Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Dangers of Marketing the Church

As I continue to graze on the various books that come my way, I've stopped for a while on a book by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger called "Emerging Churches." It's not often that I stop and say “wow!” but I did in chapter seven and I thought I would quote a few lines for you. They are talking about serving God and people with an attitude of generosity instead of out of the culture of exchange (ie return on investment). They make some broad generalizations of a style of church that tries to attract people with programs or entertainment and label them “consumer churches.” Here are various quotes from pages 136-139. Let me know what you think.

At the core of the gospel is God's generosity embodied in the concept of grace. Jesus served in this way and those communities who decide to follow Him must do likewise.

Advertising and marketing, which are so seductive and pervasive in culture, have a profound impact on spirituality and the pursuit of God. Today, typically, individuals come to spirituality as shoppers. They consume spiritual experiences. They pursue the next experience that promises to take them to a higher spiritual plane and yield greater growth.

Churches that adopt a marketing approach treat their visitors as customers, numbers and potential converts instead of simply as people. A culture of self-interested exchange permeates the life of consumer-oriented churches, where the "customer's" financial support is solicited in exchange for spiritual services rendered.

The underlying assumption is that customers are never satisfied and are liable to take their business elsewhere. Satisfaction is an elusive target, constantly moving and taking on new forms.

Much of marketing practice borders on manipulation by creating needs. Until one sees or experiences a product one often does not "need" it. The creation and the presentation of a product create the need. Marketing is not neutral; it fosters human desire as much as it satiates it.

Churchgoers associate the consumer church's products with "need satisfaction." There are areas of an individual's life that are ambiguous and insecure, to which the church seeks to respond by creating and offering products that will address those gaps. Consumer churches present a relationship with Jesus as the answer to widespread feelings of angst. Thus Jesus is turned into a product that satisfies needs. The problem is that Jesus won't satisfy individual needs, for the gospel is primarily about God's agenda, not ours. For true satisfaction to take place, needs must be reformed and transformed to correspond with the gospel.

When Jesus is presented as a product and ceases to satisfy, as all products cease to satisfy at some point, one must then move on to another spiritual expression. By marketing Jesus, therefore, the consumer church actually makes the pain worse, for now even God (from a visitor's perception) cannot help. Instead of challenging the logic of the economic system, which the kingdom does wonderfully, the consumer church blesses the economic rules and creates transitory, surface-level Christians in the process.

This critique of a consumerist society reveals the extent to which the church itself has become subverted by the wider culture. The church as a sign of the kingdom of God, must demonstrate an alternative society. Consumerism both pacifies and disempowers people and robs them of their individuality and creative potential. Consumerism destroys community by discouraging active participation.

Unbridled consumerism also leads to greed, acquisitiveness, and wastefulness as people become dissatisfied and bored with their possessions and strive for the latest and the biggest (or the smallest, in the case of gadgets). Emerging churches believe that people need to be delivered from the covetousness and selfishness so that they can be liberated for a life of service and generosity.