Crass Christianity What happens when the Great Commission becomes a marketing manifesto?
Toward the end of the nineteenth century ... the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show BusinessNeil Postman
In this age of show business, truth is irrelevant; what really matters is whether we are entertained. Substance counts for little; style is everything. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking rules the church as surely as it does the world.
A.W. Tozer wrote these words in 1955: "For centuries the church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognising it for what it was — a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability. For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world.
But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.
By today's standards, the issues that so inflamed Tozer's passions seem trifling. For example, churches were attracting people to Sunday evening services by showing Christian films. Young people's rallies featured up-tempo music and speakers whose specialty was humor. High-energy games and activities were beginning to play a key role in church youth work. Looking back, it may seem difficult to understand Tozer's distress. Hardly anyone these days would be shocked or concerned about any of the methods that seemed radically innovative in the '50s. Most of them are generally regarded as conventional today.
Tozer, however, was not condemning games, music styles, or movies per se. He was concerned with the philosophy underlying what was happening in the church. He was sounding an alarm about a deadly change of focus. He saw evangelicals using entertainment as a tool for church growth, and he believed that was subverting the church's priorities. He feared that frivolous diversions and carnal amusements in the church would eventually destroy people's appetites for real worship and the preaching of God's Word.
He was right about that. In fact, Tozer's rebuke is more fitting than ever. The incipient trend he identified has come into full bloom in our generation. What the church was flirting with 35 years ago has now become an obsession.
An article in The Wall Street Journal described one well-known church's bid "to perk up attendance at Sunday evening services". The church "staged a wrestling match, featuring church employees. To train for the event, 10 game employees got lessons from Tugboat Taylor, a former professional wrestler, in pulling hair, kicking shins and tossing bodies around without doing real harm". No harm to the staff members, perhaps, but what is the effect of such an exhibition on the church's message? Is not the gospel itself clouded and badly caricatured by such tomfoolery?
That wrestling match is not an obscure example from some eccentric church on the fringe. It took place in the Sunday evening service of one of America's five largest churches. Similar examples could be drawn from many of the leading churches supposedly in the mainstream of evangelical orthodoxy.
Some will maintain that if biblical principles are presented, the medium doesn't matter. That is nonsense. If an entertaining medium is the key to winning people, why not go all out? Why not have a real carnival? A tattooed acrobat on a high wire could juggle chain saws and shout Bible verses while a trained dog balanced on his head. That would draw a crowd. And the content of the message would be thoroughly biblical. It's a bizarre scenario, but one that illustrates how the medium can cheapen and corrupt the message.
And sadly, it's not terribly different from what is actually being done in some churches. There seems no limit to what modern church leaders will do to entice people who aren't interested in worship and preaching.
One noted pastor of a very large church, for example, boasts about the time his staff staged a pie fight during a Sunday morning church service.
Just how far will the church go to compete with Hollywood? A large church in the south-western United States has installed a half-million-dollar special-effects system that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium. The church sent staff members to study live special effects at Bally's Casino in Las Vegas. The pastor ended one service by ascending to "heaven" via invisible wires that drew him up out of sight while the choir and orchestra added a musical accompaniment to the smoke, fire, and light show.
It was just a typical Sunday show for that pastor: "He packs his church with such special effects as ... cranking up a chain saw and toppling a tree to make a point ... the biggest Fourth of July fireworks display in town and a Christmas service with a rented elephant, kangaroo and zebra. The Christmas show features 100 clowns with gifts for the congregation's children."
Shenanigans like that would have been the stuff of A. W. Tozer's worst nightmares. Surely even he could not have foreseen the extreme to which evangelicals would go in paying homage to the great god Entertainment.
There's no denying that these antics seem to work — that is, they draw a crowd. Many churches that have experimented with such methods report growing attendance figures. And a handful of megachurches those that can afford first-class productions, effects, and facilities — have been able to stimulate enormous numerical growth. Some of them fill huge auditoriums with thousands of people several times every week.
A few of these megachurches resemble elegant country clubs or resort hotels. They feature impressive facilities with bowling lanes, movie theaters, health spas, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and state-of-the-art multi-court gymnasiums. Recreation and entertainment are inevitably the most visible aspects of these enterprises. Such churches have become Mecca’s for students of church growth.
