(Part 3 of a series on Unbranding the Church)
Marketing the church produces “believers” (I’m using that term very loosely here) that look like the world. The natural result of marketing, the goal of which is to cater to the consumer, is to produce a happy and satisfied customer. Marketing seeks to meet a perceived need, whether created or real, by means of a product or service. If you take Christ out of the picture and talk specifically about what marketing in and of it self is designed to accomplish, it is simply about giving the audience what they want. If you then put Christ into this picture, you’ll find yourself compromising some less-than-desirable aspect of Christ in order to motivate the consumer to acceptance.
Christ Himself told us the world would hate us, hate Him and hate the Gospel (Matthew 10:22). He told us to take up our crosses and follow Him–not exactly a pleasant thought. He told us to go “outside the camp” to the despised and unpopular places of the world. At the heart the gospel is a call to ultimate sacrifice. It is a lifelong, deep and abiding commitment. It is putting aside our desires, dreams, ambitions, goals and agendas and submitting ourselves to the will of God and the mission of Christ. Put in those terms, the Gospel is not exactly a marketable commodity. And in fact, when you look at “church marketing” you will find that is not the gospel the North American evangelical church is trying to “sell.” Yet, it is the gospel Christ has called us to preach.
Today’s “gospel” is an add-on gospel. It is a gospel that fits within our schedule and hectic career. It is a gospel that limits our activities within the body of Christ to a few hours once or twice a week. It is a gospel that puts the primary responsibility of reaching others for Christ in the hands of the ministerial staff, and the responsibility of raising our children in Christ in the hands of energetic volunteer workers in a million-dollar decked-out children’s building. It is a gospel that will improve our lives, our marriages, our financial situation, our relationships, our schedule, our priorities and our future. It is not a self-sacrificing, submissive or dangerous gospel. It won’t get us killed. It seldom will get us in trouble. It doesn’t require us to give beyond what we think we can afford, or to sacrifice any of our core wants in the process. It doesn’t require us to practice it in public if it’s inconvenient or possibly offensive to others. It’s lightweight, attractive and geared toward making us better people. It is the gospel of abundance. It is quite clearly not gospel of the Bible.
Because the focus of marketing is on the consumer, how they (our consumer audience) will obtain satisfaction is ultimately the center of the marketing message. In the North American evangelical church, we often supplant Christ as the ultimate goal with a lesser message aimed at our audience. And when the audience’s satisfaction is the target, a tremendous compromise is placed on the gospel as it is most often delivered with the more difficult parts trimmed for the sake of a more successful sales pitch.
Often this message takes the form of “abundance marketing.” That is, the church’s message is that life in Christ will make you significantly happier, healthier, less depressed, more confident or emotionally well, and financially stable or wealthier than you are right now. John 10:10 is the often-quoted verse we use to rationalize this message (“I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly”) and we focus on the “blessings of God,” and that Jesus has come to make our lives better, by our own definition. While this message appeals to the audience, it is not grounded in Scripture and creates a tremendous problem down the road if people move toward the church based on what we have told them.
The fact is, material and personal blessings are not action-and-reaction-based results of salvation. We don’t see that modeled in the Bible. Most of the apostles died rather difficult deaths–some where crucified or stoned. Many early believers were tortured or killed, especially at the hands of the Roman empire. Skip forward to the present and we see more than 200 million believers worldwide without basic human rights. Last year alone about 3 million Christians lost their lives for their faith. Many are in prison for their beliefs, their families threatened, their livelihoods taken away. How then, does this state of affairs for the church worldwide coexist with what we are teaching about the prosperity and abundance seemingly inherent to our North American-style faith?
Moreover, what are we to say to someone who comes to faith in Christ and then contracts cancer, or loses their family business, or has a spouse die in a car accident, or is laid off from their job, or gets a divorce? Have their lives taken this downward turn as a result of their faith? Where is God in that situation? We must ask these questions when we have equated a relationship with Christ as a step toward an abundant life by North American standards, and that apparently is not happening for many Christ followers.
Abundance does not translate well. Examine also “abundance teaching” when looking at other cultures. In China, for instance, coming to faith in Christ may result in persecution, torture or death. In Indonesia, you can be thrown out of your family for coming to faith in Christ. In some areas of the Middle East, you will definitely be deported, and if you go so far as to attempt to convert someone from the predominant faith there, you can be killed–legally. How is it that Christ would have a gospel that allows some of His followers to be tortured on the one hand, and for others that same gospel would result in personal and material abundance? In other words, how can we tie prosperity, health and wealth–material blessings–to the gospel at all if it is not true in all circumstances? If material abundance does not follow conversation to Christianity in all cultures, why is it then so emphasized in ours?
Are persecuted believers enduring hardship because they are less faithful than North American believers? Is it biblical to preach that Jesus will take care of our problems, rid or disease or illness, multiply our wealth or make right our financial status as a result of our faith? Or, really, could the opposite be true? The Bible speaks repeatedly about the persecution of Christ-followers. It tells us to endure hardship for His sake. Could faithfulness to Christ in the midst of suffering be a way to glorify Him?
Here’s a question–In which of the following situations would God receive the most glory? On the one hand, you have a wealthy person who gives generously to the church, but is still very wealthy after his gift. On the other hand, you have a person who has very little, and gives sacrificially to the church, trusting God to meet his needs even though he does not have the means. Now, which action is going to cause others to say, “He is really trusting in a great God?” The man of means is giving, but in context he doesn’t really have to trust God for anything in that gift. When you think about God being the ultimate object of our affection, He is going to receive the most glory out of desperate situations–when we have no other means but Him.
Abundance marketing does not square with scripture. Remember the example of the widow who gave all she had at the temple? Remember Job, who endured tremendous hardship but continued to trust and praise God throughout. Are these examples simply given to us as comfort for the times when things aren’t going our way–or, are they examples of the kind of lives we need to live?
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.