Haven’t been to church recently? You might have missed something.

Church pastors last year had a chance to win a free trip to London and $1,000 cash — if they mentioned Disney’s film “The Chronicles of Narnia” in their sermons. Chrysler, hoping to target affluent African Americans with its new luxury SUV, is currently sponsoring a Patti LaBelle gospel music tour through African-American megachurches nationwide.

Advertising has begun to seep into churches, and the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down, say academic, religious and marketing experts. Among the wave of early adopters: the Republican Party, which successfully sold its platform to church-goers in the 2000 and 2004 elections; Hollywood, which discovered the economic power of faith when Mel Gibson’s church-marketed film “The Passion of the Christ” became a blockbuster; and publishing, with Rick Warren’s best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, heavily marketed by a Christian publishing house.

These products — a conservative political agenda, a film about Jesus and an evangelical book — all had at least some religious connection to Christian consumers. Now some advertisers are taking the next step: marketing products — like an SUV — with no intrinsic religious value through church networks. “If we are going to target the African-American consumer, we have to go where they go, rather than ask them to come to us, and the church is a major institution for that community,” says James Kenyon, Chrysler Group brand marketing senior manager.

LaBelle’s tour, which features both her November-release gospel album and Chyrsler’s 2007 “Aspen” SUV, is passing through 14 of the largest predominantly African-American megachurches in the country. Some participating churches are also organizing “ride and drive” events, where church members and others can test-drive Chrysler vehicles.

The Chysler-Patti LaBelle tour has so far avoided the criticism that followed Chevrolet’s 2002 sponsorship of “Chevrolet Presents: Come Together and Worship,” a concert tour featuring leading Christian music acts and Max Lucado, a popular evangelical preacher and author. Rabbi James Rudin, then spokesman for the American Jewish Congress, called the tour a “divisive” way to reach the public, while other Jewish and Christian groups condemned Chevrolet for promoting a conservative brand of Christianity.

But Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of a megachurch that co-hosted the LaBelle tour in Houston, welcomes this particular pairing of church and corporation. “I would like to see more companies pay attention to the African-American consumer,” says Caldwell, whose Windsor Village United Methodist Church attracts up to 14,000 worshippers every Sunday. “The Chrysler-Patti tour is a shrewd strategy to galvanize the interest of a market that has seemingly been forgotten.”

For Greater Grace Temple in northwest Detroit, another concert host, the event represents a chance to extend its reach into the larger Detroit community. “Gospel music is big in Detroit, not just as a spiritual thing, but as a cultural thing,” says Melvin Epps, communications director for the church, which hosted Rosa Parks’ funeral in 2005.

Reaching non-believers — known as “seekers” or the “un-churched” in evangelical-speak — is a primary mission of megachurches, and events that make it easy for newcomers to participate are popular. “We don’t just want to stay within the walls of our church,” adds Epps.

Greater Grace maintains a number of corporate partnerships. Chase Bank, for example, sponsored a back-to-school festival where children received free backpacks bearing the Chase logo. When church members bought 13,500 cases of Pepsi products, Pepsi donated a 15-passenger van that the church uses to transport senior citizens. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Epps.

Megachurches as Consumer Aggregators

You might think of a church as a steeple-topped place of long and windy sermons, where a loyal band drinks coffee from Styrofoam cups and raises money to repair the roof. But megachurches have changed the face of Sunday mornings, combining the latest technology, a casual Starbucks-like atmosphere and upbeat preaching to draw in crowds of thousands.

They offer a particularly tantalizing opportunity for those intent on network or “word-of-mouth” marketing, a strategy that capitalizes on social relationships to spread product information and influence purchasing, according to Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams. “Megachurch members are drawn together by a strong common bond. Networks that exist naturally facilitate word-of-mouth marketing, because people tend to share information with those they are close to,” she says.

Pastors make “great connectors,” adds Wharton marketing professor Christophe Van den Bulte, “because they reach a large audience once a week, and their words carry extra weight.” But the real potential for word-of-mouth marketing, he notes, lies in megachurches’ micro social networks.

In order to create the intimate feel of fellowship in the midst of massive congregations, megachurches channel members into small groups. The affiliation groups can be based on any commonality, such as church-going neighbors, widowers, teens with divorced parents, home-schooling mothers and everything in between. In a weekly prayer group, says Van den Bulte, “you have the reinforcement of a dense social network. It’s one thing to have a pastor saying something on screen, but it’s a real turbocharger if you have a small group discussing it as well.”

