After last week’s blog post, a friend suggested I continue the theme of advertising and marketing as it pertains to the church and Christianity. My first response was hesitation, as I knew writing about that means a little (or a lot) of self-criticism. But after thinking about it more, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. So here it goes…
As many writers and pastors have noted (like James K. A. Smith in Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?), our Western culture, whether in the modern or postmodern age, has been defined by individualism and consumerism. We are wealthy, but we a greedy. We have much, but we waste too much. This sin runs so deep in us North Americans that we don’t even notice it, but instead celebrate our prosperity with abandon.
For some reason we get upset and split the church because of differences in beliefs regarding sexual orientation, while the issue of money and greed goes on the back burner as something left to the realm of personal discernment. The sad part is that we have often not been countercultural when it comes to money and consumerism; in fact, we have conformed to the patterns of this world.
I think there are two ways in which the church and “Christian” culture have been co-opted into consumerism. We have used Jesus to sell and we have tried to sell Jesus.
I love listening to all kinds of music from classical to heavy rock. Ever since I was a child, I was encouraged to find “Christian” version of the groups I liked. Eminem was secular, but KJ-52 was “Christian.” Greenday was to be avoided, but MXPX was great. I personally bought into this so much, throwing my money and adoration to the “Christian” market. I loved going to “Christian” bookstores and spending time looking through all this wholesome merchandise.
Christianity has become big business in North America. We have “Christian” music, movies, posters, self-help books, bracelets, pictures, drums, and anything else you can imagine. That’s not to say that some of it isn’t good, but the “Christian" industry claims to have all the weight of God and the church behind it. We, as Christians, should buy these products because they are “Christian.” I get countless emails about the latest "Christian" movies that I, as a pastor, just need to promote to my church. It's the "Christian" thing to do.
The problem is that the “Christian” industry follows the same rules as regular industry. It’s all about profit. For so long, this wasn't a problem because business was good. But now, as more and more “Christian” bookstores are closing, we are reminded that although they may be interested in our faith journey, they need to make profits in order to survive.
Now that the “Christian” industry heyday appears to be coming to an end, many artists are coming forward, admitting the flaws and hypocrisy present in these businesses. Musicians have pretended to be people of faith because they knew they could make more money. “Christian” music labels expected their artists to portray a certain image, but behind closed doors, it was a different story.
Why am I using quotations for the word Christian? Because when it comes down to it, there is no such thing as “Christian” music or a “Christian” movie. People are Christians, not things. I believe if Jesus saw our appropriation of Christianity as a means to sell, He would have another moment of overturning tables. If you’re interested in learning about what some people in the industry are now saying, make sure to check out the What Would Jesus Sell? documentary coming out soon.
Skye Jethani, in his short book How Churches Became Cruise Ships, compares the transition of ocean liners to cruise ships to the change we have seen in the church in the last 50 years. We have become consumer churches, trading reverence for relevance in an attempt to draw people into our buildings.
Like cruise ships, churches have started to see themselves as the destination, and if that’s the case, we need to be creative in how we market ourselves so that more people come to us. Huge buildings, expensive equipment, extravagant youth rooms, lights, coffee shops, and consolidation to make going to church a fun and impressive experience. The thing is, we’ve bought it.
We look for churches based on their programming and how much we enjoyed the service. Worship services have become a product for us to consume instead of something that we participate in and create when we gather. Instead of focusing on drawing us into relationship with God and each other, we have focused on drawing people to the church and making our budgets.
This isn’t a question of a small versus large church or a rich versus poor church, this is a question of attitude and focus. We have followed culture in using the same kinds of consumeristic marketing strategies in order to sell Jesus to people. Although I believe our intentions are good, the declining state of our churches should at least give us a hint that people aren’t buying it anymore.
People crave something ancient. They want the ability to explore the large life questions, to dig deeper into faith, to worship and meet God. I see this in the Mennonite church in the many young people who leave our churches to worship in mainline liturgical congregations. In many ways, contemporary evangelical churches have tried to attract people by filling "wants" instead of filling "needs" in their efforts to bring people to God. We have looked inward instead of being missional and have become a burden rather than a blessing to our communities.
So let the self-criticism begin. As a pastor, I find myself having to fight thoughts of consumerism all the time. I want people to enjoy their church experience. I want to brand and design our church to the outside world. I want people to leave church feeling like they want to come back. And so I will wear the right clothes, say the right things, and play a certain part. The most natural thing is for me to turn myself and our church into a product, becoming a salesperson for Jesus. Especially when someone new comes just once or twice but never again, I wonder what I did wrong that made them not come back. Maybe I need more jokes in my sermon? I constantly need to remind myself that this attitude misses the point.
We can’t sell Jesus and we should never try to use Jesus to sell. I realize that this might mean I will one day be out of a job. It may mean that Sterling Mennonite Fellowship, as an institution, may one day no longer exist. It may mean that we will no longer have any “Christian” bookstores. But I think that’s the point. Jethani encourages us to rediscover our ancient tradition and to remember that the church does not exist to keep institutions running and pastors paid. It exists as the body of Christ through which people can encounter God.
Christians need to challenge our obsession with consumerism in all aspects of life, but especially in the church. We need to question our dis-integrated dualism, as Jethani calls it, that makes us believe we need to have separate “Christian” culture, industry, business and products. Are we really meant to segregate and start “Christian” dentistries, construction companies, and bakeries? Or are we called to be people of faith in whichever industry we work, being missional in an authentic way to the people around us? Perhaps we need to stop spending so much on ourselves as the church, and instead challenge ourselves to use our wealth to benefit the poor and vulnerable, becoming a blessing to our communities instead of just those people who come to us.
It’s easy to use Jesus to sell to people who want to follow Him. It’s easy to sell Jesus to a culture that’s obsessed with consuming. But the Christian life is not meant to be easy. And if anything, it’s not supposed to be cheap. We need to find ways to once again be vehicles to God rather than the destination, drawing people into real, meaningful connections with God, reaching out to our communities by actually reaching out. I'm slowly seeing this shift in my context and it makes me excited to be a part of the church today.