August 5, 2020

What about “Us Vs Them” Church Ads?

mac-pc_ad.JPGUPDATE III: Joel Hunter has written a massive substantial response to the podcasts that go along with the ads.

UPDATE II: The pastor whose church produced the ads has a blog that is full of provocative ideas. If you want a glimpse into what the emerging church growth culture looks like, this is a very good window.

UPDATE:Bill Kinnon blogs about the “stolen intellectual property” angle.

Noel Heikkinnen sent me the links to these church created “Apple/PC” parodies because they reminded him of a discussion we’d had about churches advertising themselves as alternatives to traditional churches. (Noel’s experiences and opinions were instructive. I hope he writes them sometime.)

Check out the videos, then come right back. (Let me say right here that I haven’t even visited the web site of the church who made these and nothing I’m writing has anything to do with that church in particular. Please don’t write me and tell me I am wronging that church. The ads are out there, and discussing them isn’t attacking the church.)

My initial reaction to these videos is two-fold. First, I’m moderately annoyed at the attempt to say “we’re better than the traditional church.” (Don’t say the message is “different,” not “better.” If that’s the case, Apple is wasting a lot of money.) In general, the differences emphasized in these ads are not the kind of differences that can be associated with easily choosing “this” church over “that” church. Churches are highly individualized according to history, age, leadership, context and sense of missional strategy. Reasonable church choices should be more than skin deep. There’s a certain juvenility to such ads.

It’s fairly easy to pick a fat target in the traditional church and say “we’re better than that,” but it’s often an unloving way to relate to the larger body of Christ. No one gets points with God for being cooler than the church down the street. You may get points of for being somewhat of a jerk about how “cool” you are.

A church self-conscious enough make these ads is to be commended for knowing who they are, but I’d suggest a thorough study of scripture to see where counter advertising against other churches comes into the picture. This won’t play as well at the judgement seat of Christ as it does on the web.

My second reaction is that I have to agree with many of the criticisms that are made of the traditional church in the ad, and it may take a bit of tweaking in this manner to raise some of the issues of postmodern culture and missionalism among traditional church evangelicals.

I can hear the squealing now, but I remain convinced that issues of narrow church practice and equating “doing church and church programs” with being missionaries to our own culture are valid. It would be great if you could talk to most church leaders about things like dress codes and “come” versus “go” structures, vision for the city and so on, but it’s often difficult. Having to deal with seeker churches, emerging churches and intentionally missional churches, however, will raise these issues and bring about healthy self-examination.

In fact, within the context of existing traditional church practice- rather than in starting a church from scratch- may be the best place to consider the full meaning of missional church in a fully congregational sense. (In my opinion, Mark Driscoll makes this point well in his book Confessions of a Reformation Rev when he plainly states that for much of his church planting career he was not interested in a transgenerational congregation and only began to see the importance of transgenerationalism when forced by success to do so.)

I would be very interested in showing these ads to any group of Christians to foster a discussion of doing ministry in a postmodernism influenced, mission-demanding culture. I believe the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches could be considered. But there is even more to be learned from these ads.

Of more interest to me are the comments of the BHT’s Joel Hunter, who suggests that the ad itself, and the rhetoric that sustains the ads, participate in a whole set of modernistic presuppositions that buy deeply into the culture. I completely agree, and would suggest that the presentation of Christianity as a set of marketing concepts appealing to a particular niche market is indicative of the condition of modern evangelicalism in general.

These ads approach us primarily as consumers. I am sure the ad creators would say the ads are meant to approach us as potential (or actual) disciples looking for the church that will best equip and support a missional lifestyle. While this may be the intention- and it may be the reality at the churches using the ads- the appeal is to a kind of consumer identity that is little different in “Christ follower” church than it is in “Christian with bumper sticker” church.

It’s hard to miss the irony that denying you wear your faith on your sleeve hardly goes alone with a set of ads subtly proclaiming your superiority to traditional churches. (Don’t write me.) The use of this kind of medium, rhetoric and pillaging of the culture show that the options chosen by “Christ follower” church are still part of the menu of consumeristic, Americanized evangelicalism.