The opportunities for network marketing through churches carry their own risks, however. “If people share an ethical connection based on life values, then using those ties for blatantly commercial purposes could backfire,” says Van den Bulte. “Sometimes people feel it’s a sacrilege to use a human connection to further another type of goal.”

But there is no doubt that megachurches — defined as churches with weekly attendances of over 2,000 people — offer advertisers some huge enticements. They reach more than seven million people every Sunday morning, an aggregation of potential consumers that secular advertisers have ignored until recently, according to Scott Thumma, an expert on megachurches at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.

“Megachurches represent the concentration of larger numbers of Christians in fewer congregations,” says Thumma, whose latest research will appear in a co-authored book next year. “If nearly 50% of people who attend church go to 10% of the churches, then marketers have not given that phenomenon nearly enough attention.”

Christian companies have long marketed through churches, but Thumma agrees that mainstream marketers are beginning to catch on. Every week now he fields calls from companies who want to buy access to his database of megachurches. (His list, though publicly available, is not for sale.) “For a long time, companies marketed to the ideal of American culture, which didn’t have anything to do with Christianity or religion,” he adds. But marketers paying more attention to cultural subgroups see that “conservative Christians represent a very large group, and if they want to appeal to them, they have to go directly to the source.”

Daycare and Sports Analogies

According to Greg Stielstra, vice president of marketing for the Christian Trade Book Group at Thomas Nelson Publishers, a product must tap into the church experience in order for the marketing effort to succeed. “People who gather in church on Sunday are practicing a common faith, but that doesn’t make them more susceptible to margarine or minivans. The Republican Party was successful because it connected with the fundamentals of Christian faith. But it won’t work if you sell a product lacking relevance,” says Stielstra, who also directed The Purpose-Driven Life marketing campaign.

Megachurches do offer opportunities for secular marketers, Stielstra adds, but uncovering them may require creative thinking. He recalled a financial planner who came to him with this problem: Potential customers were likely to hire his services if they heard his presentation, but few people were willing to sit through it. The number-one reason for marital conflict is money, Stielstra told the planner, and church-going couples are likely to seek out their pastor — rather than a financial planner — for advice. The solution? Stielstra put the financial planner in touch with local pastors, who now provide him with a steady stream of potential clients interested enough to sit through his presentation.

Thumma, of the Hartford Seminary, points to another characteristic of megachurches. Their congregations are usually quite homogeneous. With the vast majority located in the suburbs and exurbs of sprawl cities, megachurches tend to attract “relatively modern, high-tech, middle-class, well-educated, upwardly mobile, suburban family types,” he says.

The match-up between church preference and demographic profile may be more than coincidence, according to Applebees America: How Successful Political, Business and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community. Authors Doug Sosnik, Matthew Dowd and Ron Fournier demonstrate how megachurch leaders target potential members based on lifestyle, often using market research techniques in order to meet specific needs. For families with small children, the churches provide high-quality child care. Men turned off by theological sermons hear pastors draw analogies from sports and business. Casual dress puts those turned off by high-church formality at ease.    

But secular advertisers have been slow to see churches as demographically aligned communities. “Who works in the marketing communications industry?” asks Van den Bulte. “It tends to be young people, liberal people, who probably don’t go to those churches. There is a cultural disconnect.”

Judy Smith and Candace McKeever, partners at Impact Media, the marketing company producing the Chrysler-Patti LaBelle tour are two people who have an inside track. “We’re both church-going folks, and if you are in it and of it, then you know it,” says Smith. In African-American churches in particular, adds McKeever, “business and church have traditionally gone hand in hand, working for the betterment of the community.” Indeed, at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, the partnership with Pepsi came about because the father of someone in community relations at Pepsi’s Detroit office knew the father of Greater Grace’s bishop. “It was a personal connection,” says Juanita Bass, executive assistant to Bishop Charles Ellis.

The Logic of Growth

Outreach Media Group, a Christian marketing firm founded in 1996 to help churches reach potential members, receives “repeated requests from organizations wishing to get their message to pastors and churches,” according to its website. While the firm was helping churches market to the unchurched, outside companies realized the process could be reverse engineered to reach pastors and church members. Though the majority of Outreach clients are companies selling faith-related products — like church insurance policies or donor management software — the list also includes Disney, DaimlerChrysler and other secular corporations.

Outreach’s sermoncentral.com was the group that sponsored last year’s sweepstakes offering $1,000 and a London trip to the lucky pastor who submitted proof of mentioning Disney’s “Narnia” movie in a sermon. And as part of its promotion of New Line Cinema’s 2006 church-targeted movie, “The Nativity Story,” sermoncentral.com offers free sermons, PowerPoint presentations and outreach ideas based on the film. The website also allows pastors to sign up for free screenings of the film in 45 cities.

