For months after I first moved to Nashville, a billboard by the westbound I-40 advertised an alcohol addiction recovery program. But what caught my eye was the billboard's photograph: the coldest, frothiest, most delicious-looking pint of beer that has ever been poured. I never wanted a beer more than I did when I drove past that billboard. And I am not an alcoholic. I wonder how many of the hundreds of people suffering from addiction passed that spot every day and were perversely tempted—not to enter rehab, but to pull off at the next exit for a tall, cold one.
Marketing has problems if it makes the consumer pant for the dead opposite of what you are trying to sell.
An Unavoidable Dilemma
This is the issue we confront when weighing the merits of the church's public outreach, its evangelistic task, in a Western culture saturated by marketing. By marketing, I refer to all the activities that help organizations identify and shape the wants of target consumers and then try to satisfy those consumers better than competitors do. This usually involves doing market research, analyzing consumer needs, and then making strategic decisions about product design, branding, pricing, promotion, advertising, and distribution.
While researching Brand Jesus, I realized that the church faced unavoidable questions as it sought to maintain a public witness and evangelistic task in a consumerist culture. One is this: Should we market the church and the church's message? (In this article, I assume that our evangelistic message is about knowing Christ and being incorporated into his body. Thus, whether we are specifically encouraging people to consider Jesus or some aspect of the gospel message or to attend a particular church, we are practicing key aspects of evangelism.) In particular, can we use marketing techniques such as niche targeting and branding? Can we help but do so? Can we change the medium without affecting the message? Or does the medium of marketing itself taint our message, leaving us only to resist to the last breath any accommodation to our consumer culture?
The champions of better church marketing say that withdrawal and resistance are not options for a local church that seeks a public presence. We live in a commercialized culture that accepts that virtually everything is for sale. There is simply no way to be in the public arena without engaging in marketing. Even if you do not intend to market your church, that's how consumers are going to perceive your outreach. They will take it in through market-conditioned filters. If we ignore this fact, we will probably wind up doing bad marketing, and that doesn't do anyone any good.
So, unless we completely withdraw from any kind of evangelism, marketing is inevitable. And if marketing is the language of our culture, we might as well be fluent in it, right? After all, if you were a missionary in a foreign country, you would learn the language. Marketing is just the latest incarnation of classic evangelistic models such as persuasion and example.
Thus goes the argument. At the popular blog ChurchMarketingSucks.com, Joshua Cody wrote, "It's a privilege that in a world full of broken marketing and blatant lies, we get to sell the truth." From this perspective, the mistake would be to market the church poorly, which would make the church seem less than it is—like an undesirable brand—to an unbelieving audience.
The difficulty with the pro-marketing arguments, however, is the failure to recognize that marketing is not a values-neutral language. Marketing unavoidably changes the message—as all media do. Why? Because marketing is the particular vernacular of a consumerist society in which everything has a price tag. To market something is therefore to effectively make it into a branded product to be consumed. The folks at ChurchMarketingSucks.com have no problem with this: "Marketing is the process of promoting, selling, and distributing goods or services. It's a business concept, but something very similar happens in the church. As much as we bristle at comparing evangelism to a sales pitch, there are certain similarities."
There are indeed similarities. But evangelism and sales are not the same. And we market the church at our peril if we are blind to the critical and categorical difference between the Truth and a truth you can sell. In a marketing culture, the Truth becomes a product. People will encounter it with the same consumerist worldview with which they encounter every other product in the American marketplace.
Thus our dilemma: The product we are selling isn't like every other product—it isn't even a product at all. But if the gospel is not a product, how can we market it? And if we can't avoid marketing it, how can we keep from turning it into the product it isn't?
The Harley-Davidson Riders Club
Of course, much of our difficulty is that most people know exactly what we have to offer, so we tend to be met with all the success of a door-to-door salesman who's been working the same street every day for 2,000 years.
Non-Christians are used to us; they know there is a group out there that wants them to "get saved." Thus, we disguise our evangelism, just as marketers disguise their work to pierce through the filters of ad-weary consumers.
