Most television sports fans put up with commercials to enjoy the privilege of watching the game. When it comes to the Super Bowl, I'm one who puts up with the game to have the privilege of watching the commercials. For this high and holy feast of American culture, marketing geniuses pull out all the stops to create some of the most memorable ads of the year. It's a day when America's magnificent marketing muscle is flexed in all its splendor.
As such, Super Bowl Sunday reminds us how much marketing permeates our life. If Jesus is "in, with, and under" the bread of Communion (at least according to Martin Luther), then marketing is "in, with, and under" every facet of American life. Estimates as to how many ads Americans view each day range widely—250 to 5,000—but even the low figure boggles the imagination. We swim in the waters of advertising, we are nursed on marketing milk, we breathe the air of the latest offer—choose your worn-out metaphor!
It's not surprising, then, that a church immersed in this environment would find it almost impossible to conceive of evangelism as anything but a form of marketing. If companies have slogans that make promises to customers, churches must have them as well. From "The family church, where everyone is welcome," to "The place where transformation happens," to "Every day in every way, growing closer to God," or whatever, the message is: Join this church, and you'll get some benefit.
Then there's the ubiquitous use of come-ons: Sundays when clowns or magicians or celebrities come to church to attract visitors. And the giveaways to first time visitors: coffee mugs, Starbucks cards, pens, Bibles. And the marketing cards (though we call them "Welcome Cards") for visitors to fill out so we can follow up. And on it goes.
The church's greatest marketing tool is its pastor, of course. That's why there's such a demand for pastors who are both charismatic (in the non-spiritual sense!) and savvy, because churches know that their chief selling point is the personality of the chief operating minister. Pastors are encouraged to talk about themselves in their sermons as much as they talk about Jesus, because, after all, people want to identify with their pastor. Thus the ubiquitous use of personal illustrations from the pastor's life and family—they're funny, engaging, and make the church that much more attractive to newcomers.
Along the way—in sermons, in church slogans, and implicit in special evangelistic or missional events—are the promises. The therapeutic: Things will go better with Jesus. The practical: You'll find ideas for life. The transformational: You will be all that you can be. And whether the church is draped in the Disney-like efficiency of the megachurch or the counterculture of hipster rebellion, coolness is often an implicit part of the mix.
This should not shock or alarm us. Immersed as we are in a Super Bowl culture, what else is a church supposed to do? We think we have a "product" (albeit head and shoulders above any other product) to "sell." And we think we have to use good marketing if we're going to get people to buy into Jesus. Though I'm clearly no fan of this approach, let's face it: it often works. Many people come to faith and join churches by such means (even if they then have to spend years unlearning what such a method implies: that faith in Christ is a deal or transaction). So while I poke fun, I don't think it wise to condemn a method a gracious God is willing to stoop to use.