Ted Bergh has a strong business background. He’s also big on religion. So perhaps it’s only natural that Bergh, a 2001 graduate with a master’s degree in theology, would take more than a passing interest in the marketing-based success of mega-churches—the large, mostly non-denominational churches whose popularity has spread across the country.
But Bergh took his interests one step further. He proposed a class at the University—one he would teach as an adjunct professor—focused on the marketing behind these churches, which are described as non-Catholic churches with more than 2,000 members. Last spring, the class became a reality, cross-listed as Theology 308 and Marketing 308: Marketing/Evangelizing Churches.
“The mega-churches are phenomenally successful,” Bergh says. “And we are trying to see if that could transfer to Catholic parishes. There was a bishop’s letter called ‘Go and Make Disciples’ that says every Catholic should be comfortable in inviting others to join the church, that Catholics should spend a lot more time getting comfortable in their own faith and that Catholics should then try to change the world through different programs and ministries throughout the world. All of those three things are done by the mega-churches very well.”
In Cincinnati, doing these things well means the area’s three mega-churches—Solid Rock Church near Lebanon, Crossroads Community Church in Madisonville and the Vineyard in Mason—all rank among the 10 largest churches for membership. That’s a major shift: A decade ago, the top 10 were all Catholic.
But it’s the way these churches have grown that really tells the tale. “Crossroads started with 50 members in 1996 and now they have 5,000 or 6,000,” Bergh says. “Whereas Good Shepherd parish, one of Cincinnati’s largest Catholic churches, had 10,000 members 15 years ago and now has 12,000.”
Much of the secret lies in superior, intentional marketing. For example, Crossroads boasts between four and eight staff members who gained branding experiences with Procter & Gamble.
The mega-church movement began in Chicago in the 1970s with Willow Creek Church. As its congregation grew, the church packaged its approach and began offering seminars to teach others how to start their own churches.
“The idea is, people come to church, they enjoy it, it’s non-threatening, nice music, preaches sort of self-help, relevant topics, how you apply the Gospels to help you in your everyday life,” Bergh says. “At Willow Creek, they have recruitment classes on how to witness and recruit people. All members are expected to know how to do that.”
On the public relations front, limited doctrine allows mega-churches to dodge the kinds of controversies that often plague other churches, he says. Such issues, from gay pastors to pedophilia, often drive a wedge between institutional churches and their congregations.
Bergh’s group of 22 students compared the three mega-churches with Cincinnati’s two largest Catholic parishes—Good Shepherd in Montgomery and St. John the Evangelist in West Chester. The class broke into five teams, with each team visiting one of the churches, exploring how each addresses its mission as far as marketing, evangelizing and outreach. The findings weren’t a surprise.
“The two Catholic Church groups said, ‘These are very good churches. They deal well with the spirituality of their members, but they don’t have a clue how to evangelize,’ ” Bergh says. “There is no real growth.”
Bergh isn’t letting this information go to waste, starting Parish Vision LLC, and is working with St. Anthony Messenger Press to package “Go and Make Disciples” with mega-church information and his students’ research. “I want to get a team together to write books to take the mega-church model to Catholic churches.”