The Narnia sermon sweepstakes, first reported last December by the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave rise to the new term “sermo-mercial” — along with concerns expressed by blogging Christians that the pulpit was now open for product placement.

While the Narnia example struck many as crass commercialism, however, the concept of harnessing sermons for sales was not new. The engine driving the runaway sales of The Purpose-Driven Life was the “40 Days of Purpose” campaign, in which author Rick Warren signed up 1,200 churches to devote six sermons to the content of the book, while church members read a chapter every day for 40 days, says Stielstra, who was senior marketing director at Christian publisher Zondervan when it published the book.  

“That simple process created an army of 400,000 customer evangelists whose word-of-mouth recommendations sold 18 million copies in 18 months without a national advertising campaign,” Stielstra says. His 2005 book, Pyromarketing: The Four-Step Strategy to Ignite Customer Evangelists and Keep Them for Life, describes how non-religious companies can use similar sales campaigns.

That secular-minded marketers could borrow models from The Purpose-Drive Life‘s evangelical-driven success comes as no surprise to historians of religion, who say American churches and businesses have long fed off one another. Some of the first organizations to use modern marketing and production techniques were 19th century lay religious corporations like the American Bible Society, according to R. Laurence Moore, author of Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History.

But the overlap between commerce and Christianity also leaves some churches vulnerable to purely commercial marketing, says Moore, director of the American Studies program at Cornell University. “When you have churches thinking along business lines, receptiveness to sales pitches is just the direction that things go.” Megachurches are particularly vulnerable because they are so intent on growth. “Religious organizations actively seeking to grow and expand — raise money, reach new members — do things that are as much secular as religious,” Moore notes. “When you have megachurches with huge auditoriums, and lots of stores and schools and gymnasiums inside, it begins to look less and less like a religious place.”

Underwriting the Mission

Growth is key to megachurch success because large, enthusiastic congregations are what megachurches “sell” to potential members, according to James Twitchell, author of the forthcoming Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face.

The first thing you hear at a megachurch these days “is how many new members they have. Churches used to be politely non-competitive,” says Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. But since so many megachurches are now independent or quasi-independent of centralized denominations, they aggressively compete with other churches for members. Maintaining rapid growth is tough, and when churches falter, that’s when corporations spot an entryway, Twitchell adds. “Advertisers can go to the heart of your mission — in the case of megachurches, that’s evangelism — and underwrite it.”

Even business guru Jim Collins, best-selling author of Good to Great and Built to Last, has an opinion on the topic. Growth for the sake of growth is potentially destructive, warns Collins, who spoke this summer to a megachurch leadership conference about his new publication applying Good to Great concepts to “social sector” organizations like churches. The key question for churches, he says, is, “Do they have the discipline to say ‘no’ to any resources that will drive them away from their fundamental mission?”

For some churches, using corporate sponsorships might be a great opportunity; for others it might lead them astray, Collins suggests. “It would be too broad a brush to say it’s all good or bad for churches, just as it’s too broad to say debt is all good or bad for companies. Churches need clarity to decide what’s right for their financing.” 

But why is it many feel, instinctively, that the market and the church should inhabit distinct spheres? The Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, but the relationship between church and commerce is largely unregulated.

One answer may lie in the gospels themselves, where Jesus spoke frequently about the dangers of wealth, warning that “you cannot serve both God and mammon.” More dramatically, he overturned the tables of businessmen inside the Jewish temple and drove them out with a whip, saying “Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.”

To some Christian critics, the analogy could not be more direct. Isn’t having Chrysler or Chevrolet vehicles parked in the foyer of a church “a little too much like putting the tables back inside the temple?” asks Skye Jethani, associate editor of Leadership, a journal for church pastors published by ChristianityToday. 

The dangers of commerce intruding — or being invited — into churches are “infinite” from a religious point of view, says Jethani, who is one of two pastors at an “accessibly-sized” congregation of 400 in Wheaton, Ill. “Christianity comes to be viewed, not as submission to Christ and love of your neighbor, but an identity like any other, defined by what you buy, who you vote for, what entertainment you consume. Becoming so cozy with the methodology of business completely warps the message of the New Testament.”

Ad experts like Twitchell, however, predict that advertising will increasingly appear “inside the frame” of church experience. Look next for corporate sponsorship advertisements in church bulletins or on walls and windows of church buildings, he says. Yet Caldwell, head of the massive Windsor Village church in Houston, cautions that churches should be thoughtful about when to partner with corporations. “At the end of the day, we don’t want the church to become a prostitute of business.”