pasteur’s are smart entrepreneurs and marketers and don’t hesitate to hire the best in the business. Many top management consultants and Harvard’s best are being cherry picked in order to sustain the megachurch dream.
Such is the marketing power and reach of these megachurches that in 2005 Disney chose to promote their film The Chronicles of Narnia by offering pastors cash incentives and trips abroad if they mentioned the movie in their sermons.
When it comes to salaries and benefits then these pastors are truly blessed. Atlanta-area pastor Creflo Dollar owns two Rolls Royce’s, multimillion-dollar homes and travels in a church-owned Learjet. Pastor Osteen’s main residence is reportedly worth over $10 million.
Naturally all that money making leaves little time to prepare for the weekly sermon. Don’t worry; SermonCentral.com, which is the world’s largest sermon preparation site, has the answer with a multimedia sermon kit that includes videos, power point slides and a 52 week sermon program, all out of the box. A marketing kit in a box, how about that.