There is a story that is often told at business conferences about a dog food company that needed to improve sales. The CEO of the company called a meeting, and the problem of declining sales was analyzed by various consultants and experts. Maybe the product needed a new marketing plan. Perhaps if the bag was a different color or if the commercials had snazzier music, sales would improve.
This went on for months and sales never improved. In fact, they got worse. In absolute exasperation, the CEO yelled out, “I wish somebody would tell me what we’re doing wrong!”
In the back of the room, a sales associate raised their hand.
“What?,” the CEO demanded.
“I can tell you what’s wrong with sales.”
“By all means, enlighten us,” the CEO said.
“The dogs don’t like the food.”
Marketing wasn’t the problem. The problem was the product.
I thought of this story while sitting in another conference about how to reach the newest generation with the gospel. Studies show that, for some reason, Gen Z - the generation following the millennials, who followed Gen X, who followed the Boomers - aren’t responding to the gospel in acceptable numbers. This conference had invited several marketing experts to tell us how churches need to adapt to reach this new generation.
Pardon me if I have become a little cynical about these conferences. It’s just that I’ve been to so many of these conferences throughout my career. I’m a boomer and I remember when we were the “new generation.” The church is going to have to change, I said to my elders, if this new generation is going to be reached with the gospel.
And so, we changed. We changed the music. We changed our dress. Pastors don’t wear suits anymore. We wear skinny jeans and expensive sneakers. (Well, some of us do. Personally, I’ll never be caught dead in skinny jeans, but that’s another story.) We brought in smoke machines and video screens and rock bands who played so loud they could make your ears bleed.
We’ve started home churches, churches in shopping malls and in storefronts. We do church in local schools and in open air parks. We’ve changed everything we know to change and yet we still haven’t reached this generation – whatever generation you want to choose – with the gospel.
No one likes the product.
I do not mean to turn the gospel into a commodity. That’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is this. We proclaim the gospel has the power to change lives. We proclaim that the gospel can make people into better human beings. More than that, we teach that the gospel can make people into the people they were intended to be under God’s divine plan.
This generation isn’t buying it. The previous generation didn’t buy it. The next generation won’t either.
Because of what they see every day in the lives of those who proclaim to be Christian. Rarely can people remember an encounter with a Christian who was kind and loving. Everyone, on the other hand, has a story about a Christian who was rude and condescending. Many of us who are Christians won’t use the word anymore because it has become associated with attitudes of bigotry, hatefulness, and judgment. We introduce ourselves now as “Christ-followers.”
No one wants to be a Christian these days. The word is almost an insult in polite conversation.
Children watch their fathers who claim to be Christians act hatefully toward their mother and be consumed by the greed of careerism. Sometime in their early years, those children decide that they don’t want to be like their dad, and they reject the life choices he has made. They reject his Christianity as well.
People watch their neighbors going to church every Sunday and then see the hateful things they post on social media. They don’t want to be like their neighbors in any way and, for them, that means rejecting church as well.
I often ask my church what comes out of a tube of toothpaste when you squeeze it. They all shout back, “Toothpaste!” That’s wrong. What comes out is whatever is in the tube. We can’t assume toothpaste is in the tube just because it says toothpaste on the label.
And when life squeezes us, what comes out? Whatever is inside comes out. If anger and bitterness is inside, that’s what comes out. If the love and gentleness of Christ is inside, then that’s what comes out.
Sometimes, when a new product is being introduced, the marketing team will suggest a “soft launch.” Instead of an overpowering marketing campaign with commercial blitzes and well-coordinated social media campaigns, the product will be introduced slowly and specifically to those who will use it. When the product is released on a larger scale, it will be introduced as being offered “by popular demand.” Everyone owns one of these products. You must have one as well.
I wonder if we could have a soft launch as Christians in our own communities. What if we just went about our daily lives seeking Christ in every moment and every opportunity? What if husbands loved their wives as Christ loves the church? What if parents were focused on raising their children in the love and teachings of Christ? What if Christians cared for their neighbors? What if Christians lived every day in the confidence of God’s grace and loved Him so much that they would be generous in love to everyone around them?
Do you think anyone would notice? Do you think anyone would want a life like that?
I think so.
And I don’t think we’d have to come up with a new marketing plan to sell it.