The church has figured out what the folks at Starbucks, Diesel, Apple and countless other companies have known for a long time. Marketing works! By using the same techniques as other successful companies, the church can draw thousands into its doors each Sunday by doing one basic thing: marketing.
So, like any good business trying to grow, the church turns to the tried-and-true Godin-esque techniques. The church creates tribes and purple cows and has billboards and postcards and websites. Once someone shows up at church, a "brand experience" is created.
Consumption. Branding. Marketing. This is the language of the culture, and the church has adopted this language so it can attract people to their services.
But for Christians, the language of culture, if not stewarded well, can subvert selfless living. Inherent in the pop culture that is infiltrating church methodology are characteristics antithetical to a life that seeks to emulate Christ. Pop culture (music, movies, television, fashion, etc.) celebrates fame, power, money, greed, and excess. When these begin to seep into our gatherings, it is difficult to keep the gospel in its pure form.
What are we saying when our gatherings mirror popular culture? In essence, we are promoting a way of living that is counter to what the Christian’s life, and the church's methods, should look like.
The Tension Is Killing Me
We, as Christians, operate in this odd tension: we preach sacrificial love above all else but communicate it in a language that is completely self-absorbed.
Theologian David Wells says, “We begin as if life were empty and without center and as if we were empowered by our choices to make life what we will. And so we create our own center, we create our own rules, and we make our own meaning. All of this springs from an alternative center in the universe. It is ourselves."
This tension poses some tough questions:
If the Christian faith is based in sacrifice (Mk 8:34) and humility (Phil. 2:3-11), how do those characteristics translate into our lives and gatherings?
How does the Christian leader communicate in and to a culture that speaks a language that is antithetical to the gospel?
How do we keep an attractive faith in a world that places value and infers status from artificial things?
If our faith is so amazing and filled with love, why do we have to use cheap marketing gimmicks so that people will see it?
What does that say about the God we represent?
These questions must be asked before we begin to develop church programs and marketing campaigns that are cloaked in the language of culture. When the church uses the language of culture, it's like listening to Bach being covered by an elevator-music band—it just doesn't sound right.
An Antichrist Church?
Many Christians argue that utilizing culture’s technology and methods is an effective way to speak to the world in a way they understand. But Eugene Peterson offers a different take. In The Jesus Way he says, "Once we start paying attention to Jesus’ ways, it doesn’t take us long to realize that following Jesus is radically different from following anyone else."
The reality is that we are so wrapped up with effective methodology, success metrics, and branding that the gospel message ends up looking and sounding like the world we live in instead of sounding like it comes from the One who is the complete Other.
Eugene Peterson is frank in his description of churches that look and act like this: “A consumer church is an antichrist church.”
If we survey the Christian cultural language, it is little different from that of the secularists. They use a language that leaves little room for truth and its inherent conflict. By cloaking the gospel message in the language of tolerance, accommodation, and cool we emasculate our faith to be little more than another narrative vying for position in a culture as fickle as the next trend.
Duke Divinity's Stanley Hauerwas says our, "job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel."
We have it backwards. We let culture dictate our faith instead of asserting a faith that comes from the One who transcends culture.
Our Treasured Reverent Faith
When we value something we treat it differently from a common product. What if our faith took on new meaning in our personal lives?
Costly grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, comes with a perspective attached to it. If grace is costly it means that we view God as extraordinary. We revere him—the awe of who he is and what he has done for us remains always at the fore of our minds. If this is true, we should care about how we express our thoughts of God to the outside world.
Deep awe, reverence, and devotion are missing from the Christian cultural language. It just doesn’t fit in the cool box. Disciplines like simplicity and silence and solitude don't sell enough seats on Sunday morning. It is hard to create a cool church when you preach about the devotion and effort it takes to live a Christian life. But, these are the very things that are counter to the cultural language. These are the very things that are most appealing about our faith.
If we were to focus on these things, the inherent attractiveness of our faith would be evident to all. People would begin to see Christians anew. “The glory of God,” as St. Irenaeus said, “is man, fully alive.” We wouldn't need to wrap it in the cultural trend of the month, for it would wrap us ... in all its terrible wonder and majesty.
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Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.