When we "market," we try to make a larger audience aware of the value of exchanging a good or service. We assume both parties will benefit from the transaction. Marketing is a wonderful thing. I like to hear pitches about products I might use. I like the fact that my publishers pitch my books to a larger public. Thank God for marketing!
But there's a reason Jesus said "You shall be my witnesses," and not "You shall be my marketers."
Almost no one in America could fail to recognize that marketingboth its language and culturehas become an epidemic. And that, more unfortunately, it has become a significant means of "promoting" the church and the gospel in American Christianity, with billboards, soundbites, slogans, and come-ons. The language and practice of marketing so saturates the Christian world, it is difficult to remember a time when it was not so fashionable.
In Jesus' day, marketing was not the rage, but still it was something Jesus prohibited on many occasions. Take his dramatic healing of a leper, after which he sternly commanded him, "See that you say nothing to anyone!" (Mark 1:44). Scholars call this repeated behavior "the messianic secret," and many preachers imagine that Jesus had mostly pragmatic concerns in mind: If word of his power spread, he not only would have been flocked by crowds, but he would also have been prematurely crucified by the authorities.
Maybe. But I wonder if soft-peddling the Good News is intrinsic to the message. Jesus spoke in parables, he said, not to reveal the Good News but to hide it: "For those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand" (Mark 4:11). Elsewhere, he specifically tells his disciples not to cast gospel-pearls before swine. Make something as cheap as slop, and people will treat it like slop.
Jump ahead 20 centuries, and we find a church that doesn't think twice about treating the gospel like slop, like fast food. About 30 years ago, the church-growth movement exploded onto the scene; churches became enamored with the efficiency of businesses like Disney and McDonald's, and they began fashioning their life together to meet people's needs in the same sorts of waysexcept that their product was the gospel. So churches became places where thousands could be served efficiently. And where the message was served in McSermons that could be easily digested and applied.
And where "marketing" became part of the church's vocabulary.
When the church starts marketing itself or the gospel, something odd is taking place. It conjures up the idea that the church is offering them some benefitall well and good. But it also implicitly suggests that when they "buy" or consume that good, the church somehow receives some benefit. That's the assumption of the marketplace: it's an exchange of value for goods and services.
Should it surprise us, then, that in the same era the church has marketed itself more and more, neighborhoods and cities are increasingly resentful of the presence of the church in their communities? Churches today have a heck of a time trying to get permits for expanding or building because communities think they're a nuisance. The church has become just another business exchanging goods and services, albeit spiritual goods and services.
The perception is that as the church markets itself, more benefits will accrue to the churchmore people, more programs, more money, more buildings, more success. When a neighborhood thinks of the church as little more than an ever-expanding spiritual business, it is naturally resentful when this business disrupts the life of the community with parking, traffic, and late-night meetings.
Should it surprise us that in this church-marketing era, members demand more and more from their churches, and if churches don't deliver, they take their spiritual business elsewhere? Have we ever seen an age in which church transience was such an epidemic?
Should it surprise us that in this era, pastors increasingly think of themselves as "managers," "leaders," and "CEOs" of "dynamic and growing congregations," rather than as shepherds, teachers, and servants of people who need to know God? And that preaching has become less an exposition of the gospel of Jesus' death and resurrection and more often practical lessons that offer a lot of "take-away value," presented in an efficient, friendly manner, as if we were selling cheeseburgers, fries, and a shake?
And on it goes. Let me be clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with large churches. Medieval Europe was full of them, and I long for the day when those cathedrals will be full of the worshiping faithful again. I have been blessed time and again by the ministry of megachurches.
Today churches large and small (the small imitating the large) have unthinkingly adopted a marketing mentality that, it turns out, subverts rather than promotes the gospel. We inadvertently imply that the church benefits as much from the spiritual transaction as does the recipient. Marketing, by its very nature, contradicts the essence of the gospel lifestyle of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to expend his life for othersno exchange implied or expected.
How can we possibly communicate the radical, self-giving love of God to our culture if we continue to use a method that by its very nature replaces the notions of sacrificial service for an exchange of goods and services?
We are indeed called to the four corners of the earth to be witnesses of Christ's transforming love. But witnesses are not carnival barkers. Sometimes it feels like the church is just another voice shouting for attention in the marketplace. I wonder what would happen if we quit shouting, if we quit trying to tell the world how beneficial the faith is or what a difference going to church can makeand simply told others, when appropriate, what God has done for us, and let our lifestyle "market" the message.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker). You can comment below or on his blog.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Listening for the Whisper | How to break the addiction to spectacle. (September 20, 2007)
A Hidden Treasure | There's a divine reason the church mirrors the culture. (September 7, 2007)
When a Blessing Is a Curse | Sometimes the most loving prayers are not all that nice. (August 23, 2007)
On Not Transforming the World | We have better and harder things to do than that. (August 9, 2007)
GraceThat's So Sick | The church seems to be an embarrassment to everyone except its Lord. (July 26, 2007)
We Are Not Pregnant | The glory of men and women lies in their unbridgeable differences. (July 12, 2007)
Seeker Unfriendly | We need more than worship that makes sense. (June 14, 2007)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
I Love, Therefore You Are | Why the modern search for self ends in despair. (June 28, 2007)