The Dangers of Church Advertising

Church advertising is dangerous. We have the model of Jesus (God incarnate among us as an ordinary human being), the model of Paul (I Cor. 9 – all things to all people) teaching us to make what we have accessible to outsiders. But the two dangers are that we start using a “Bait & Switch” method or that we water down what we preach, teach, practice & believe so it is indistinguishable from the world.

The above link takes you to a discussion of this issue in the Deseret News in Utah. As far as I can tell, the Mormons pioneered the modern use of advertising in religion with their “Family” spots. When non-Mormons see these ads they think something like, “Aw, I remember those days… back before everyone in the family was off doing their own thing. Back in the days when we had real togetherness. Back before the problems of divorce & child abuse.” Not being a Mormon, and never having been in any of their strategy sessions, I think their appeal to American nostalgia could be really effective. From my understanding of Mormon doctrine, it is also truthful advertising. Family IS important in Mormonism – more important than outsiders can conceive. Eternal life for Mormons is all about family – being with your family for eterity; begetting spirit children; creating and ruling over a world where your spirit children can take on bodies and repeat the cycle. You don’t get all that in their ads, but there is a direct line between the doctinal position and the advertising message.

But what about the United Methodist advertising campaign? Our motto isn’t “Family is forever,” but “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors.” How will the average American hear this? That we are OPEN. We don’t believe anything in particular, and to be a United Methodist you don’t have to believe anything in particular – unless its believing in Openness (not believing in anything in particular). In the Deseret News piece Steve Godier of Christ UMC says;

“It says a lot about who we are theologically. That we’re not so dogmatic that we’ll tell you what to believe.”

It is un-American to tell people what to believe. The Mormons don’t – they just hitch on to the modern American nostalgia for family. We UMs hitch on to the modern American desire to be autonomous, to practice atomistic individualism. Do you want to believe in God? That’s ok. Want to believe Jesus was only a wandering Cynic philosopher? That’s ok. Want to believe he was killed, and his body eaten by dogs? That’s ok. Want to believe the resurrection had nothing to do with Jesus’ body, but onoly reflects the fact that after he died some people came to think Jesus was a great guy? That’s ok too. But – if you want to believe there is such a thing as truth and that it actually matters – and that one of the jobs of United Methodists is to help people become disciples of a Jesus who actually was and is, who is NOT made in their own image – that is a sin against openness.

When the advertising campaign first came out I corresponded with some of the campaign staff. I shared my concern that it gave the impression that UMs have no doctrine. Their comment was that the UMC did indeed have doctrine, but advertising wasn’t the place for it. We needed to get people in the (open) door first, and THEN give them doctrine. My response was that we UMs were already so deeply enculturated in American Autonomous Individualism, that even UMs would be mislead by this campaign. They would also seek to conform their churches (which had doctrine) to the slogan (no doctrine) so they wouldn’t be accused of using Bait & Switch. And now we see that a pastor – a leader of a church – happens to think exactly that.

Now I’m afraid we have even more work to do.

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