September 30, 2020

Say Anything

Say Anything
The ad man triumphs at the church on the corner

I am a hopeless reader of church advertisements. When I can get my hands on a newspaper, I do not read the sports sections or the comics. I read church advertisements. For sheer entertainment, they are hard to beat.

Americans have a special relationship with the advertising industry. We love to be wooed, and the advertising gurus love to play Romeo to our Juliet. We’ve endured enough advertising to be savvy to what’s going on, but that hasn’t dampened our relish for being tantalized to buy or eat or join.

In fact, advertising is a unique cross-pollination of lying and art. We don’t mind being lied to as long as it is done with style, emotion and undisguised gall. Advertising is a specialized form of flattery, assuring us that our patronage is not only extremely significant for the one soliciting our business, but also mystically significant for us. Nothing quite approaches the ritual of evangelical revivalism like the promises made to the consumer considering a major purchase. A choir singing “Just As I Am” would be remarkably appropriate.

Evangelicals bought into the advertising mindset long ago as the post-war evangelical denominations took the corporate model as their template for doing everything from Sunday School to personal evangelism. In the sixties, the Jesus people joyfully appropriated advertising slogans as the preferred mode of proclamation, thus birthing a generation of bumper-sticker sermons and t-shirt theologies.

I could call “Jesus- He’s the real thing!” somewhat charming, but evangelicals didn’t stop there. The power of advertising is a seductive, tangible power that gets results. The right logo, the well-placed phrase, the cool introductory video, the city-wide advertising campaign: these are tools that evangelicals have come to rely on. And things are well nigh out of hand.

I have no objection to good communication. We ought to be able to tell what our churches are all about so that someone can get an accurate introduction to what we believe and what we do. I am all for description, information and directions to the parking lot. I can even handle a spiffy pic of the pastor’s hair.  But advertisement is about creating impressions; in fact, it is increasingly about creating imaginary realities. Without embarrassment, churches have begun saying whatever will hit the target audience and create curiosity. The result is increasingly a pack of well told lies, and a betrayal of some of the basic tenets of the Gospel.

Things start innocently enough with a well-placed, coded adjective. We’re a “Spirit-Filled” church. This sends the signal to certain people about what to expect and separates the church from the dead wood across the street at First Presbyterian. But it also makes a claim for a certain kind of reality, a reality that the church seems to say is available at THAT church as opposed to most others. This is patently ridiculous and plainly dishonest.

I have an acquaintance who delights in criticizing liturgical worship and exalting the free-form, Charismatic stylings of various fellowships he has attended. He believes liturgy is a certain indication of a dead church full of doomed and deceived dupes. I would like to smack him, or at least press upon him by vivid example the possibility that a few more moves and noises have little to do with the Spirit’s presence in one congregation versus another. The fact is, he is now perpetuating the same tale told by the church advertisement.

But churches will not stop with the occasional adjectival seasoning. Soon the whole meal is being cooked by advertisers. “A Real Church for Real People.” “A warm, loving fellowship of people who care about you!!” “Come hear practical, spirit-anointed messages by a man of God.” “Continuous Revival!!” “A Church with Christ at Heart and You in Mind.” “Such and Such Church: Where You Matter.” “People Being Transformed By the Power of God.” “Healing and Miracles in Every Service.” “Where God Touches Lives!!” “Dynamic Music from our Praise Band will take you into the presence of God.” “A dynamic youth program!” (Dynamic is very good.)

Ok. Ok. Enough. What is going on here? From the bowels of some church growth conference has come the worldly wisdom that we need to “cast a vision” of who we are. In other words, exaggerate up a storm to outdo the other guy. Lure, lie, woo, beg, pretend, spin, deceive, tell a whopper. So what if the actual congregation is not quite what is advertised? So what if the pressure is now on to produce the goods? We’re trying to see ourselves in a way that others will find appealing. This is fine with cars or Jacuzzis, but not with churches. I know it makes a cool brochure, but that’s not the point.

The Gospel is not about how wonderful the church is or how dynamic the pastor is or how friendly the people are. If that is all true, word will get out, trust me. If you have to put it on a billboard or an ad or video, it’s spin. And the Gospel isn’t spin about us. It’s a straightforward proclamation about Christ. Remember?  “For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive,  but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.  For we never came with words of flattery…” (I Thessalonians 2:3-5)

When people are told that the church has all the benefits of a store or a club or a product, they are not hearing the message of sinners saved by grace through faith, not are they being prepared to hear it in a real community of fallen people gathered around the cross. They are hearing the crafted ploy of exaggeration, and sooner or later they will figure it out. The pastor may be a whiz, but he won’t visit grandma in the hospital. The church may have a heart for God, but nobody invited you over for dinner. The Spirit is moving in the services, but not you are remarkably similar to the person who walked in the door six months ago, problems and all. And that dynamic youth pastor ran off with some kid’s mom. Welcome to the real world.

I have a lot of people in self-imposed church exile who write to me, and I am beginning to believe that part of the problem is too many of them believed it. The ads. The hype. The spin. The video intro. The actual truth about people and the institutions they build may be disillusioning and embarrassing, but it’s important. It’s very important for those of us who worship a God of truth to put the focus on Him and His Gospel instead of our little parades.

I don’t want to see the church become a pop-up ad proclaiming instant weight loss from grapefruit pills. We aren’t there yet, but we are getting there fast. Its time to ask the image enthusiasts to spend some time keeping it real and a little less time tinkering with the graphics on the projection system.

I believe it was Job who said “Please be quiet! That’s the smartest thing you could do.” (Job 13:5)