So is it wrong to advertise a church? Is it wrong to create a church “brand,” and to associate particular values and attitudes with that brand? Is it wrong to say our services are more flexible, our schedule more family friendly and our approach more low key? Is it wrong to say if you don’t like traditional church, you may like Christ-follower church? Is it any more wrong to do this than to say “We’re reformed, Bible believing and sing hymns?”

I don’t believe it is wrong, but I believe such participation in the consumer culture and the language of the marketplace brings us under the judgement of scripture. Some emerging Christians would say they can’t picture Jesus in a war. Can you picture Jesus telling his disciples to take an increasing portion of their funds and use it on advertising?

The claims of ads like these are shorthanded, hyped, sloganistic, intended to stimulate the consumer urge and frequently exaggerated when compared with fact. I see their value more as a phenomenon, but as someone leading an “alternative” worship fellowship, I would be embarrassed to air such ads with the traditional church down the street as my target. At the same time, I must admit that almost everything I’ve written about soli deo has emphasized unique aspects of our identity in contrast to other kinds of churches.

No matter how gentle or humorous, the underlying message of “you’ll like our church better” isn’t far from “God is at work here in a better way than he is at traditional church.” This kind of association of ministry style, technology, slogans and image with the work of God errs in equating our preferences with God’s endorsement. Though not intentional, such ground is shaky indeed. Should we use such ads, we ought to be aware of the ambiguity and dangers involved.


  1. I don’t know about all that. And I’m not a pastor of a church that would ever be able to afford a series of such commercials.

    Devoid of their context as an ad for a particular church, I used two of these videos with some profitability as illustrations for a sermon on the difference between being showy and smugly self-righteous about the faith and just going about the business of being a faithful Christian.

    I thought that was the point to them, and nothing much more than that. A link to my sermon is here:

  2. But, churchgeek, which one is being self-righteous? The poor fellow who is obviously confused about the eternal value of WWJD bracelets and ties? Or the one who smugly asserts, “yeah that’s cool but I’m a ‘Christ-follower’ which means I also get to listen to U2, and look trendy and make sarcastic comments, neener neener?”

    Maybe, somewhere, in all of this, lurks a teaching from Romans 14:1, “Now accept the one who is weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” A better teacher than me will have to draw it out though. Any takers?

  3. “Can you picture Jesus telling his disciples to take an increasing portion of their funds and use it on advertising?”

    I can’t imagine Jesus allocating church budget to adverts that seek to promote one church over another, no.

    But I can certainly imagine him allocating it to advertising a church with a particular style to people who otherwise wouldn’t go to any church at all.

  4. Regarding the videos. As I understand it, they were not ads for the church as much as they were introductory videos to a sermon. In other words, they were never aired on TV to promote the church at the expense of another.

    Is my understanding correct?

  5. I guess it all depends on context…I’m in a small fairly traditional congregation Presbyterian Church USA, so for us the sermon and the message really hit home.

    I had more comments about this sermon than any other one in my year there. It really hit them in between the eyes. For us tradition and pride is what gets in our way.

    I can see the opposite point coming across, as Kaffinator stresses, if I was in a different context where everyone was hip and cool and trendy. But that’s not the case from where I sit.

  6. churchgeek:

    You are illustrating my second point, i.e. that this kind of ad does provide a necessary kind of “tweaking” for the traditional congregation. While the ads can be critiqued, cogent points are made, as you say.

  7. Sad (funny) Point:

    First Assembly in our town has a new youth center with a soda bar where you can pony up and….listen to iPods installed at each seat! They are preprogrammed, of course, with CCM. Oh, my husband informed me there is also the Beatles on the iPods ~ Shock and horrors!

    Serious Point:

    I can see how this video series can be a set-up for “We’re better than you because we’re hip missionals.” But the Christian stereotype is funny because, unfortunately, it is mostly true. One of my basic rules in life: Stereotypes exist because there are those who live up (down) to them.

    My husband also made the point that the Christian character and those who are like that in real life most likely wears his “Sunday Best” (ie. suit and tie, minus tithe envelope) every day of the week. What would be special about that?

  8. I wrote about this on my blog. The fact is that the videos will work, in sermon or in advertising. I can picture a dozen people coming to our church if we put that on the air somewhere. It sets them apart.

