Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Critiquing My Own Criticisms

I've sometimes posted my concerns regarding the "marketing" of Christianity. I want to add another example, and also to address some thoughtful responses I've heard or received.

On our trip back from the northeast yesterday I saw one of those billboards purportedly saying things God would want to say, if He chose to. The one I passed said "All I know is . . . everything. God." I'm not sure what the point is. I guess getting people to realize the God is omniscient is good.

Personally, I would be hesitant to put words out there and attribute them to God. Does anyone else feel apprehensive about being a publicist for God? "Here's what God would say . . . " seems presumptuous. To me it would be different putting on the sign actual things God did say, but putting words in God's mouth?? I don't want to go there.

Now I know that you may feel that I am being too critical, too hard on these attempts to make people more God-aware . . . and some have referred to Paul's observation that for whatever reasons, good or bad, at least Christ was being preached. If these marketing campaigns get people to think about God, isn't that good?

Not necessarily. We must encourage helpful, true, transforming thought about God. For me there is an important reason that Paul's words do not fit this situation.

There are two things Paul is talking about: motivation and message. In his case, he says that a true message is being communicated though the motives may differ. However, in the marketing situations I see just the opposite: there is a true motviation, but the technique of marketing changes the message. Paul says that if the message presented is true, then we won't worry about the motives. I don't doubt the motives of anyone who is marketing their faith, but I'm concerned that the message is unwittingly changed in the process.

Whether it is billboards, slick presentations, the ads in the movie theaters in our area offering rocking music, free donuts, and Starbucks coffee if you attend the advertising church, mass mailers, or other marketing techniques, it seems to me that the message is being changed . . . and that is not what Paul was talking about. It's not all good just because the subject is God.

How is the message changed? When we start trying to appeal to people, to market Jesus to them, we are leaving the proclamation of "Christ and him crucified" and are trying to find ways to "package" and "spin" a life of faith to people so that they will be attracted to it.

Does this change the message? Yes, I think so. We put matters of faith right along side shampoo, dietary supplements, fried chicken, and everything else that is being peddled. Paul said something about not using rhetorical techniques to persuade, and not peddling the gospel. I believe that there is a subtle change in the message, not an overt one, but a change through the very fact that we are trying to "sell" a life of faith. Paul had deeply theological reasons for not employing the refined Greek rhetorical oratory techniques of his day. Often I hear that we ought to use whatever means are available to advance the cause of Christ. Why didn't Paul think that way?

Many others have made the observation that when people have Christianity marketed to them as something to meet their needs, we should not be surprized that they rebel at the idea of Christ calling them to self-sacrifice. After all, the initial appeal was that God would serve them . . . not that they would serve God. Christianity was presented in the same was as a "product" to enhance their lives . . . much like a wrinkle-reducing cream. No wonder they balk at the hard teachings of Jesus. We can't appeal to people's appetites, and then turn around and call on them to abandon their appetites to the desires of God.

Some others have wondered if Paul's concept of becoming all things to all men would justify such an approach. Again, I think this suggestion misunderstands the thrust of Paul's statement. Paul is not saying that any means may be employed to reach a desired end. He is not talking about techniques of sharing Christian faith.

Instead, Paul is addressing his own self-sacrificing posture in sharing his faith. He is not saying to those who want a quick-fix, he becomes a quick-fixer; to those who are looking for something to enhance their own lives, he becomes one who enhances their lives. If they want a buddy, he becomes a buddy. Some suggest that Paul is describing how he becomes whatever his audience wants, which sounds very much like a marketing technique, but there is a difference between incarnational identification and serving the tastes of people.

Paul is declaring that he works incarnationally, leaving his own desires and self for the sake of others. He is not saying that he markets the message to people in a way they want to receive it. Rather than forcing Jews to act as Gentiles, or Gentiles as Jews, Paul presents gospel as gospel. He gets himself out of the way so as not to contaminate the message with his own Jewishness.

