I first ran across Seth Godin while reading Fast Company a few years ago. His new book is just out and the title alone has provoked me: All Marketers Are Liars. Back in 1988 George Barna wrote Marketing the Church. People responded in two ways. (1) This is horrible. How can we take a secular concept like marketing and apply it to the church? It’s sacrilege! (2) Wow! We really need to help people connect with Jesus and his people. We can use the same kinds of communication tools the world uses to get people to buy stuff. It’s just like the Israelite’s plundering the Egyptians when they escaped from slavery!
Barna’s book was far form the first in the church growth genre, but it was one of the most influential, and established Barna as a Wise Person in the church. He has since written many more books and published many more studies.
But what about Godin’s title (I’ve read the title, not the book, so I can talk about it)?
I’ve seen many indications that large and successful churches have adopted an instrumentalist view of the Gospel. By this I mean something like, “If you accept Jesus (as your personal Savior), join the church, go through X, Y, and Z programs, then you will be healthy and successful in life. Your marriage will be great, your kids will turn out ok, you will be a good and productive citizen.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? I confess that want to be healthy and successful. I want to have a great marriage and kids who turn out ok. I want to be a good and productive citizen. But then I read the rest of the Bible.
Jesus said some odd things that don’t fit with the Happy Life gospel. He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” This idea of following Jesus in to suffering forms a subtext of the rest of the New Testament. The picture of the Christian life seen there is a life that doesn’t fit well with the Good Life as proclaimed by the world power of the day (Rome). Have we come so far now that the Christian life fits well with the Good Life as proclaimed by the power of the day (Hollywood? Madison Avenue? K Street? etc.)? I have my doubts.
Is the instrumentalist approach wrong? Is it simply a bait and switch marketing strategy? Not exactly. When we follow Jesus, when we submit to him and live as he taught us, continually formed and informed by the Holy Spirit who lives within us, we find that we are living in accordance with the way we were made. In simple english, yes, there are benefits to being a Christian and a member of the church. But – when we reduce the benefits and reasons for being a Christian and a member of the church to those readily understood by outsiders, i.e., what the Bible calls the ways of the world, then we are missing out on an essential dimension of what God is trying to do.
So how do we market the church – invite people? Can I tell them we have the nicest people in town? We certainly have plenty of nice people, but we also have people who are bitter, immature, unforgiving, self-centered and narrow-minded. Can I tell them we have the best programs? We certainly have some good ministry happening, but since we have a limited budget and only a couple of part time staff people and constantly need more volunteers, I’m sure they can find flashier ones elsewhere. Can I tell them we have the best preacher? I work hard at it, but I don’t have any delusions that I’m the best.
When I invite people I don’t lift up any of these as the main reason people should consider us. What I do instead is point to the story of what God has done, is doing and will do. I tell them that God has invited us to join him in that activity. I then invite them to join us as we join God.
Does it work? Are the hordes flocking in? Not yet. But at least I think I’m telling the truth.