Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 21, 2009

If Only the Church Was More Like Starbucks

ct-starbucks-jesus-logo

Barista Jesus?

I laughed out loud when the January 2009 edition of Christianity Today arrived in the mail a few weeks ago and I saw the cover: a “Jesus logo” that looked remarkably similar to the logo seen on all Starbucks locations.  And the cover said it all: “Marketing Jesus: How to evangelize without turning God into a brand.”  Inside, on pages 20-26, was a thoughtful article by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson titled, “Jesus Is Not a Brand,” with the header, “Why it is dangerous to make evangelism another form of marketing.”

One philosophy that has floated around the church for a while is the idea that a congregation needs to market itself to a target audience in its community.  Now, to an extent, it certainly helps to recognize what our area is like and how we can reach our unique community with the gospel.  One will probably not reach many people in the neighborhood if a congregation offers a VBS (Vacation Bible School) for little children when the church is located in a retirement community.  But it is all to easy to cross the line from a church that preaches Christ and reaches out with Christ to a churchly organization that offers services to the community and scratches the itch that is “felt needs” — which, most of the time, is not going to be an itch for forgiveness, redemption, and salvation.  Finding creative avenues to reach the lost with Christ is a good thing, but if proclaiming Christ doesn’t become the final goal of our outreach, have we really reached out with the gospel?

The cover article from the January 2009 edition of Christianity Today makes many similar points.  I’d like to share a several quotations from the article here.  As always, the reference to the article and the inclusion of quotes should not be understood as a total endorsement of the article or, for that matter, everything in the pages of Christianity Today.  But what follows offers some good food for thought when it comes to so-called church marketing techniques.

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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). …

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.

If you’d like to read the entire article, you can find it here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/10.20.html.

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