We cannot adjust the message of the cross to make it appealing to our audience, but instead wait for the Holy Spirit to adjust the audience to make it desire the message of the cross.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


Today we did the mid-town part of Manhattan. It was less hectic than yesterday. We just got to amble around and take in the sights, look in shops, and enjoy the beautiful (low humidity) weather.

It was good family time.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Spent the day in lower Manhattan today - doing sightseeing and the usual tourist things.

I am thoroughly overtaken by the diversity of humanity. The subway, with everyone lost in reading a paperback, the paper, or listening to music, emphasizes the isolation that is possible among so many people. There was a salesman in our subway car on one trip, trying to sell Duracell batteries for $1.00. His pitch was you didn't want to wait until the music stopped to get new batteries. Just made me think . . . how we wouldn't want the cocoon of music to stop.

Later on the ferry back to Battery Park, a young jewish man was shooting pictures out of the same window as me, trying to get just the right shot of the the Statue of Liberty - and I noticed the earphones he was wearing - keeping him company on the ride.

Probably if I had an ipod I would be doing the same (he actually had a CD player).

Connecting, community. The urban setting has so many possibilities for community . . . but I probably wouldn't cultivate it if I were living here. The fact that I have to work to build it in my life right now is a good indication I would struggle even in the middle of so much humanity.

I've got much to learn about living relationally.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


My absence from the blogging world has been caused by recent travels - and upcoming ones.

Last week I acompanied some of the young people on a retreat and had a blast. Tomorrow our family leaves a week in the Big Apple, though I do hope to blog some from there.

We'll see what happens.

Monday, July 11, 2005


I am somewhat suspicious of the number of churches around here that claim 70-80% of their members are from the ranks of the "unchurched" population.

I associate "unchurched" with my African missions experience: never, ever been Christian.

Obviously, in the Bible-belt south there aren't many "unchurched" people unless they are recent immigrants (and virtually none of the Hispanic population is unchurched).

I think it is a point of pride and straining for legitimacy for a church to claim such a high number of "unchurched" people in its ranks. They are fending off the accusation that their new mega-church edifice is just rearranging the sheep - taking them from more traditional congregations and entertaining them with a more appealing show.

Here's Barna's definition:
An adult (18 or older) who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, not including a holiday service (such as Easter or Christmas) or a special event at a church (such as a wedding or funeral).

Thom Rainer has a more stringent definition: one who has not been in church, except sporadically, for at least ten years (most for a lifetime).

A Presbyterian group says: The general definition of an unchurched person is anyone who has not attended church other than Christmas, Easter or special events in the past five years.

My guess is that some are sliding towards definitions even less stringent than Barna - saying something like "someone who was uninvolved in his or her previous congregation," "was just an attender," or "never was a regular weekly church-goer". Barna says if you miss 24 Sundays (excepting high holy days) and you are a prime unchurched prospect. I guess that means anyone can woo you into their group with a clear conscience. No sheep rustling here!

I wonder if the reason "unchurched" has become a popular term is that it would be much harder to say these people aren't Christian. But because we want it to sound like we aren't simply taking sheep from other flocks, we declare people "unchurched" so it sounds like we are carrying the Gospel to places its never been.

Most of us in our congregation weren't unchurched people. We can't even approach the high percentages of unchurched "members" of the congregations around us. Maybe I would say that 10% were not churched. The few I would point to as being unchurched before joining with us in a faith community hadn't been in a church, nor practicing a person faith-walk with Jesus, in over 20 years, if ever. Such a person I would say was "someone coming to Jesus."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Chair Arrangements

For two weeks our sanctuary has been arranged so that we are meeting "in the round" with Christ in the center, his presence indicated by the bread and cup. There is no "front" - only believers gathered around a center.

Like so many different ways of experiencing our worship together, this one brings its own blessings and richness. Of course, we are not searching for some way that we will ultimately settle on so that we might "do it right". All aspects of our journey are a continuing seeking that brings constant change, and if that restless pursuit of God can be expressed through a shifting physicality in the forms of our worship times - so much the better.

My daughter wants us to keep it this way - she says she likes it. I do too.