Marketing the Church

In the late 1980’s George Barna, Christian pollster extraordinaire, warned the church that if she didn’t get with the program and become relevant to modern Americans then she risked utter marginalization. He urged pastors to begin marketing the church the way successful companies market their products. Two of his books “Church Marketing” and “The Handbook of Church Marketing” go so far as to say that Jesus and the Gospel are the church’s “product.”

In this new paradigm we learned that people don’t want doctrine. They want experience. They want excellence and better stage lighting and funny dramas. They want video and professional musicians and sermons that are (say it with me) “relevant.” And so, since the late 80’s church’s have made it known that they will not “bore” people with the eternal oracles of God. They will not present anything that is complex or mysterious. They will certainly make no demands. They will not declare, “Thus says the Lord.” Rather, they will courageously say, “Have it your way!”

Ironically, in the last few years, George Barna’s voice has been among those warning about the problem of biblical illiteracy and lack of basic Christian worldview among professing Christians. To Barna I would like to say, “What did you expect? For twenty years evangelical pastors have faithfully followed your advice about how to make their church’s bigger.”

Accurately diagnosing the problem with the modern “seeker-sensitive” movement David Wells writes:

The idea at the heart of this experiment was always rather simple. If Coca-Cola can sell its drinks, if Lexus can market its cars, why can’t the church, using the same principles, the very same techniques, market its message? After all, this is the language that all Americans understand because all Americans are consumers. And so it was that the seeker-sensitive church emerged, reconfigured around the consumer, edges softened by marketing wisdom, pastors driven by business savvy, selling, always selling, but selling softly, alluringly, selling the benefits of the gospel while most, if not all, of the costs were hidden. Indeed, it got worse than this. Sometimes what was peddled was a gospel entirely without cost, to us and apparently also to Christ, a gospel whose grace is therefore so very cheap. And it has gotten worse. Just as often, the gospel has vanished entirely and been replaced only by feel-good therapy. The message has been about a God without wrath, bringing man without sin, into a kingdom without a judgment, through a Christ without a cross…all that we might feel good about ourselves and come back to “church” next week. This, actually, is how Niebuhr described the old, defunct Liberal gospel! But, never mind. Buoyed by George Barna’s statistics and flushed with success, seeker-sensitive pastors have sallied forth into the consumer fields in ever more inventive and extraordinary ways to bring in the harvest now ripened, now ready to be gathered and fetched into their auditoriums.

But to what are these seekers coming? Gone are all the signs of an older Christianity. Churches that once looked like churches, symbols of a message transcendent in origin, have now been replaced by auditoriums, and some of them might even be mistaken as business convention centers. Indeed they might even pass as showrooms – boats and home appliances on display during the week and Jesus on the weekend. And why not? Gone after all, is the transcendent message, and what remains, really, is quite this-worldly. And this is subtly broadcast visually. Pews have been replaced by chairs, the pulpit by a stage or, maybe, a plexiglass stand, the Scripture reading by a drama group, the choir by a set of sleek writhing singers who could be straight out of a show in Vegas, and everywhere the Jumbotrons, the technology, the wizardry of a control so complete that it all comes off as being super-casual. This church stuff is no sweat; it’s fun! It is to this that seekers are coming. Indeed, far more frequently than we might wish to know, it is only to this they are coming.

Barna, at least, is now dismayed. His assiduous polling, which initially launched his experiment in how to “do church,” has now been following behind it and churning up some truly alarming findings. You see, none of this pizzazz and glitz has made an iota of difference to those who have been attending. They have been living on our postmodern “bread,” on technology and entertainment alone, and not on the Word of God. The result is that they are now living no differently from those who are overtly secular, he says. They have no Christian worldview, they exhibit no Christian character, and they show no Christian commitment. Their pastors, he says, measure their own success by the number of attendees and the square footage of the building, but the people who attend, those who are born again, show none of the signs of the radical discipleship that Jesus demanded. Am I just old fashioned when I wonder to myself whether there might be a causal connection between this flagging discipleship and the abandoned biblical concerns about truth, the irrelevant orthodoxy, in these seeker-sensitive churches?

David Wells from By Faith Alone


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