And because it's hard to seem new and fresh with a steeple in the background, many models of one-on-one evangelism are churchless. This is why most of the methods we use bear every mark of a guy trying to sell his neighbor on the merits of a particular brand—be it motorcycle, lawnmower, or barbeque sauce—that changed his life.
It's not that the church isn't buried somewhere in this kind of evangelistic sales pitch. But Christian community is often relegated to a secondary, altogether optional consideration. It might be desirable, like joining the local Harley-Davidson Riders Club will enhance one's experience as a Harley owner, but it's certainly not necessary to seal the deal. For instance, the Four Spiritual Laws—a modern classic in evangelistic methods—says nothing about becoming a member of Christ's body when we "accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."
The de-churched nature of our theology makes evangelism hard to do without seeming salesy, because churchless evangelism unavoidably promotes a consumerist soteriology. When it's just you and Jesus, you (the consumer) "invite him" (the product) "into your heart" (brand adoption) and "get saved" (consumer gratification). Certainly God has worked and continues to work through these formulae. His doing so testifies to his grace, however, not to the fidelity of such evangelistic formulations, which, in this culture, inadvertently make Jesus out to be a cosmic version of the consumer brands promoted in the thousands of advertisements each of us sees daily.
Such brands promise to deliver goods—self-esteem, sex appeal, confidence, coolness—that they have no intrinsic capacity to give. Their power is in consumers' collective willingness to imbue them with that kind of power. In other words, consumerism is impotent to deliver on its promise, and deep down, we know it. Consumerist marketing offers something that just isn't there.
So, given this cultural setting, any salvation that needs a sophisticated sales pitch is a salvation that won't really do anything. It will make you holy the same way a new pair of Nikes makes you athletic—which is to say, not at all. It only changes your religious brand. Yet this is the only kind of evangelism possible when we separate salvation from life in the redeemed community, because it's in the redeemed community that God has ordained the enduring demonstration of his power, against which nothing can prevail (Matt. 16:18).
Unlike brand identification, the gospel of Jesus is the power of God at work for a real salvation. Consider the centrality of the church in the scheme of salvation as articulated in Ephesians: "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (2:19). The gospel proclaimed constitutes an invitation to repent into the church, to be forgiven into community—switching paths from the broad way of destruction and death to the narrow road leading to life.
This way is not walked alone, but with a community of believers who will uphold and encourage the new Christian in a difficult and challenging faith. There's substance there, demonstrated by a faithful church whose life together is a visible testimony to the truth of our claims about the power of the gospel. In a consumerist society, baptism into such a church is about the most subversive thing imaginable.
Many Christians practice a church-based evangelism. Certainly Alpha, which invites seekers to participate in church-based small groups to explore the faith, is one example. Some churches encourage seekers to participate in the life of the church—to attend many different functions, even to work on committees and special events—to experience how the Christian faith is lived out in a specific community of faith.
I am not knocking one-on-one sharing of the gospel, which is a time-honored (and, more importantly, grace-honored) means of bringing people to discipleship. But it is important to be wary of the fatal flaw that's frequently at the heart of personal evangelism methods that inadvertently peddle an incurably consumerist soteriology.
The problem with implicitly salesy evangelism is bad theology, not bad technique, and it requires more than a simple change in method. If you feel like a used-car salesman talking about Jesus, the solution to the perceived lack of authenticity isn't a smoother pitch—it's a renewal of the church. The potency of personal evangelism is, as it has always been, the simple and earnest retelling of what God has done in the lives of his people. Of course, this requires a community to back up our claims.
The Pattern of This World
Unfortunately, most evangelism in a consumerist society will seem like a sales pitch. But when you are marketing a product that isn't, it's important to know the difference between a church-centered mindset and one driven by individualistic market interests.
This requires recognizing the attributes and values of consumerism. The church can then intentionally develop practices of discipleship that cut against them, so that we will not unwittingly bow to the altar of Brand Jesus.
In a consumerist society, you are what you buy. Your identity, social location, and self-image are primarily determined by your patterns of consumption, which trump the markers of ethnic background, tribe, religion, and so on that predominate in other societies.
