Pimping Jesus: consumerism and the red-light gospel

Jesus' image can now be found on every imaginable commodity from t-shirts to poker chips. But has our material culture made Jesus' invitation to "new life" itself into a consumable product? Jonathan Yarboro, a church planter from Boone, North Carolina, explores the influence of consumerism on our understanding of the gospel and conversion.

I was standing before 200 people at church when I said it: "Salvation is not a walk down the aisle, a prayer, and wham bam, thank you ma'am, you're done." Jaws dropped; some faces turned white; some turned red. I was clueless, so I just kept teaching. It turns out that the phrase, "wham bam, thank you ma'am," meant something different to me than it did to the rest of the world. Afterward some of my listeners enlightened me. I was embarrassed. I didn't intend to equate one's conversion experience to some sort of sexual encounter in the red light district.

Over the last few years, I have pondered the statement, and despite the fact that I originally meant nothing so profound, I believe the statement to be true - we are tempted to turn conversion into something of an act of prostitution. We are the consumers, and we might as well say it - we've turned Jesus' invitation into a seductive, greasy, trick-turning lifestyle. Doesn't that make your blood boil?

The Bible, especially the Old Testament (see Hosea), is full of prostitution language. But don't make the mistake of thinking that I am calling the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus who ate and drank with sinners, the Jesus who was executed on a Roman cross, and the Jesus who rose on the third day, a whore. There is another Jesus, one we have created, who is a seductive, slick-talking, trick-turning object of our self-pleasure. This is the Jesus that I, along with countless others, assumed I'd met when I was 14 years old. But it was only a wham bam, thank you ma'am gospel.

When you get past the initial response of derogatory disgust, the phrase can shed light on how our consumerist culture has even changed how we think about the gospel. We have changed the life-changing act of introducing people to the real Jesus into an act of prostitution.

We've all seen it numerous times. The guy walks into your worship gathering. His life is falling apart. He has no meaningful relationships. He has given his life to foreign substances. He is in touch with nothing good. He comes to your community because he has nowhere else to go. He is looking for something. He begins to reveal the horrible hell he has been living through. He knows his life is going nowhere, and that's when we speak up.

March 17, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 31 comments


March 30, 2006  8:35am

It has always been my thought that there is evangelizing and then there is pastoring. We are, to a certain extent, doing an apples and orange comparison here. The Bible exhorts us to evangelize, win folks to Christ and that formula IS doing "A" to get "B". If the "A" isn't done with repentance and repentance isn't in your "A+B" formula I would indeed question it's validity! If that is the case, you need to re-examine your ministry! Do I remember the topic of the sermon that brought me to know Christ as my savior? Most certainly not!! I'm NO spring chicken and it was MANY years ago! It very well could have been the slick presentation we are debating here today. I do remember being at the altar and repenting. and accepting Christ as my savior. To think that our Lord can't use these so called "slick" presentations for the good is to undermine the very power of God! Having heard the testamonies of ex-cultists, God even used their experiences for the good. That is not to say there is not a need for change. We have to concede that we all come into the knowledge of Christ from many angles but we need to focus on what we do after. It's what is done after the conversion that separates the men from the boys, so to speak. That's when the role of being a pastor comes into play. It's the nurturing after the fact that is almost as important as the conversion itself. Very few that come to the point where they meet Jesus at Calvary understand the concepts of theology. They just know they have a need. It takes often years to train up a soldier for Christ. And we are obligated to do that very training. I believe that's were the distinction should be made! There is another Jesus, one we have created, who is a seductive, slick-talking, trick-turning object of our self-pleasure. If THIS is the Jesus you've been preaching then you need to get on your knees and ask God to forgive you and he will. Then you can proceed guilt free and repair the damage you have done.

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Cathy Orem

March 28, 2006  8:54pm

You're so right, our God wants the real thing with us too. Even though at 19 years old I accepted Him into my heart, and a few times of touching the surface, it's only now years later at 40, that I have that "real thing" with Him. It took much searching and longing for Him that it was He who also lead me back, for good. Thank You for being 'real' with us.

