Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reaching People for Christ or for the Culture?

Jesus commands us to go and to reach out to all the world in his name. Yet sometimes, in evangelistically reaching out, we fall face down into the culture. In offering people the Christian faith, we offer them nothing much more than they could get anywhere else in the world. Pastor Rick Barger thinks about the difference between Christian evangelism and any other marketing venture.

On the front door of our house hung a little white plastic bag with a videotape in it. On its cover was a picture of an immensely obese sumo wrestler. He hung suspended in the air. His legs were split, almost parallel to the ground as if he were a gymnast. His right arm was stretched straight up over his head. The hand in this outstretched arm palmed a basketball. He was a four-hundred pound Michael Jordan!

Under this picture were these bold words:
JUST IMAGINE
In smaller print were these words:
7 minutes.

So what the heck? Not knowing who hung this curious tape on my door or what it was about, I turned on our television, cued up the VCR, and inserted the tape. Almost immediately the room was filled with upbeat music. On the screen appeared a video shot zooming in on the new church facilities of a non-denominational mega-church located on the perimeter of our neighborhood. The audio portion began with the words, Just imagine. What unfolded over the seven minutes was very clever and inviting. Filled with scenes of smiling and happy people, the tape asked me, the viewer, to just imagine a gorgeous place with all kinds of wonderful programs. There were programs for small kids, junior high kids, and high school kids. There were programs for married couples and programs for singles. There were programs for small groups. And there were worship programs. Each of these programs promised excitement, meaning, and fun. I, the viewer, was then invited to come to the grand opening of this place.

What unfolded on this seven-minute tape was not unlike another videotape that I had received some time ago. This other tape was from Sandals, a small chain of couples-only resorts located in various places in the Caribbean. My wife and I had celebrated thirty years of marriage by spending a week at a Sandals resort in Jamaica, and they were now offering a special deal to generate more repeat customers. This tape also had all kinds of smiling and happy people. It too promised a gorgeous setting with all kinds of exciting and fun-filled programs.

The similarities between these two videotapes and the experiences they are selling ought to cause us to pause and reflect upon how our market-driven culture perceives the nature and purpose of the church of Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and is now raised.

-- A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture, by Rick Barger, The Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia, 2005, pp. 2-3.

Please join Tony Campolo and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham as we explore ways to respond to the challenge of our Conference Vision Statement: Every Church Challenged and Equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.

William H. Willimon

3 comments:

Scott Eaton said...

Bishop Willimon:

Thank you for this post. As a pastor I grow so weary of being told that I need to impress people for Jesus instead of just letting people be impressed by Jesus. For people to impressed by Jesus they are going to need to see lives transformed by Jesus and people with passions like his.

This is more challenging than building churches and programs that resemble resorts and cruise ships. Dying to self and living to Christ is far more difficult and time consuming. Serving the hurting, needy, and poor is not very glamorous. Offering the gospel to those in sin is not popular. But this is the only way that people will ever be impressed by Jesus.

May people be attracted to the church because they see Jesus in us and not Fifth Avenue and Disney World.

lehall said...

Thank you for the reflection.

Jonathan Robie said...

I've been doing a lot of high tech marketing in the last few years, and much of good marketing involves figuring out your core message and the best way to communicate that to your target market.

If the core message is community, the cross, and new creation in Christ, then the best marketing approach is to communicate these vividly, in a way that will appeal to those who are called. It may well turn off those who are not.

In some churches, I get the feeling that the core message is friendly, smiling people. "Our family can be your family," especially if we are all in the same demographic. If this is the mission of the church, the message fits, it is the mission of the church that is the problem.