One way to understand consumerist marketing is to look at what may well be its apotheosis: the Macintosh versus PC advertising campaign, which personifies each brand, rendering Mac as a likeable urban hipster and PC as a slightly podgy oaf. The commercials occasionally touch on the legitimate technical reasons to prefer Mac over PC, but the product features are utterly secondary, vanishing behind the personality and style ascribed to the competing brands—and, by extension, their consumers. (Microsoft's counterattack—an ad campaign featuring happy, quirky people proclaiming, "I'm a PC!"—only solidifies the point.)
These commercials only work because viewers are fluent in their marketing language. Imagine showing the Mac vs. PC commercials to a time traveler from a few centuries back. How would someone to whom the marketing vernacular is unintelligible know that Macintosh is awesome and Microsoft is lame? How would she evaluate the comparative coolness of the clothing, haircuts, body types, and manners of speech demonstrated by the personified Mac and PC?
Marketing is only effective in a society where people are shaped to respond to it. Marketing of any sort makes us respond as consumers, regardless of what the product is, because when we see marketing, we start looking for a brand: Nike, Mercedes, Christianity, Dunkin' Donuts, Juicy Couture, Zen Buddhism, DeWalt, Harley-Davidson, Islam, Carhartt, John Deere, and so on. This is true whether one markets Coors Light or the East Nashville Bible Church.
Conflicts with the Christian Life
In other words, people who respond to church marketing approach Jesus as another consumer option. This is first and foremost a problem because it is blasphemy: We are talking about the incarnate Logos, not a logo. Additionally (in case blasphemy isn't bad enough), this should concern us because of the problems it creates for discipleship. Consumerism isn't just a social phenomenon—it's a spirituality. And it comes with spiritual habits and disciplines that conflict with the particular practices of the Christian life.
There are many such conflicts, but let's look at four key ones.
1. "I am what I buy" vs. the lordship of Christ. In a consumerist society, my identity comes from what I consume. The main focus of a consumerist society is me—which is the essentially American ideal of self-reliance and responsibility run amok.
Business gurus like Tom Peters have made fortunes writing books—the sort you see sold in airports—on how to package, market, and sell "Brand You" and "Me, Inc." But the soft version of this phenomenon is even more pernicious: Our advertising culture revolves around the promise of attaining selfhood through consumption. Flip through any glossy magazine. The best advertisements will convince us that the brand on offer will help us express and enhance who we are.
Commercial brands do nothing to upset this fundamental self-centeredness; in fact, they depend on it. We pay for the privilege of associating and adorning ourselves with particular brands because we like what they do for us. The brands, in turn, are happy to take our money.
Spiritual consumers, therefore, will approach the church with the same narcissism they bring to other brands. What am I expressing about myself if I buy Brand Jesus? How will Christianity fulfill my vision for me?
The theological implication: I belong to myself. I am my own project, my own product to do with as I will. This is an enacted rejection of the honor due to God as Creator. On a psycho-spiritual level, too, this individualism sets up a sort of endless adolescence. The awkward talk of figuring out who we are—once restricted to teen years and midlife crises—becomes a lifelong endeavor.
The danger is that the church will subtly contort the gospel into mere personal fulfillment. Preaching and evangelism that focus on the benefits of becoming a Christian present a message not fundamentally different from commercial advertising about the existential benefits of this car or that soap.
This attitude inhibits the disciple's growth into living a God-centered, neighbor-focused life. Yes, the Christian life brings fulfillment beyond imagination. But such fulfillment will be strangely elusive if it is your main priority as a Christian. Indeed, it comes only when we seek God instead of ourselves. Those who come to the church expecting brand satisfaction, seeking to save their lives, will find neither.
Of course, if we resist the temptation to preach a non-gospel that would keep spiritual consumers coming back, we still face a challenge: How do we convince people who are dedicated to self-creation that life is really about the grace and power of God?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the recognition that consumerist self-creation is, in the end, a search for meaning. We therefore have the opportunity to meet consumers where they are by recognizing that the gospel is a doorway into the whole story of God—not simply a ticket to heaven, but the ongoing and enacted recognition, beginning with repentance, that we belong truly to God.
