Evangelism in a market-driven world

Various direct-mail marketers have somehow gotten the idea that I am a pastor. I have never been, nor claimed to be, a pastor, but I can't really fault the assumption, as I do subscribe to some publications that are primarily read by ministers, and I've probably admitted in public to having an M.Div. degree (and what else would you do with an M.Div.?).

(I don't think my alma mater sells its mailing list, as that would probably violate federal student privacy statutes. [Too bad. If they could sell their lists, maybe they would stop hitting me up for money. Nah.] But I probably filled out an address card for a free sample of some preaching resource at some point or something like that, and boom, they've got me for life -- and have successfully tracked me through two moves, which not even my friends can always do.)

But anyway. You get some interesting insights into the religion "industry" (as my blogger profile identifies my vocation) when you receive unsolicited solicitations for church products.

Here is a recent example that has crossed my path: a package of television commercials and support materials, for which your church can purchase exclusive rights in your community. This multimedia campaign offers to "Reach new prospects. Grow your church," according to the ad copy for the package.

The promo video on the website touts impressive growth statistics (and without the kind of disclaimer you see on ads for weight loss products: "results not typical; individual results will vary"). One customer/pastor reported that his church had quadrupled in size in eight months. (Granted, they started out with less than 50, so they were still only a medium-sized church after the explosive growth.) Another declared that over 1400 people had come to Christ in 15 months as a result of the campaign.

What gives me some disquiet about the whole project is not the idea of churches using television advertising as an outreach tool, or even of their purchasing well-produced pre-packaged content for that purpose. In an age so saturated with media messages, why shouldn't churches around the country pool their resources to access top-quality, attention-getting spots?

(On the other hand, Thomas Long's observations about the importance of immediacy over polish in preaching in the closing paragraphs of his Christian Century article on pulpit plagiarism could quite reasonably be applied to the 15-30 second sermonettes of a church TV commercial -- perhaps a low-concept, locally-produced commercial would be a more truthful way for a congregation to appeal to its community.)

But what really gives me pause is the disconnect between the way this package is marketed to its church consumers and the way it markets those churches to the TV-watching public. This is very much a "felt-need" oriented outreach campaign: the ads raise compelling human struggles: addiction, depression, financial struggles, marital stress, grief -- and end with the tagline: "Where Do You Turn?" -- with a web address sending them to the sponsoring church.

Now, churches absolutely ought to offer care to people who are experiencing these concerns. Challenging life issues are often the impetus for people to ask spiritual questions and seek out the support of a church community. And a church needn't have formal programs addressing each of these areas of life to effectively minister to people experiencing difficulties. My church does not have a program for depression, but it has ministered profoundly and informally to me in my experience of depression.

But there seems to be a danger of an accidental bait-and-switch. If people are encouraged by these commercials to seek the help of a given church for deep personal needs, and the church is not prepared to provide the time-consuming care and educated intervention that these needs require, it may be more of a scandal than a furtherance of the gospel.

By referring to the people who respond to the ads as "prospects" and emphasizing the "GROW YOUR CHURCH" goal of the package, the producers and marketers of the commercial campaign gloss over the serious spiritual responsibility a church would be undertaking by choosing to run these ads. I assume that most church leaders would prayerfully consider the repercussions and responsibilities entailed in their choice of an outreach campaign, but I also know that Christian leaders are not immune from the allure of copying an outreach strategy that has been effective elsewhere without necessarily prayerfully adapting it to their own situation.

I hope that my misgivings are overblown, and that this "national campaign" proves an effective tool in the arsenal of the various churches that take part. Still, I would feel more comfortable with it if it were more explicitly linked with resources for actually addressing the needs identified (through Stephen Ministries programs, e.g., or similar), rather than simply channelling hurting people to whichever church in a city is the first to cough up the licensing fee and leaving them to handle the rest on their own.

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