Once upon a time, families would rise early on Sunday mornings all across the country to gather together for Sunday School and 11 o’clock service at their neighborhood churches. They would pile into old wooden sanctuaries with no more than 20 pews, a choir stand and a pulpit, ready to hear the message. New members of the community simply asked a neighbor where the local church was, and they would go.
But in the words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “The only thing that is constant is change.” And so with time came changes to the age-old church model.
Today church audiences range from the traditional 200 people to thousands at the routine morning service. The price of the physical buildings includes million-dollar structures.
It is with these changes that churches are experiencing a sudden need to pull on their capitalistic American roots and strive for differentiation. Whether the message is that it is a small church with a hometown feel or a megachurch with tons of resources, it is the church’s responsibility to ensure that its message is propagated.
Employing public relations strategies and tactics, the leaders on this new frontier are protestant ministers of what have become known as the “megachurch.” Megachurches are defined as any non-Catholic church that has more than 2,000 members.
The largest of these religious giants is Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Pastor Joel Osteen’s vision is a testament to a successful integration of the two systems.
According to an article in the February 2006 issue of Forbes magazine, Osteen dropped out of college in 1981 to set up the television ministry of his father, Joe Osteen. In 1999, Joel Osteen became pastor after the death of his father. He expanded and constantly reinvented the media plan as well as the budget, which is currently $12 million for television airtime alone. Osteen’s message can be seen in 92 percent of the nation’s households.
Churches of this caliber have logos, newsletters and community initiatives that are regularly featured in local newspapers. Fellowship of Faith Church in Huntsville, Ala., is a great example of a small church with dreams of reaching megachurch status through the power of media.
Communications Director Dexter Strong said, “The message of our church, which traditionally needed no real advertising, is now being drowned out by a host of other competing messages. Last year our church decided that if indeed our brand of the gospel message is to be heard and if our church is to continue to grow, we must dedicate much more time, energy and funds toward packaging our church and church message in new, more versatile ways.”
In the past year, Fellowship of Faith has employed traditional and modern methods of communication outreach, from weekly appearances in the Huntsville Times as well as television and radio ads, to active accounts on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
As a result of this effort Strong said, “We have the highest rated church broadcast in the area and we are currently in the process of creating a mobile app.” Fellowship of Faith is now averaging about 1,000 members at its routine Sunday service, seemingly on its way to realizing its dream.
While an internal public relations team is more commonly found among churches, there are agencies that focus exclusively on churches and religious organizations. LightQuest Media is an agency based in Tulsa, Okla., that works exclusively with religious organizations. The organization represents clients like Joyce Myer Ministries and Elevate Life Church in Frisco, Texas.
Joyce Myers Ministries is a nonprofit, Christian-based organization that addresses issues such as human trafficking, prison outreach and inner-city poverty through its 14 international offices. The organization’s website sees 1.9 million visits monthly, which averaged to 22 million in 2011. Joyce Myers has a combined fan base of 2.6 million across 12 fan pages on Facebook and Twitter. The broadcast show “Enjoying Everyday Life” is heard in 61 different languages around the world.
Elevate Life Church completed its rebranding in 2009, shortly following the ground breaking for its hundred-foot-tall structure that would come to be known as the “Cathedral of Frisco,” as termed by the Dallas Morning News. The facility cost more than $23 million and comfortably serves the church’s 7,000 members each week.
As a part of the rebranding efforts, the church changed its name as well as its slogan and began using LightQuest Media. It is no doubt that the ELC’s multimedia approach to engagement has helped the organization. The church is currently active on Facebook (4,515 likes), Twitter (1,475 followers), YouTube (27,000 video views) and Pinterest (21 followers).
When most students enter public relations programs, they have no idea that the field is so broad and diverse. But to be frank, the possibilities are endless, considering that any type of business can benefit from a strong public relations program.
Celsey Ross, marketing and promotions coordinator for LightQuest, said, “The benefit of working in Christian media is that you get to be part of a big-picture mission to bring the gospel to people around the globe.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Strong who said, “I would only encourage those who truly have a heart for people and who truly believe in the message to take a position similar to my own. In order to be even remotely successful you really have to be passionate, patient and adaptable.”
For those who are trying to figure out where they fit into the PR industry, they now have a new frontier to consider.