2. Discontent vs. the sufficiency of Christ. Perversely, though consumerism promises personal fulfillment, the economic cycle depends entirely on continual discontent. After all, consumerism is not about buying new cars—it's about buying new cars to make you feel new. Marketers know this and build planned obsolescence into their product lines so that the next purchase is always just around the corner.
There are many problems with this system. For starters, it's wasteful: The resources required to run our endlessly hungry engine of narcissism are staggering. (Check out the marvelous storyofstuff.com.) And it creates a decadent carelessness about material resources that favors discarding and replacing over recycling and repair—habits that came naturally to our grandparents.
Consumer discontent also carries twin spiritual pitfalls. First, our perpetual quest for comfort and happiness-inducing products actually kills any chance of satisfying our wants. The pleasure of purchasing a new product or service will last for a short while. Then it wears off, and we hanker for something new.
Second—in a perverse corollary—we can't handle discomfort any better. We seek new products at the first hint of irritation. Like clinically identifiable shopping addiction, this is an indicator of an astonishingly decadent culture. Most people in most places do not have the luxury of striving for pain-free lives.
Of course, having all of our needs met at all times is the precise opposite of what a disciple should expect. Paul expresses an indifference to circumstance that is born of spiritual maturity: "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:11b-13).
Paul's point is not that every need we perceive will be met—but that we will increasingly need less and less for contentment. Consumerist habits drive us in an endless and endlessly dissatisfying quest for new and different things. But discipleship, pursued in Christian community, is about becoming satisfied with just one thing: the Lord who gives us strength.
3. Brand relativism vs. the supremacy of Christ. A good marketer seeks to create the sorts of people who identify so strongly with a certain brand or brand family that another form of consumption is unimaginable. We all know what this looks like: It's the Chevy in front of you sporting a knockoff bumper sticker of Calvin (the comic-strip protagonist, not the theologian) doing something bad to the Ford logo, the guy at the gym adorned head to toe with the Nike swoosh, and your friend who would go back to a typewriter before she'd trade her Mac for a PC.
At face value, this kind of enthusiasm seems to indicate the superiority of given brands. But underlying this brand zealotry is the fundamental relativism inherent in consumerism.
That is, the Chevy brand is not inherently better than the Ford brand, or vice versa. One logo might do a better job of capturing hearts and minds; products might have competing technical merits. But to declare the inherent superiority of one brand over another is as ridiculous as saying that Bostonians are better than Chicagoans. By what standards? Brands communicate different things, to be sure: Mercedes says luxury where Honda says reliability. But both brands do what they are supposed to, and the superiority of one over the other is entirely in the mind—and preference—of the consumer.
The consumer who buys our marketing may well make Jesus his or her chosen brand, and the resulting zeal will look like passionate faith. Appearances deceive. Genuinely passionate faith is rooted in recognizing who Christ actually is. Brand zealotry, by contrast, is self-centered, because the supposed superiority of one brand over another depends on the brand devotee's enthusiasm. The zeal of the endorsement masks the inherent arbitrariness of the choice.
But the choice for Christ is not arbitrary. If a disgruntled Chevy man switches to Ford, Chevy loses and Ford gains; if we desert Christ in favor of another god, he is not diminished. Brand superiority is in the mind of the consumer, but Christ's divinity and worth are his own, regardless of what we think of him. He does not need our bumper stickers or T-shirts. These tell the world far more about who we are and what we like than they do about him.
Spiritual shoppers have no reason to think that Christianity is anything but one option among many. But the life of a holy church is a powerful witness to the contrary—perhaps most evidently in our celebration of the Lord's Supper, when we remember that the one we consume has already consumed us. The church reveals the supremacy of Christ in a world that denies his power when—crediting it all to God—we love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable, reconcile seemingly intractable hatreds and rejoice even in sorrow, persevere in hardship and serve to the point of sacrifice, and baptize and teach instead of consume and discard.