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Deb K

March 28, 2006  8:03pm

I have a question for you all. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for this. Our church is thinking of putting some kind of printed material in our pews that clearly explains the gospel and how to respond to it, or how one might receive Jesus as Lord and Savior. (This initiative is on the part of some of our parishoners who are concerned that we do not regularly have altar calls built into our services.) We are struggling with wording, not wanting to boil this down to a few steps and a prayer, but we would also having some kind of clarity. We don't want to use tracts...BUT would like it to be short and sweet - about long enough to fit on a large 5X7 postcard. Has anybody done something like this in the Emergent community? Looking forward to your thoughts!!

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Greg Smith

March 28, 2006  3:26pm

Aren't we glad Peter just preached and baptised on the day of Penecost, and didn't spend his time "testing soil." A voice is just a voice – it is the Spirit who brings repentance and life.

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Rich Tatum

March 26, 2006  8:12pm

Greg asks: Does Faith only come from hearing? ... I would counter that we gain faith by experiencing the reality of the Gospel, not just by hearing. ... By your definition how would a person who could not hear obtain faith? The passage I quoted doesn't state that faith only comes by hearing the Word. Otherwise, we would have no place in our communities for the deaf! I am unclear as to the point you are trying to make here. The original assertion was that there is a fallacy in thinking "Do A to get B." I'm simply saying that the onus of evangelism is on those who have received the Gospel to preach, teach, live, demonstrate, and minister out of the faith we have received. As we do that, others come to faith. What you are saying now doesn't invalidate my point, only authenticates it. Clearly, in the Book of Acts, we see the miraculous serving as a beachhead for evangelism. The miracles serving as a catalyst for faith as much as the preaching did, I'm sure. But without proclaiming the Good news, as Christ did, and the apostles and disciples after him, there's not going to be much "making of disciples." I fail to see where the fallacy resides. Regards, Rich BlogRodent

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March 25, 2006  3:08am

In the UK those of us who have an ear to hear have been abandoning the wam-bam thankyou maam whore-houses that many call church. In it's place we have started to live christianity for ourselves. It's messy, it's raw but most importantly it contains the spirit of the message of the christ. It is Love God, Love People. All the trappings are gone because we can no longer afford to support them. The only way to live like this is a brutal form of honestym and an end to playing church.

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March 24, 2006  11:52am

I agree with your sentiments and have no problem with the way you make your point. The concept used to be called "Easy Believism". However, let's just assume for one moment that Joe Average doesn't pay any attention to the world of Christian media, and hasn't got a clue (not too great a stretch for the imagination, is it?). Do you really think the problem is that we're making it too easy for people to get saved? Is that what's keeping the world from knowing Jesus? We can "tune up" our message until we're blue in the face, but who really gets to hear our message? Less is not more…

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March 23, 2006  12:37pm

I think "wham bam thank you ma'am" is an accurate description of the commonly held concept of being "saved". Sometimes it takes bold, shocking language to help religious people snap out of it (see OT prophets, John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth).

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March 23, 2006  12:32pm

I would caution those attempting to lay the blame at the feet of the seeker. Make no mistake, we as the church have failed them. In our (maybe at times misguided) zeal to 'go into all the world' we have failed to remember the rest, that is to 'make disciples of all nations'. Disciples are not made on Sunday morning. They are not made on Wednesday night. They are made over coffee on a Tuesday morning. They are made over dinner on a Friday night. They are made through relationship. The question must be asked, 'Who am I actively discipling?' Initially we are all drawn, like children, to God–based on what He can do for us. God created a need for Him in each of us. There is 'problem to solution' dynamic at work, however we as the church fail them when we allow them to stay there by withholding the hand of fellowship, and denying them that which was given to us.

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March 22, 2006  11:45pm

Jonathan, I think your message is amazing. I think that christianity is so watered down nowadays and people are expected to act tolerent of everything that Jesus, the real one...not the pimp, has been severly distorted. I wish more people could grasp the severity of the situation at hand but that might mean stepping outside their comfort zones. I have to admit that I too have previously been roped into the whorification of christianity, preaching until I was blue in the face only to realize that I'm trying to sell myself. I'm trying to get my point of view across. I preached what I believed rather than lived it. Earlier this evening, a guy I know said "maybe it's good to be uncomfortable" and I completely agree. I think people, including myself, have been so accustomed to this simplified message that we are numb to the reality that other people are missing out. People are getting to know the complete truth. I wish more people were concerned with this issue rather than get their "panties in a wad" because something makes them uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable with something, then maybe you will pay more attention to it. Thanks Jonathan!

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