    My concern is for the unity of the Body of Christ (which seems to be lacking) and the hearts of those dozen people who will show up. A congregation with that kind of attitude would eventually become an unbearable beast.

    And of course, ironically, the hipster is, like, the living incarnation of CCM. CCM takes cheese pop music and makes it into cheese pop for Jesus. Like commercial pop, sometimes they get a winner. Often not. All the ad does is take a very clever secular idea and baptize it… and U2, no less. Surprise, surprise.

    I would like to see Christians doing some innovating and not just copying.

  9. The first video wouldn’t play and I started wondering if iMonk had slash-dotted YouTube! 😉 But I was able to view the others.

    As someone who has been in both characters’ shoes and someone who still hangs out with both characters, my first reaction was similar to Michael’s initial point: “Great! More division in the body — just what we need!”

    Then I read the rest of the post and the comments and backed off that analysis and saw some value in the videos. So, I went back and watched them again, trying to see them with fresh eyes, and it was working great — until the very end.

    The videos end with “Christian No More”. I think Michael is being very generous to say that the implication is that “we’re better” and not just “we’re different”. IMHO, the implication of “Christian No More” can best be summed up by paraphrasing one of Jesus’ parables:

    The [Christ-follower] stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this [Christian].”

    90% of the content in these videos is not what the video-makers are, but what they are not. Usually, that kind of distinction is drawn from the uber-conservative side of the “aisle”. Perhaps they should be happy that the other side is learning to be smug and self-righteous, too.

    Sure, we’ll get a dozen more people to come to our church.

    Meanwhile, we’ll also re-inforce the misperceptions of two dozen of our weaker brothers, thereby pushing them even farther away. (Ten bucks says that these videos will be decried on Slice within a week.)

    And five dozen more non-believers will say, “Look at those Christian/Christ-follower idiots bickering. Why would I want to be a part of either camp?”

    And yes, I realize that I, also, have been guilty of sacrificing unity on the altar of the hip. I’m doubting, though, that this church takes its moral direction from me.

  10. Yes, irony does abound in this. And it would be funny…if they weren’t so sad.

    Fast forward 20 years, or, at the rate things change, these days, maybe even 10 or just 5. I can just see it:
    “Christ Follower”! Oh, that is sooo ‘yesterday’. We’re not using that anymore—too boring and way too many bad connotations. No, we’re going to call ourselves ‘Jesus People’ (or maybe we’re back to the ‘ancient’ or ‘retro’ term, ‘Christian’). And can you believe the way ‘Christ Followers’ still dress? Jeans, tee-shirts,etc…everyone knows if you don’t want to be a freak (geek, culturally irrelevant, uncool, out-of-style, fill-in-the-blank, whatever…) you have to dress in the current cultural style: ties, jackets and white shirts is the way we are expressing ourselves and our dedication to being missional, today.

    Same song, second verse: conformity to the cultural norm. Whether it’s men in suits, women in hats and gloves or funky, hip, casual, retro, whatever…everybody seems to have the ‘right’ idea of how church and God’s work ought to be done. And it’s been that way since the beginning. Jesus’ disciples were upset about people casting out demons in Jesus’ name who weren’t with ‘their’ group. (Mark 9:38-40) As an earlier post mentioned, the application of the law of Love and tolerance spoken of in Romans 14 is what is called for here. The only thing wrong with Believers wearing coats & ties or t-shirts & jeans is when they start criticizing those who dress differently than themselves.

    BTW, talk about out-of-date, culturally irrelevant and conformist (at least within their own subculture)–how about those Amish Christ Followers? I guess it proves that if you are really out-of-date, eventually, you can become accepted as either retro, unique, or classic.
    ;- )

  11. One last thought:
    I was trying to figure out why these videos disturbed me on a deeper level than reason alone could explain. Then I ran across this quote from one of the commenters on the You Tube site: “The video reminds me a little bit too much of the “cool kids” who made fun of me and my friends for loving books.” That was it. It was junior high all over, again and I saw these as parodies of the ‘nerd’ vs. the cool and popular.

    How Christian is that?

