My church’s website underwent a massive transformation recently.
I had visited it to find information about a church event, and found that I barely recognized it. A slickly-produced video greets you on the front page and it somehow makes even our cranky members look photogenic. Hugs are given in slow-mo; a camera lingers on the golden communion plates near the altar.
Accompanying the shiny new video is a new logo that sums up our church’s mission and philosophy. We have shiny infographics and ways to connect electronically. The website is quite nice. I imagine the makeover cost a fair bit, but it was probably judged to be worth it.
After all, we’re living in the age of Marketing the Church.
Surely you’ve noticed it. It’s not enough to be a church: we have to be a brand. Churches now have whole marketing teams and public relations divisions. We have logos and videos, catchphrases and mission statements. Even church names are starting to have the uncanny, bland-but-appealing, target-messaged appeal of their corporate counterparts.
It’s not all bad. In fact, I’d argue that some of it is probably necessary. In our technological age, we would be remiss not to take advantage of every possible tool to reach others for Christ. And if getting people in the doors requires a shinier website, that’s a small price to pay.
But marketing Christianity as though it’s a brand requires us to buy into the myth that Christianity is marketable. And it’s not.
Let me repeat: Christianity is not marketable. At least, not when we’re being honest about what it is and what it’s like to be a believer.
Here are things that are marketable: success stories. Positivity. Promises of wealth, security, and success. Satisfaction. Happiness. Puppies and kittens. Charismatic and attractive people. Ways to reduce conflict, stress, and discomfort. Fun things. Easy things.
Take a realistic look at our faith, and you’ll start to see why it doesn’t exactly fit a TV commercial. Contrary to what some preach, God does not promise health, wealth, and career success to all. Jesus said we will have trouble. Obedience requires sacrifice. Giving up the things you cling to that aren’t God is part of the package. Hello, discomfort.
Even Jesus Himself is more complex than our tendencies allow. Sure, the Son of God who healed people would probably make a great, poignant commercial for the faith. But what about the Jesus who cursed a fig tree? Who had to say to a disciple, “Get behind me, Satan”? Who presented a version of righteousness so intense in the Beatitudes that, as Philip Yancey noted in The Jesus I Never Knew, we ought all be disconcerted by it?
And as for the truly good things of the faith, the ways we grow—well, that’s hard to market too, isn’t it? How can you capture what wisdom is in a TV spot? Can you truly express the depth of patience in a video on your website? The joys of fellowship and unity in Christ: you can’t convey that without offering the experience itself.
What’s more, and what’s most important: love and service can’t be experienced through marketing.
We can show in our marketing what Christlike love does. We can give examples of it. We can talk about the benefits of what it means to be loved by Christ so we can love others. But it is impossible to share love through a video. Through a commercial. Through an ad.
An author I read once wondered why in particular God had chosen to incarnate at that particular moment in human history. Why then? Why as a Jewish carpenter? Why in the midst of Roman oppression? Why then, and not any time or any place else?
I don’t know the answer. But one of the ways I can make sense of it is to think that God came when He did because He had everything He needed there and then, in that time and place, to do what was required. Jesus and the disciples did not need the internet to do God’s work. They did not need cameras or crews or audio clips. Love needed nothing—still needs nothing—but warm bodies and willing hearts. That’s it. That’s all.
There is nothing wrong, inherently, with trying to get as many eyes on our church and its work as possible. Market away! Draw people in as much as possible with websites, videos, ads, or whatever you need. But please do recognize that no amount of marketing is going to bring a soul to Jesus. Christ can’t be “prettied up” at the expense of His character or all that He is, and the Word does not need to be watered down to draw people in.
Ultimately, the only thing that brings people to Jesus is love. Marketing might get them to your door, but if all they find there are some well-produced videos and catch phrases, they’ll slip right back out again. The frippery of modern technology is not enough to satisfy the eternal, unyielding, aching desire for love that God placed in us and desires to answer. Only our own hearts and our own acts of giving and service can do that. It’s really that simple.