To show his love for Jesus, Billy Best wore a bunny costume to this year's Gasparilla Distance Classic. Outside the Tampa Convention Center, he waited with more than 100 people running to promote Relevant Church, a nondenominational sanctuary in Ybor City. Tattooed hipsters, moms, dads and kids all donned fuzzy ears and T-shirts advertising the church's website, EasterIsNear.com. Minutes before the 5K race, the group formed a flash mob and danced in unison to Flo Rida's Good Feeling. Heads turned. Children pointed. "I volunteered to do this because it's just really good publicity,'' Best said from inside his costume head. And publicity seems to work well for Relevant Church.
Though some consider blurring consumer culture and Jesus risky business, Relevant leaders make no apologies for thinking big. In 2008, lead pastor Paul Wirth made national headlines with a sermon series, "The 30 Day Sex Challenge," encouraging couples to engage in physical intimacy every day for a month. The resulting attention, which included mentions on The View and The Today Show, helped increase Relevant membership by 20 percent, Wirth said.
With it latest venture, the church aims to attract 5,400 people to its Easter extravaganza at Curtis Hixon Waterfront park. To do so, leaders designed easterisnear.com and started a Facebook page. They made T-shirts and flyers, purchased billboard space and arranged seemingly spontaneous appearances.
"Marketing has been a part of religious culture since the very beginning," Wirth said. "Jesus actively modeled marketing for people in the Gospels. Of course, it's a lot easier to market something when you can work a miracle."
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According to the Center for Church Communication in Los Angeles, about half of churches use marketing techniques mirroring major corporations. Emerging and existing churches advertise services and special events, whether it be through technology, mass mailings or passing out water bottles.
Though some pastors remain opposed to following a business model, many see it as a means to an end.
"Today, a church's impact can really depend on how willing they are to engage the culture," said Tim Schraeder, co-director of the CCC, the nonprofit behind ChurchMarketingSucks.com, a public relations site serving ministries nationwide.
"I wouldn't ask where the line is," Schraeder added. "I'd ask at what lengths are you willing to go to share the message."
On the site, bloggers offers tips on everything from graphics to email writing. Pastors can submit questions and get immediate professional feedback.
"God's really given the modern-day church a lot of great resources," Schraeder said.
Gary Gilley, pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Ill., and author of This Little Church Went to Market, isn't so sure. He worries flashy advertising gets in the way of Christ. He concludes that potential Christians need to learn scripture, not feel entertained.
"A church's strategy should be about pleasing God rather than pleasing people," Gilley said. "McDonald's is successful because the company provides what consumers want but when a church functions on that basis, it's going to change the church . . . It's a real shame if we start marketing God like we market french fries."
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At Relevant Church, leaders see marketing as proselytizing, recruiting people to their faith. Like playing rock music and wearing jeans on Sunday, it is all part of reaching the public.
Ultimately, they say, the Gospel gets heard.
"The message is still the same, the method is just different," said administrative pastor James Adair. "Jesus is still Jesus and he is still the way."
In 2007, Relevant started with six people meeting in a living room. Today the church's membership has swelled to more than 500 members. The leaders point out that many first dedicated their lives to Christ at their church.
Members participate in Scripture studies and service projects such as repairing homes in impoverished neighborhoods. They tutor at-risk youth and go on mission trips. They tell friends about their church.
"It's all about creating a buzz around a need people don't even know they have yet," Paul Wirth said.
Recently, Wirth surprised his congregation with a bus ride to Curtis Hixon. There, church members wrote the names of people they would invite to Easter on loose pieces of tree bark. Come April 8, Relevant will transform the park with food trucks, live bands and a massive egg hunt. Visitors can also search the bark for their names.
"Its crazy to not to tap into our own community," Wirth said.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.