If you missed last week’s discussions and are just tuning in, it may help to know that we kicked off last week with

  • The Rule of 150 & The Mission of the Church
  • in which I introduced the idea of a person’s individual “channel capacity,” or their ability to maintain a given number of relationships, be they friendships or acquaintances. From this, I extrapolated an observation that there perhaps is a maximum practical church size, beyond which there becomes a markedly increased tendency for the relationships within the group to supplant those which exist with non-members of the group. The resulting discussion then moved toward the idea of what sorts of practical ways we might go about kindling relationships outside the church… which idea was then elevated to a post of its own,

  • Missional 101: Getting out of the House
  • in which I repeated some of the ideas from the earlier conversation, and we began to extend them further with some excellent comments of people sharing their own experiences, observations, and ideas. A key concept that emerged was the conviction that relationships — friendships — had to be for their own sake, altruistic, and not shrouded in ulterior (perhaps I should have said ocluded… or occulted) motives. I then fleshed this concept out further with

  • Friendship… (with Fingers Crossed Behind your Back)
  • in which I talked about pornography, advertising pitches, and colonialism… all of which I compared to the methods of evanglism which we’ve tried when we sidle up to unsuspecting people to whom we wish to extend friendship just long enough to haul them into church and convert them. And now that we’re caught up….

I’d like to put forward a few concepts from the world of marketing.

Firstly, in 1999, marketing guru Seth Godin wrote Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers, coining the new phrase, “permission marketing.” The basic idea is that you should get permission from people before you market to them. Remember the advertising that used to come in by fax? Or that comes in now via email? These are advertisments presented to you without your permission — and sometimes at your own expense.

Then there’s the Relationship marketing of the 1980s, which emphasises building longer term relationships with customers and “involves understanding the customer’s needs as they go through their life cycles.”

Chick Tract Alright, so let’s look at these in the context of evangelism, which I’ve already compared to an advertising pitch. And let’s begin by saying that the pitch has rarely been a good one… some of the worst examples are legendary, the stuff of parody, in fact — the list includes a tract on why the King James Bible is the perfect word of God, but oddly there’s no Spanish version of that particular title. The best examples would probably be The Four Spiritual Laws and Steps to Peace with God, but both of those are part of a methodology that (hopefully) intends to help provide some context. The bad examples are mostly in the execution, where they are intended to be distributed indescriminantly or anonymously in hopes that someone will come to faith with little or no outside help or influence. De-personalizing faith would, I suggest, be a clear first step (if not farther down the path) toward de-humanizing the evangelistic target. One of the milestones on that path would have to be the phrase, “soul winner.”

Telephone Speaking of de-personalization, I know of one local church a few years ago that used a computer to auto-dial telephone numbers in their exchange and play a recorded message inviting them to church on Sunday. I s*** you not… and I can’t believe they thought even for a fleeting moment that this was somehow a good idea that might work. I was in conversation with a group of people at the time, one or two of whom received the phone call — and you know, the general consensus was something other than, “Hey, I’d really appreciate an automated phone call from some caring local church who wanted to play a prerecorded message telling me when their services were and inviting me to come.” No, the general consensus was about what you’d expect. You know what kind of deep love you have for the activities of telemarketers… just combine that with televangelists and let your imagination run for a moment.

Fundamentally, these approaches are an affront to the idea of permission marketing. They’re an invasion of agenda into every exchange. Permission marketing has a much better response rate because the “target” has the power of choice, and are treated with respect. If they don’t want to hear the pitch, that’s fine… shake the dust from your feet and move on. Why force it upon them as if that’s somehow going to endear them to the message?

God’s agenda hasn’t even entered the picture, and trust me — it’s bigger than yours, and not even remotely on the same timeline.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a “permission marketing” model for the spread of the gospel… I’m saying that too often we don’t even meet the minimum standard which the method sets, because we impose a one-sided agenda on the exchange. Note that even if you think it’s for their own good, an agenda the other person doesn’t want is still a one-sided agenda. Yours. God’s agenda hasn’t even entered the picture, and trust me — it’s bigger than yours, and not even remotely on the same timeline.

