We now live in the age of the mega-church, with many congregations of over 10,000 members and some with campuses in several cities. This shouldn’t be too surprising– the same thing is happening in the American retail industry. Americans love huge stores and huge churches.
You see, the churches have been to business school and have learned powerful and effective marketing skills. Some of this is good, because we are least trying to attract the lost. But there’s a dark side as well, which is that we try to package and market Jesus like Nikes or Big Macs. To do this, we customize the message to the market.
A minister asked me, “What kind of person are we trying to attract?” I think if we’d asked Jesus that while on earth, he’d have said, “I came to seek and save the lost.” And then he would have blistered us with some sort of retort, such as, “The pagans seek to surround themselves with people like themselves. If your righteousness is no greater than that, what reward will you have?” or “I came to preach the good news to the poor and sick and those in prison. Let him who has ears understand!”
The church growth movement isn’t so much wrong as it’s incomplete. It’s idolized success, and measured success by the number of people in the pews. Jesus never thought this way. He certainly went to great lengths to seek and save the lost, but he spoke to all levels of society, all races, and all ethnicities. And he very often failed to convert those he preached to.
(John 6:65-69) [Jesus] went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” 66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus’ preaching often offended his listeners.
(Matt. 19:20-22) “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
The point isn’t that failure to convict is a good thing. Rather, the truth cannot be compromised even a little bit just to get numbers up or even to be more successful at “saving” the lost. If we convert people to a diluted, adulterated gospel, we aren’t doing them any favors.
Jesus was a master teacher, but he was an awful marketer. In three years of teaching, he managed to get himself killed and was left with 120 disciples, led by a man who’d deserted him in his darkest hour. He taught and fed and healed crowds of thousands, and died with only a precious handful at the foot of the cross.
We’ve fallen into the trap of trying to sell Christianity as a bundle of “goods and services,” using the methods of the marketplace. We read where people are lonely, and so we put relationships on the shelf and run a two-for-the-price-of-one sale.
We read where young people are into music, and so we divide our churches based on musical taste, as though newcomers should be called to be enabled in their selfishness, rather than to serve others.
You see, we start with the assumption that we must package the message to be attractive, and so we fail to teach the unattractive parts of the gospel. (I’m still not saying this well enough. Let’s try this–)
The point of the gospel isn’t that if you join this church your felt needs will be met. That’s the point of a country club or Sam’s Club. Those who’ve not yet been converted have the WRONG felt needs. They are selfish. They haven’t yet learned to love as Jesus loved. Therefore, if we market to what they want, we are marketing to what the world wants, and so we become very much like the world. Over time, we become what we say we are–and we become our marketing material. And we become a worldly society with a steeple and stained glass.
The gospel not only meets our needs, it changes our needs. And what a Christian wants and what gives a Christian joy is different from what the world wants and enjoys. Now, this creates a very difficult marketing challenge. How do we encourage someone to want something that they don’t yet want? How do we make a lifestyle attractive to those who haven’t been changed by the Holy Spirit?
For example, I want to join a country club filled with people just like me–maybe even a little better than me. I join to make friends, and I most easily befriend folks very much like myself. That’s human nature. And so, some church growth consultants tell us to market the church to those people most like ourselves.
This is worldly wise and just as anti-Christian as can be. We cannot convert people to Christianity by un-Christian means.
Jesus–the holiest person ever, who descended to earth from unspeakable riches–spent most of his time with sinners and the poor. At a time when Jews considered Roman Gentiles unclean and detestable occupiers, Jesus associated with a Roman centurion. Jesus touched lepers and allowed prostitutes to wash his feet.
The result was to offend many. Many religious people refused to accept Jesus because he was completely unconventional. He didn’t meet their expectations. Nor did he meet the felt needs of many. Indeed, he often went out of his way to flout social convention. As a result, when he was tried before Pilate, nearly all his “disciples” deserted him.
You’d think the Son of God would know marketing better than that!
Just so, the great sin of the Church Growth Movement is to demand too little, to enable selfish attitudes, and make Christianity seem a bargain.
(Matt. 13:44-46) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
(Luke 14:26-33) “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
The Church Growth Movement of the 1990’s is the product of attitudes that go back for decades. Before the 1960’s, America was highly churched but not highly Christian. When the church was challenged to support the civil rights movements in the 1960’s, nearly all the white congregations were too worldly and too racist to help.
Even today, we divide ourselves into black and white churches–even white and black denominations. Surely this proves the worldly nature of modern Christianity!
When welfare and sexual license were destroying families and producing millions of children without fathers, the church would only preach against it. No one actually helped the poor buy groceries if they surrendered their welfare check to get married.
True Christianity, the Christianity that Jesus died to bring us, is about joy but it’s also about giving. It’s about friendships, but it’s friendship with fellow workers and servants. It’s about meeting needs, but it’s meeting them in God’s way.
Jesus promised us joy–and persecution; a light and easy yoke–that costs us everything. He rebuilds and reworks our hearts and minds so that we take pleasure in the very things that delight God. Ultimately, we learn to hang our old selves on the cross so that we can be resurrected to be like Jesus.
How do you market a cross? Especially when it costs you everything for privilege of being crucified? I have trouble thinking of this as an ad campaign or brochure for the church foyer.
Ultimately, the only marketing that matters is what we do.