Now evangelicals everywhere are frantically seeking new techniques and new forms of entertainment to attract people. Whether a method is biblical or not scarcely matters to the average church leader today. Does it work? That is the new test of legitimacy. And so raw pragmatism has become the driving philosophy in much of the professing church.
Pragmatism is the notion that ideas may be judged by their practical consequences. A pragmatist concludes that a course of action or concept is right if it brings good results, wrong if it doesn't seem to work.
What's wrong with pragmatism? After all, common sense involves a measure of legitimate pragmatism, doesn't it? If a dripping tap works fine after you replace the washers, for example, it is reasonable to assume that bad washers were the problem. If the medicine your doctor prescribes produces harmful side effects or has no effect at all, you need to ask if there's a remedy that works. Such simple pragmatic realities are generally self-evident.
But when pragmatism becomes a guiding philosophy of life or ministry, it inevitably clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth cannot be determined by what works and what doesn't. We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel does not usually produce a positive response (1 Cor. 1:22-23; 2:14). On the other hand, Satanic lies and deception often are quite effective (Matt. 24:23-24; 2 Cor. 4:3-4). Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf. Matt. 7:13-14), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf. Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed.
Nevertheless, an overpowering surge of ardent pragmatism is sweeping through evangelicalism. Methodology has replaced theology as the main issue many church leaders are concerned with. Pastors are turning to books on marketing methods in search of new techniques to help churches grow. Many seminaries have shifted their pastoral training emphasis from Bible curriculum and theology to matters of style and technique.
Perhaps most telling is the growing number of churches that now feature drama and entertainment instead of traditional services where God's Word is proclaimed. The new pragmatism sees preaching as passé. Plainly declaring truth is deemed too offensive and utterly ineffective. We're now told we can get better results by first amusing people and thus wooing them into the fold. Once they feel comfortable, they'll be ready to receive biblical truth in small, diluted doses.
And so church buildings are being constructed like theatres; instead of a pulpit, the focus is a stage. Churches are hiring full-time media specialists, programming consultants, stage directors, drama coaches, special-effects experts, and choreographers.
Most of the new pragmatists believe the four priorities of the early church — the apostles' teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42) make a lame agenda for the church in this day and age. They view our Lord's Great Commission as a marketing manifesto. They believe the church is in business to promote a product, and church leaders, they say, had better pay attention to the methods of Madison Avenue. The church, after all, competes with secular amusements and a host of worldly goods and services. We'll never win people, the pragmatists believe, until we develop effective marketing campaigns to capture their attention and loyalty away from the world's offerings.
One best-selling author has written, "I believe that developing a marketing orientation is precisely what the church needs to do if we are to make a difference in the spiritual health of this nation for the remainder of this century." He adds, "My contention, based on careful study of data and the activities of American churches, is that the major problem plaguing the church is its failure to embrace a marketing orientation in what has become a marketing-driven environment."
What's wrong with that? For one thing, the church has no business marketing its ministry as an alternative to secular amusements (2 Thess. 3:3-4). That corrupts and cheapens the church's real mission. We are not carnival barkers or used car salesmen. We are Christ's ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). Knowing the terror of the Lord (v. 11), motivated by the love of Christ (v. 14), utterly made new by Him (v. 17), we implore sinners to be reconciled to God (v. 20).
Moreover, instead of confronting the world with the truth of Christ, the market-driven megachurches are enthusiastically promoting the worst trends of secular culture. Feeding people's appetite for entertainment only exacerbates the problems of mindless emotion, apathy, and materialism. Quite frankly, it is difficult to conceive of a ministry philosophy more contradictory to the pattern our Lord gave us.
Proclaiming the gospel message of redemption for sinners, and expositing the Word for saints should be the heart of every church's ministry. If the world looks at the church and sees an entertainment centre, we're sending the wrong message. If Christians view the church as an amusement parlor, the church will die.
Nothing in Scripture indicates the church should lure people to Christ by presenting Christianity as an attractive option. To most, the message of the gospel is "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence" (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8). There's no way to "market" that. The church must realise that its mission has never been public relations or sales; we are called to live holy lives and declare God's truth — lovingly but uncompromisingly — to an unbelieving world.