“Sexy” Missions and Marketing, Part 3

<Continuation of thoughts on what makes some missions more “sexy” than others… not a recommendation to do things this way. Just noting this reality. Machiavelli, in The Prince, gave concepts of the way politics IS, but NOT necessarily the way it SHOULD BE. I will give some conclusions as to what I think Missions should be in the final part of this series.>

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone i...
Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone in Ujiji, 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


5.  Sympathetic. Groups that seek to protect endangered species know this. They need a sympathetic species. Giant Pandas or Manatees work well. They have a “cuteness” about them, even if not actual beauty. They are docile and are endangered due to the inconsiderate behavior of humans. California condors are majestic but they are unpleasant to look at close up. They also eat carrion (necessary but unpleasant role). Black-footed ferrets may be cute but they eat prairie dogs who are even higher up on the “cuteness’ factor. In missions, AIDS babies are more sympathetic than adult AIDS victims. Those exploited are more sympathetic than those who “do it to themselves.”

People who move to other countries (not our own) without proper papers (“economic refugees” or “poltical refugees”) are more sympathetic than similar people entering our own country (“illegal aliens”). I have even seen comments from others that appear to suggest that the very idea of ministering to illegal aliens is flawed because you are helping people breaking the law. Those who are victims of human trafficking are more sympathetic if they were abducted against their will or completely fooled. They are less sympathetic if there was SOME level of consent (whether more or less informed in that consent). Disasters that appear to be purely natural (such as earthquake or tsunami) provide more sympathetic victims than those who (ignorantly) do it to themselves (like victims of landslides due to illegal or uncontrolled logging).

6.  Quantifiable. Yes, numbers are not sexy (I spent many years as a mechanical design engineer… trust me, numbers are not sexy). But donors still like to bet on a winner. It is easy (and lazy) to determine the winners by numbers. I was involved in medical missions for several years. It was pretty easy to explain it. In 5 years, we treated 30,000 patients, led over 10,000 in the prayer to receive Christ. Easy to explain. Now we have a pastoral care center. I can list how many were trained. However, can’t really give numbers on those helped by pastoral care, stress defusing, and spiritual counseling. Additionally, much of the success stories are confidential.

An evangelist can list how many people they preached to, and how many “walked the aisle.” Disciplers are often far more effective… but they are hard to quantify. Big churches sound impressive (members, attendance, offering, square meters, etc.) but it is hard to say whether it has more or less impact than a smaller body of committed believers.

Numbers can be useful, and a good metric can aid in issues of accountability. However, it is risky when numbers become a lure… bait. Numbers can be wonderfully informative, but also wonderfully manipulative.

7.  Faddish.  In the late 1800s, the lectures and writings of David Livingstone, and the articles of Henry Stanley, made mission work in “The Dark Continent” an exciting venture. Wouldn’t it be exciting to travel into the jungle, find a little village, stand under a large tree and preach to the locals. There was little interest in places like South or Central America at that time. In more recent times, other things have caught on. Right now, human trafficking is a big deal. Church planting movements have their unique appeal. Living in the Philippines, I can tell you that SOME disasters become faddish. It seems to have to hit a critical mass of images, coverages, and support by media celebrities.

8.  Viral. Being viral includes many of the above factors, but it is still worth a separate status. That is because viral is where advertisement  ultimately gets carried out by the viewers. Humor often helps to make multimedia viral. However, in missions, shock or exaggeration is often utilized. So it helps to show people more desperate, living conditions more deplorable, and damage the most extensive. Most of mission life, just as in real life, is not viral. The abnormal is viral, so one must show abnormal aspects of missions to be viral.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t like missions and fund-raising for missions that utilizes tactics that false advertise or use techniques that abuse and trick the potential supporters. I wish there was greater discernment in both missions and missions support.

On the other hand, what I have described above… this is reality. One can have an opinion about it… but it may not change anything. As I noted before, Nicoli Machiavelli wrote about how politics works… that is the reality… not necessarily how things should work.

As a friend of mine wrote recently,

The current trend within western missions, is marketing strategy. Each year mission agencies spent thousands of $ … just on promotional materials, presentation materials, DVD’s etc… to try to attract potential supporters and retain existing ones. Today’s missionary has also succumbed to such stategies as well to seek supporters for their mission work. In a sense the church, mission agency and the missionary (not all) have adapted secular methodologies to attract partners hoping that it will result in support for the work. While some would argue that mission methods have to change and adapt to applicate ways of operating in today’s world. Ideally when a missionary is to be sent forth, they should not just be sent with the blessing and prayer of the sending church, but also should be adequately provided for in such a way that the missionary can be as best prepared for the task ahead. To place the burden and responsibility upon the missionary to raise their own support in my view something outdated and uncalled for. It often creates completion among fellow-missionaries seeking support from the same church networks, which can create tension and uneasyness. Additionally it can place the missionary in a very uncomfortable situation whereby they are not good salesman, and can become frustrated that while they have a strong call on their life, and are effective in what they are called to do, but often can’t raise the support they need because they are not good at selling themselves. Personally I don’t feel that it is a biblical practice for someone in the church to have to sell themselves and asking for people to support them, just so that they can be sent out by the church whom have encouraged them to go. Support should be a natural part of sending out a missionary and that the church should also be a part of the solution in finding and raising support for the missionary.

