From Jake Dell / THIS WEEK: Butts in Pews, or, Why Athanasius would have used SEO

Hello! It’s been awhile since I wrote to you on this list.

This past week I read a journal article on how the Mormons do SEO — that’s Search Engine Optimization.

SEO is the “secret sauce” that makes sure that when you type in “Episcopal” or “Duke vs. UNC” or “Mormon” that you get relevant — and in the case of a brand or church — favorable search results at or very near the top of your result set.

Back in 2008 the Mormons had a problem.

If you Googled “mormon,” or a related term like “mormon beliefs” or “mormon underwear,” overwhelmingly negative articles dominated the search results.

By 2010, the Latter-Day Saints had turned things completely around.

Now, not only if you Google Mormon-specific terms will you be sent to LDS (or LDS-friendly) sites, but if you’re Googling broader terms like “young women” or “church music” or “Jesus Christ” or “friend” you will get LDS and LDS-friendly sites in your search results as well.

That’s right, if you Google Jesuschurch and even church music there’s little mainstream Christian — let alone Episcopalian — content in the top few results.

Go ahead. Try it. See for yourself.

A couple of quotes from the journal article stood out and I think that as Episcopalians we’d do well to think about them.

Here’s the first. It’s from Finke and Stark’s The Churching of America.

… mainline Protestant churches (e.g. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) have long been and remain in decline because, in the process of mainstreaming and secularization, they have compromised their own religious conviction and demand little from their congregations. The sect-like denominations (e.g. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, the Assemblies of God), on the other hand, rise in the religious market because they have built their own brands through a specialized product and because they demand loyalty and commitment from their followers…

But talking about the church as a “product” that needs to be “marketed” is upsetting to many people, and indeed, as the article points out, “religious marketing … can be a double-edged sword,” and cites studies that the general public — especially college students — are put off by it. Others, like former Yale Divinity School dean, Thomas W. Ogletree argue that there is an inherent conflict between the Gospel and capitalism. If true for capitalism, then how much more so for the engine of capitalism — marketing?

And yet I think that is only one way of framing the question.

BIPs … or “Butts in Pews”

If you’ve ever booked an airline ticket, then the conventional wisdom told you to book early to get the cheapest seats. That’s because the airline industry has long been dominated by its obsession with getting “butts in seats.” Empty flights don’t make money. Hotels have the same concern.

Yet many of our congregations are operating “flights” that are half-empty. To put it in commercial terms, we have a lot of unsold inventory in the form of empty pews.

Now it may be that we are much too wedded to the idea of the church as a sacred space, which, in turn, places too much emphasis on over-sized, under-maintained and poorly endowed buildings.

That’s another debate. (Read Tom Ehrich’s “What Shopping Malls Can Learn From Churches” here.)

But if it’s your job to worry about butts in pews (BIPs), then keep reading and I will tell you why I think there is something to be said for what the Mormons are doing.

The economics of getting heard

We like to think that the Internet has been a boon to free speech by giving a voice and a platform to more people than ever before. And there is no doubt that this is true — up to a point.

But as this journal article points out, though the technological barriers to entry in the “marketplace of ideas” have fallen and distribution costs have gone to zero, it is still true that “those with means speak more frequently and effectively than those without.”

Nowhere is this more true than on the Internet and with SEO.

Sure, anyone can create and publish a website. But will it get noticed?

The Mormons are making sure that their websites — and what they have to say about God and Jesus Christ — are the sites that are getting noticed and that Mormon voices are the voices that are getting heard.

And the Mormon voice — along with so many others — is much louder and clearer than our own.

For instance, I went through all 70 pages of Google’s expanded search results for the term “Jesus Christ” and couldn’t find a single link to an Episcopal church, author, bishop, priest or regular member. That means if someone is looking for Jesus online, they aren’t going to find him on the website of your Episcopal church.

But I did find these sites:

  • Who is Jesus? – The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
  • The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ Index
  • Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center
  • Brazilian man claims to be Jesus Christ – The Standard
  • Jesus Christ – Astrology – Astrological Reports – Horoscope
  • The True Message of Jesus Christ – Islam House
  • Who Is Jesus Christ? – Jehovah’s Witnesses Official Web Site
  • Jesus Christ IS the TRUE lucifer (morning star, light bringer)
  • Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter | Facebook

(Here’s a free tool that will check your site to see where it ranks with regard to key words like “Jesus Christ” or “Episcopal churches in Pasadena,” etc., h/t to Charlie Baker at Pali Media, Inc. If your site isn’t on the first 10 pages, you are invisible.)

So you see? All of these messages are crowding out our own. The world is telling the world who Jesus is, while the Church sits it out.

Defending the Faith, or, Why Athanasius would have used SEO

Another quote in the journal article stood out. Here it is:

… might there be a concern over whether a religious organization should employ … proactive or even aggressive Internet marketing campaigns? What seems like reasonable action in the no-holds-barred world of cutthroat business competition might be questionable in the realm of religion. How and where should a religious group draw the line in promoting itself on the Internet? Is there a danger that SEO strategy may start as an effort to make sure one’s viewpoint has a chance to be heard in the marketplace of ideas but becomes an attempt to silence or drown out competing ideas? Might there be a cyber SEO war among religious groups in the near future to compete for customers? Or has the war already begun?

I’d love to run this question by St. Athanasius and ask him what he thinks.

(He’s the one that made sure that the Church continued to believe in the Trinity and defended and promoted the Nicene Creed.)

Something tells me he would bluster, get all hot-and-bothered and say unkind things about heretics.

But there would be no doubt in his mind that “the war had already begun” and that it was not one where the Church was “competing for customers” but battling for souls.

I think we’re in a battle for souls. And, as I’ve been telling you all along, we have every right to plunder Egypt, including hijacking the engines of capitalism.

Why? Because Our Lord has need of it (Luke 19:31).

And if we do that, it might just solve our Sunday morning inventory problem.

Please write to me and tell me your thoughts. (I especially love it when you tell me that I’m wrong!) If your parish, diocese or Episcopal organization is using SEO, tell me how that’s going for you.



P.S.  I continue to enjoy speaking with you. If you haven’t scheduled your call, feel free to email me at I look forward to every call! Every church I speak with is remembered by name at our 12:10 service here at the Chapel of Christ the Lord in New York City.

For all my previous posts, click here.

February 8, 2014

 (This post was edited slightly for clarity.)

(August 18, 2014 – CORRECTION – St. Athanasius’s name was misspelled in printed and earlier online versions of this post.)

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