“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
— Brennan Manning, “The Ragamuffin Gospel”
When I was in college, I somehow landed a contract to produce an ad campaign for the largest Baptist church in Tuscaloosa.
I wasn’t qualified for the job, but the father of a friend of mine was an influential deacon at the church. She had told him about me — and apparently convinced him I would be great — so he approached me about the work. I wrote and produced a couple of television spots, several radio spots, newspaper ads and printed flyers.
I’m sorry to say that my work was very forgettable.
I was naive enough — and arrogant enough — to believe I was smart enough to sell faith in a new way. I was studying marketing and various forms of communication in college, so I became convinced the church would be smart to use modern marketing methods. It all made sense.
I now understand how wrong I was, but it seems that most of the modern church makes the same mistake I made many years ago.
I acted as though we were selling soap. Or soft drinks. Or a political candidate. I thought we just needed to sell the benefits of “the Christian life” — in the vaguest of terms — and then hope people stuck around to get baptized and then become part of the church.
I thought we were making a one-time sale to people — getting their ticket punched for heaven — and then nothing much mattered after we counted up our converts and baptisms. If we had a bunch of people being baptized and joining the church, that was success.
I wouldn’t have said any of that, but I acted that way. I now understand just how spiritually bankrupt my approach was, because I now see how little I understood about God. My religious training hadn’t really demanded much out of me. We were expected to be morally good people — and that part was easy for me — but being a Christian didn’t really require much of me. That was about it.
My church involvement had nothing to do with a contemplative life of learning God’s spirit and seeking him. As for building loving community, we had what amounted to a happy social club of people who mostly lived socially conservative lives.
But I can’t say that anything about the life I experienced changed me on the inside. That’s what I wanted. I longed to be changed on the inside — “transformed by the renewal of your mind,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans — but I found little interest in such things from the adult leaders. They seemed interested in people learning Bible stories and in building our numbers, not to mention raising money to build buildings and buy nicer things.
We said all the right things. A lot of people genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. I understand now that all we had to sell was a socially conservative lifestyle — and membership in our happy little social club.
When I see churches doing marketing today, I believe they’re almost exactly like what I grew up with. They’re selling membership in a social group. They’re not selling the kind of powerful love and community in which caring people seek God together and try to live as Jesus taught.
It’s become popular for the church to use marketing which is indistinguishable from the kinds of sales pitches that are used for consumer products. You can get t-shirts which seem more like parody, but they’re seen by a lot of people as “outreach.”
I saw this electronic sign at a church near my house as I drove home tonight, flashing “Jesus 2020” among its various advertising messages. I’m sure the people who go to the church are nice people. I’m sure that whoever decided to put this “campaign slogan for Jesus” on their board meant well.
But there is no power in this faint imitation of a fallen world.
If we as Christians suddenly lived as Jesus taught his followers to live — and if we had the sort of humble love among ourselves that characterized the early followers — we wouldn’t have to sell anything. If we were truly what he taught us to be, people would be beating our doors down, demanding to know how we’re different — and how they can be like us.
Instead, we have people who grow up in a church and simply stay connected — or who feel a one-time tug inside that makes them eager to find God — but for the vast majority, it stops right there. Many of these people get baptized. Many go to churches, some regularly and others all the time. Some people live chaotic lives that have nothing to do with God, but feel the vague need to “get active in church” after they have children.
But very few ever find anything powerful in their spiritual lives, much less real spiritual community.
We need to stop imitating the world. We need to stop acting as though we’re marketing cars or soft drinks or a brand of soap.
We need to get really quiet and really humble. We need to shut out the ways of the world and develop loving communities where we can seek God’s spirit and come to understand how to live as Jesus wanted us to.
If we ever do that, the world will be changed. But before that can happen, we have to change ourselves. And we will never do that by imitating the tools and methods of this dysfunctional and hateful culture.