I think there is a lot of truth here. But marketing strategies are with us. Some do them well and some do them poorly. Not sure there is a way to tip the scales and remake the system. Perhaps the best we can do is show proper wisdom and discernment when it comes to missions. When one does use marketing… at least ensure it is honest (even if it is a bit manipulative). Who knows… maybe doing things the right way will catch on…


“Sexy” Missions and Marketing, Part 2

<Continuation of thoughts on what makes some missions more “sexy” than others… not a recommendation to do things this way. Just noting this reality. Machiavelli, in The Prince, gave concepts of the way politics IS, but NOT necessarily the way it SHOULD BE. I will give some conclusions as to what I think Missions should be in the final part of this series.>

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. Visceral. We tend to make decisions based on what “hits us in the gut or heart” more than what we come up with through reasoned analysis. We connect with loneliness, hope, pain, and love. They hit us on a level that leads to action. Images of a small child walking the streets of a disaster zone crying in search of her parents (who will never be found) is more poignant (hits us harder) than a picture showing a collection of dead bodies from the disaster. As Joseph Stalin said (in Russion presumably)… “one death is a tragedy,” (a painful visceral experience) “one million is a statistic” (a tragic but abstract concept).

I remember as a child watching TV and they would have commercials from “Christian Children’s Fund” Sally Struthers would be walking through a desperately poor community with children sick, starving, and dying. It seemed like a powerful (sensual) pull for the viewer. But seeing so much suffering led people to move people away from a visceral reaction. They place is too poor. There are too many there. It has been like this too long, and probably will never change. There is too little I can do. In more recent years, the strategy changed. They would still go to a poor location, but would show one child. That one child looked nice, appeared to be relatively well fed (but not fat). Had a nice smile…. wearing very adequate, if simple, clothes, and holding a school book. The narrator would point out that Juan, or Isabel, or whoever (name given to ensure personalization) has a good home, good food, good water, good healthcare, and an education because someone sponsored him (or her). You could do the same thing. This hits home far more viscerally. I am so glad that that child has hope… and through me another child could have hope.

Another commercial was shown in the Philippines I felt was extremely effective on a visceral level. The commercial was set apparently in a squatters’ area of Manila. Very out of place in this community was a large middle-aged white man (I can’t say why, but to me he looked Dutch). As he is walking about he comes across an elementary age Filipino boy. He takes the child by the hand and starts walking through the narrow passageways that make up this community. Most watching this would have a painful pit in their stomaches. Child prostitution and human trafficking are a huge problem here. Pedophiles from Western countries flock to Southeast Asia because of poor enforcement of laws protecting the citizenry. <As a white middle-age (and moderately overweight) Westerner living in the Philippines, I find it especially offensive that I look like the stereotypical sex tourist here.> Finally, they come to a non-descript door in a dank alley. A feeling of hopelessness sweeps over of the viewer that the last moment for rescue is about to pass. The door opens and one finds a brightly lit classroom full of children. One discovers that it is a school for street children. The fear, hopelessness, and relief that one goes through makes the commercial that much more effective.

4. Meets emotional needs. I said in the last post that I have never read a book on Marketing, but I have seen bits of “Empathic Marketing” by Mark Ingwer. It points out how much of customer response is based hidden emotional needs. He listed 6: Control, Self-expression, Growth, Recognition, Belonging, and Care. There can be others, of course. The Personality Research Form (series E), developed from Murray’s Needs, has 20 (if one does not count Infrequency and desirability). But consider Inger’s list. Sponsors for mission work often want recognition. People like to get a brass plate on buildings and things.

People often want a sense of control and belonging. I recall an elderly relative who was a widow with no children. She found joy in getting political party letters and religious group bulletins. They would give her the (sadly very false) sense that she was part of the think tank… a team player. She felt like she was part of something very much larger than herself. It met her need for control and a sense of belonging. Sadly, reality was that it was  manipulation by political and religious marketers.

Striking the chords of one’s emotional needs (even needs one is only vaguely aware of) makes missions attractive, alluring, desirable… sexy.