  12. I hear you, Debra. The bit about the books irritated me because I enjoy reading theological works and church history related stuff. I think it’s important to have some sort of connection with our collective history if we want to understand what Christianity is today, and “Christ-follower” struck me as one of those Christians who doesn’t like icky things like “reason” and “effort.” Once he returns home, I imagine Christ-follower reading a single verse out of his Bible and waiting for God to explain it to him, rather than reading further.

    I like books.

  13. Seems like a judgment that being a “true believer” is something you can see by an outward appearance. Not once was the Gospel concerning Christ dying for our sins mentioned. So some people come to the church thinking “I’ll fit in here”, which is not why someone ought to go to church, and will be in the end disappointed or a clone of the new pattern which will be its own form of legalism.

    The older forms sometimes have dropped the ball about the Gospel. The newer form comes and rebels against the older one yet instead of preaching the Gospel they too end up focused on outward appearances. That is what concerns me about the “Emerging Church” (e.g. little Gospel but lots of actions that “look like what Christ would really do).

    Am I being too simplistic here?

  14. I said: (Ten bucks says that these videos will be decried on Slice within a week.)

    OK, so it was nine days. Where do I send my money?

  15. Jeff Berg, you are correct, sir, which makes much of the criticism here completely unfounded. These videos were ONLY EVER intended to be used within the church services at the church that created them. The only reason they were available on the web was as a courtesy to any other churches that might be able to use them in their services as well…kindofa funny thing to do for a church that supposedly thinks it’s so much better than everyone else…

    Secondly, the whole target for these videos was specifically non-Christians who might be attending a service at CCC and was hoping to say to them that becoming a “Christian” is not about accepting what they perceive to be the Christian culture of divisive bumper stickers and cheesy T-shirts and TestaMints and bad music and all the other things that we have attached to the Gospel, to our detriment and the detriment of the world. The message of Christ was “come as you are and I will change you,” not “be Christian-ified first, and then I’ll give you a shot.”

    Thirdly, the idea that the church is espousing some kind of desertion of the term “Christian” in favor of “Christ-follower” so as to be intentionally different and hip is a little silly in light of the fact that the church’s name is “Community Christian Church”…

    Lastly, I do appreciate the spirit of this discussion, which has been real and straighforward without getting nasty or personal. If we can’t love each other on a simple blog with words, what hope do we have of loving the unlovable as we are called to do?

    I love all of you with Christ’s love,
    kerry cox

  16. At the risk of sounding cynical (who, me?), I have a hard time believing that a church whose online store sells many similar video shorts only intended these to be used in-house and simply (later) responded to a demand for other churches to use them.

    Kerry, I don’t think that anyone said that CCC thinks it’s “better than everyone else”. But part of what gets portrayed in these videos is that they’re part of a group that’s better than some. Hardly a Christian or Christ-follower sentiment.

    I will agree to the silliness of the idea of desertion of the word “Christian” given the fact that the middle C in the church’s name stands for that very thing. But given the fact that the tag at the end of the videos (“Christian No More”) shows that they seemingly are trying to desert the term, the silliness is found not in the criticism, but in the videos themselves.

    Side note: How do you go “out-of-stock” on a download?

  17. Anon. E. Mouse says

    uhh. does anyone else see that it is a satire or is it just me? this is used as an opener for sermons and stuff. our church shows videos like these all the time and it lightens the mood before we dive into the word. (Because we know the difference between satire and serious time) Not saying that my church is superior! Heavens no! We are barely building our …er… building next year. (Pray for us!) You guys need to lighten up and be able to take a joke every now and then. and i think this message about shedding the Christian “holier-than-thou” image is fine because we are supposed to be humble and not proudly state ” Im a baptist” or “I’m non denominational”. (i believe 1 corinthians 3:4 is what im refering to) this video satires how we pride ourselves in bumper stickers or how we read new king james cuz its holier than thou’s bible. lighten up and you might just see that its not promoting any denomination as much as its promoting jesus. Did jesus wear bumper stickers? Was Paul smug about being a christian? i dont remember any apostle ever having a WWJD bracelet either… seriously its a satire. nothing more, nothing less.

  18. Anon. E. Mouse says

    also I’ve only seen the first video cuz my internet connection is a bit on the lagging side. so im only basing judgement based off of that video)

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