“The church has an image problem,” somebody said in the board room at the national offices. “We need an ad campaign to change the public’s perception.”

So, they committed millions of dollars for beautifully executed ads on national television and in print.

Local congregations often get the polish-our-image bug too. They join back-to-church marketing campaigns and create their own colorful advertising.

All of this activity and expense is a response to the foreboding clouds descending on today’s church. Sinking attendance and membership. Waning influence on the culture. A realization that the vast majority of visitors and new members are merely unhappy refugees from the church across town.

“Obviously, we have an image problem,” they say. The solution? “We need to adjust the public’s perception of us. People aren’t coming because they don’t know what they’re missing.”

So the faithful’s tithes and offerings get rerouted to TV commercials, billboards and yard signs.

Sometimes the ads tempt some unchurched and dechurched people to visit. But the ad campaigns’ dreamy images don’t resemble what the people actually find at First Church on the corner. So they don’t return.

A few years ago a Canadian church body created a highly visible, very well done, web-based campaign. It gathered a wide audience through its lively and playful treatment of tough questions that people face. The website invited open conversation, questions, doubts and dialog. The creators hoped the interaction would send people to their local churches to continue the conversation. But since the local church experience was the same old routine from the past, the fill-the-pews strategy failed.

Advertising one image and delivering another is a perilous marketing plan. Some years ago the leaders of an American supermarket chain mounted a campaign touting their stores’ customer focus. They invested in the advertising but they failed to do the hard work of actually creating a customer focus in their stores. The public laughed the ad campaign off the air.

The lesson: Work on the product first. Earn a new reputation before touting it.

Rather than trying to polish the exterior veneer, church leaders would benefit from working on what’s inside. A few examples:

  • Be genuinely welcoming. Eliminate the judgmental tone that the public unfortunately identifies with Christians.
  • Devote prime time for real dialog and real questions.
  • Activate the laity. Inspire the priesthood of all believers.
  • Create immersive experiences that encourage each person to sense the presence of God.
  • Focus crisply on “the one thing”—a growing relationship with Jesus.

The unchurched and the dechurched need more than glossy ads. They need the love and acceptance of the healthy body of Christ.