<More will be in Part 3>

“Sexy” Missions and Marketing. Part I

English: A business ideally is continually see...
English: A business ideally is continually seeking feedback from customers: are the products helpful? are their needs being met? Constructive criticism helps marketers adjust offerings to meet customer needs. Source of diagram: here (see public domain declaration at top). Questions: write me at my Wikipedia talk page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This post is inspired by a few incidents in the last few months where the issue of “sexiness” of certain mission work came up. Sexiness here doesn’t (normally at least) have anything to do with sex. Rather, the slang marketing usage is here referenced. It has to do with the attractiveness or desirability of the work to those disconnected from the importance or effectiveness of the work. This got me thinking.<Warning:  Do NOT assume that I am making recommendations here. In the final part, I will give my opinions on the issue. The rest is simply describing things as I feel they presently exist.>


I don’t really know anything about marketing. (This alone may be enough of a reason not to read this post.) I never took a class in it and have never read a book on it. I got some modest training in TQM (Total Quality Management) in my engineering days, where I learned that


  1. Every person you provide a service for is your “customer” and
  2. One should never seek to satisfy customer expectations. Rather, one should always seek to “delight” the customer.


Delighting isn’t simply about doing more, it is also about setting the expectations lower. Promise less, do more. If a cereal box says it has an awesome toy inside, it is likely that that toy will be judged critically to see whether it meets the expectation of “awesomeness.” On the other hand, if the cereal box was purchased with no expectation of a toy inside, and one is found, it will tend to delight even if the toy falls well short of the standard of awesome. Or, take for example if I was asked by my boss to design a cooling system for an electronic cabinet, he would ask me how long it would take. I would think to myself that I could probably do it in about 4 weeks. I would tell him that I could design it in 6 weeks, and then finish the work in 5 weeks. The result is that everyone is happy (delighted… hopefully). I am not stressed and my customer got more than he expected. Marketing involves luring in new potential customers, and then retaining old customers. Marketing is often more focused on new customers acquisition than old customer retention (anyone who has dealt with phone companies and banks in the the US has felt the rapid transition from being courted to being forgotten).


So what does all of this have to do missions? Missionaries have customers and potential customers as well (by the definition above). Missionaries serve God, but I will, for this post, ignore this “customer” relationship. Missionaries also serve mission agencies. They serve supporters. They serve the people they work with.

For this post, let’s focus on the relationship with present supporters and potential future supporters. In the case of potential future supporters, the focus is on enticing new “business.” For present supporters, it is retention and expansion.

So what is “Sexy Missions?”  I would, first of all, not bring into the equation the core of missions. Core issues have to do with the purpose of missions, and the effectivity of missions. One can have effective missions that is sexy or not. One can have ineffective missions that is sexy or not. I would also not include related issues such as content, theology, or efficiency. Again, I am using the slang understanding of sexy to involve alluring, attractive, or desirable from a marketing standpoint.

Anyway, here are a few characteristics that come to mind. Remember, I am not a marketer… this is just based on my observation. Note, the following items are FAR from independent from each other. There is a lot of overlap, but the ideas have value thought independently.

1. Concrete. People seem to find that which is concrete (or of substance) more sexy than that which is abstract (lacking substance). People are more attracted to church buildings being built or schools set up. They are typically less attracted to development of curricula, or discipleship programs. I think part of it is easier to picture in one’s mind. One can picture a building more easily than a program or a social grouping. This is one reason, I suppose that when one is asked to picture a church, one pictures a building, even though we understand that a church is first of all a social grouping, and many churches exist without a building (but no Biblical church exists without people). Talk about a radio station and transmitter in a mountaintop in a distant land and it tends to excite more interest than the programming of that same station.

2. Sensual. This is related to the first to some extent. I am using the term “sensual” because it has a double meaning. In one sense, sensual means to be something that can be sensed. We appreciate things we can actually, not just potentially, sense. We like things we can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. I have a friend who is a missionary whose website has no pictures. Just black letters on a white screen. The ministry he is involved in has opportunity for great pictures and sounds (working with orphans and children from broken homes). He, chose not utilize pictures and sounds because he did not want to exploit the children. I respect that, but it is not surprising that his website gets few hits. I have known of missionaries getting a group of people to raise their hands in response to some question (such as “Who likes ice cream?”) and then uses the picture as showing people responding to the gospel. This is of course highly immoral. But the reason they do this despicable thing is that people can’t see changed hearts, but they can see raised hands.

A second meaning for sensual is alluring (particularly visually). Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but people learn quickly that some images have an aesthetic that attracts curiosity and interest, while others don’t. Ugliness may be shown at times, but often as a “before” picture to be followed by a more alluring “after” picture.

<Will continue with part 2>