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.

1 comment:

Ken Haynes said...

Good thoughts....thanks for putting them down...or up or whatever. Guess some would make the distinction of Marketing vs. Communicating...However, you still have a bunch of the same stuff going on. Just softer language...