4. Fragmentation vs. unity in Christ. The key to successful marketing is niche segmentation: dividing a population into identifiable groups who behave in predictable ways based on consumer preferences. This is demographic analysis on steroids. A marketer can look at your monthly receipts—and in some cases, merely your Zip Code—and come away with seemingly clairvoyant knowledge about you.
Because niche segmentation enables marketers to target their messages to narrower audiences, it is reflected in our advertising. Moreover, it has allowed us to live lives that are increasingly tailor-made to our personal preferences. We live in neighborhoods of single-family homes populated by people like us, go to church with people like us, consume media targeted at people like us, and shop with people like us. All of this makes us more reluctant to inhabit a world with people who are not like us.
And this, of course, is a problem for the church. Christian unity is a paramount biblical value. Think of Jesus' prayer in John 17, Paul's exhortation to the Philippians to be of one mind in Christ, and the metaphor of the church as Christ's own body, with different members equal in mutual necessity and dignity. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, the unity of Christ trumped all of the principal divisions of Roman society: tribe, class, and gender. No identity marker matters as much as Christian does.
We must therefore be concerned about market segmentation infiltrating the church. It has resulted in two unacceptable outcomes: utterly homogenous churches representing consumer-based "clusters," and homogenous groupings within larger churches.
Both divide us along racial, socioeconomic, and age- and gender-based lines, each of which predicts consumer behavior. This is certainly a "pattern of this world" (Rom. 12:2).
Division along earthly lines is certainly not unique to Christians who live in consumerist societies. Crypto-tribalism passes for Christianity in nearly every time and place—think Northern Ireland. But recognizing segmentation in our context is the first step toward addressing it. This issue, in whatever culture, cuts to the heart of the church's proclamation about justification: We know that God is no respecter of persons, but how far are we willing to conform our lives to God's grace?
Consumerism is here to stay. The habits described above—self-creation, discontent, relativism, fragmentation—will become more dominant, not less, in years to come. That's the way of the globalized economy and ascendant transnational commercial interests. We cannot defeat our situation; we can only seek to live faithfully in it.
In order to do so, it's vital that we remember the true nature of Christ's church. Christians in every age have struggled to define the church, a difficult task because it is, uniquely, a divinely ordained human institution. So we use necessary similes: The church is like a family, a kingdom, a service organization, a lifeboat, a neighborhood, and—in our day—a business.
But problems begin when we define the church as a whole using a comparison that just describes one of its attributes: i.e., treating the church as a business with a brand to promote. And then, even though there are all sorts of ways the church isn't like a business, we begin to employ all the tools of commercial enterprise as though we were paying the body of Christ some compliment by treating it like a Fortune 500 company, with a bottom line, investor returns, supply chain, CEOS, market share, and so on. If we treat the gospel like a commodity, can we fault nonbelievers for thinking that the cross is just another logo?
But we also need to recognize that no matter what we do, consumerism will unavoidably define the context for how people view the church in our consumerist age. All communication will be perceived as marketing. All self-presentation, even church advertising, will be perceived as branding. And all outreach will be viewed as sales. There is nothing we can do to change this context.
All the more reason for us to defy expectations. Spiritual consumers will come to Christianity as do window shoppers at a mall, wanting a spirituality tailor-made to their preferences. They will want this because consumption is the only salvation they have ever known. They will bring all of their riches and perversely be unable to conceive of grace because they cannot imagine a thing that cannot be bought.
They will come before our stained-glass seeking a storefront in exactly the same way that people in Jesus' day came to him, searching for what they expected to find. Then they were looking for a crazy man, a teacher, a healer, a prophet, a revolutionary—and, at the end, a corpse. Today they are looking for a spiritual brand.
In Jesus' time, they found a living Messiah and Lord. They found the God for whom they had not even been looking. The question for us in our time is whether seekers will find the world-transforming body of the Lord, formed by the Spirit—whether, expecting something new to buy, they will instead be surprised by God.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the article failed to clarify that it was only the Four Spiritual Laws themselves that do not mention the church. The document does mention church in a separate section.
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