As for Relationship Marketing, the church actually does some of this… but not in the right way. One of the key elements there is a focus on customer retention, and this is something the church knows too much about. Often, they retain customers so well that they don’t even know people who aren’t customers… which is where the concept of Relational Marketing breaks down, because the Word-of-Mouth component self-destructs at that point. A key difference is that for relational marketing to work, the existing customers have to want to tell others about the product. You can’t beat your customers over the head asking them to engage in word-of-mouth without distorting the message they transmit. This is where the “soul-winning” jargon has failed… the message they transmit is not exactly an attractive one.

Megachurch On the other hand, where it’s worked has been in the megachurch, where consumers are so happy with their experience that they tell their friends about it. They’re only too happy to promote the church, since they’re happy consumers. Problem though, if the church isn’t supposed to be the product. But if you promote one thing in order to get people to buy into another, then you’re guilty of the classic bait-and-switch, which is, to put it bluntly, fraud. I do wonder sometimes if some participants in the megachurch model are not selling — wittingly or not — a beer-commercial type of product. If I attend with all these shiny happy people, will I become shiny and happy too? Well, if you think that drinking a Bud Light is going to get you a blonde bombshell hanging off of each arm, yes. The thing is, we can all see the fallacy of beer=bombshell attraction, but when it comes to the church, we’re tempted to tell them “Jesus is the Answer” and you too can be a shiny happy person. We might even go so far as to tell them, blatantly, that they’ll become wealthy. Yeah, Jesus is the way to shiny and happy.

Oh, really?

Maybe I just know a different Jesus.

To put it another way, remembering last week’s post on colonialism, porn, and advertising, I included an image of a poster of Pamela Anderson. Click on the thumbnail for a larger version — go back and look, I’ll wait. Couldn’t find it? It’s the Blue Zone Girl. You didn’t even recognize her, did you? Before the fame, before the surgery, Pam looked to be shiny and happy with an enthusiastic look that seemed to come from the inside-out. In the attempt to sell that idea, there was surgery, ample makeup, attractive sexy clothing — or the removal thereof — and what you end up with is a waxy substitute for shiny happy enthusiasm, and the veneer looks pretty thin these days. Can you even recognize the original anymore? Plastic Jesus I like the old Pam better, can we have her back? Any decent straw poll will tell you we prefer Mary-Ann over Ginger and Bailey over Jennifer. We don’t like wax, plastic, or unreality. We like what’s genuine, and truth be told, we might even be getting better at spotting it.

So why do we need Plastic Jesus, anyway? Where do we get the idea that we need to pile stuff on top to make him or the gospel more attractive? How did we reach the conclusion that soft-selling the gospel without the personal involvement would really advance the Kingdom in the best way possible? Some of the gospel-promotion I’m thinking of smacks of disingenuous fronts, and makes me think of another marketing word: Astroturfing. I’m not suggesting that the celebrity testimonial is this… but after a while, don’t we start to become immune to it? Don’t we start to feel that that the stand-out testimony just doesn’t reflect our own situation? Don’t we start to think that our own testimony doesn’t measure up, and either needs embellishment or replacement, so that begin to feel we have to tell someone else’s story?

I’m going to wind it up here… I’m not ending this essay where I thought I would — I intended to talk about disingenuousness in conversion-motivated relationships and about the way in which we market the gospel. Hmmm, maybe I did get there… I just hadn’t thought about astroturfing and the plastification of the gospel in this context. Hmmm… “Astroturfing & the Plastification of Jesus” — there would be an interesting blog-post title.

So, am I onto something? Do we feel a gut-level unction to change the way we present our faith because of an urge to be more genuine? Is the way we portray the gospel accurate? Deep down, do we really prefer the new Pam? What say you?

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