Sunday, May 11, 2008

Let me see if I get this straight

This is a banner proudly displayed by a church whose building is just around the corner from my house. It's a small building, judging by the number of cars in the parking lot on a Sunday morning, probably 100-150 people attend services there.

The size isn't what's important though. It's the message they are sending that surely confuses our culture.

Let's say I am a High Schooler in Chesterfield County (or the parent of said High Schooler) and I see this sign. First you need to know this about me. I am:
  • heavily marketed to.
  • a consumer, almost first and foremost--trained to ask "what's in it for me?" before responding to the pitches I constantly hear.
  • used to getting (and expecting) the best.
  • asked to go to school, do insane amounts of volunteer and extra-curricular activities so that I will look good to prospective colleges when the time comes (or asked to coach my kid through all those things)
  • involved in more things than I have time to do them.
  • aware of spirituality, but also aware that I can make any choice I want. I have no "brand loyalty" when it comes to religion or churches.
  • made in God's image, so it's all about relationships for me. I'll do almost anything if I have a relationship with someone first.

So I see the sign and here's what likely goes through my head:

  • Who are these people? I don't know any of them, so why would I want to go to some religious thing with people I don't know?
  • It's so small, I bet it sucks. I'm not going to waste my time.
  • I don't have time for one more thing.
  • How long would this last if I went to it? Would it be as long as baseball season, because I don't have time for something every week for the rest of my life (or, there is no way I'm carting my kid to one more thing)?
  • What do they want from me? Are they a cult?
  • I bet they just want to get to my kid so they can get my money.

What's the (surely unintended) subtext of the sign? Surely it's that "X" Church is now playing by the rules of consumer culture: Come to us, we have a product you need. We are now in the game of attracting and marketing it to you. So if I get this straight, God is now on the shelf right next to a great college and a new pair of Saucony shoes (my favorite running shoes, by the way).

So if they are playing by consumer culture rules, they'd better be willing to deliver, or the consumer will just go elsewhere. And here's the thing. They are doing it poorly. The sign is apparently the only marketing they've got. They certainly don't understand the culture they are trying to reach, i.e., the busyness of teenage life and the need of consumers to have value added before "buying" the product. The sign even communicates a certain arrogance; "You call us."

Now they could have done this differently. They could have researched the target demographic, addressed their felt needs, tapped into their life narrative, imprinted onto their imagination about the value they would add and produced a much better campaign that isn't simultaneously slightly offensive to their way of life. I know of churches that do this routinely. They are attractional

But my question is: Should the church be playing by these rules? Do we really have a product to sell?

Jesus said we (his disciples--the people who follow him) are meant to be the salt of the earth (it's flavoring and preservative) and the light of the world (it's source of illumination, warmth and direction). It's a calling that implies presence and time and relationships and sacrifice. A "we'll come to you", not a "you come to us" mentality. This is the essence of what it means to be "missional."

To lead so that the Church--the body of Christ on earth--lives that way...that is the challenge of a lifetime.

1 comment:

Juliana said...

My aunt and uncle have gone to that church for decades. I think my cousin's best friend is the youth pastor there, so he probably had something to do with the sign! (You know, I think my aunt may check my blog sometimes, and there's a link to yours... hmmm....)

Interesting thoughts on church "marketing", though. I had never really analyzed it that way.