Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Selling God

When mainline churches are declining in numbers, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches seem to be growing big-time. Many of them have congregations that number in the thousands. Those that belong to these churches would probably claim that it’s all to do with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings them to church and works powerfully in their lives once they get there. People want to go to spirit-filled churches.

There’s probably an element of truth in this. But I think there’s a much bigger reason for the growth in these type of churches. Pentecostal/Evangelical churches know how to sell Jesus.

From the minute you walk through the door of the church, you are treated as a potential customer. You’ll probably be greeted by a friendly face at the door, who will ask whether you’re just visiting. Say you’re not a Christian, but you’re thinking of going to church, and you’ll be bumped up to VIP status. Make a commitment to Christ and you get your own welcome pack – introduction booklet and free bible. Now I’m not criticising this. New members and visitors should be given warm welcomes. And Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. But it is a selling point.

Another selling point is the music. Forget boring organ music and hymns. That’s now the kind of music that will sell a church. For Pentecostals, it’s all about upbeat and loud music and lyrics that are easy to remember and easy to sing along to. This music is supplied by a band, that sits up on stage, so that you can watch them as though you’ve come along to a free live music event. For many churches, you’ll also find that the music itself can be bought on CD, so you can even listen along to the songs at home.

The social aspect also helps to sell the church. I think this is more of an issue for young people – and by young people, I mean anyone under 55. People want to be around people of their own generation. The Pentecostal/Evangelical style churches, with their music and their feel, attract younger church-goers. Then with bible studies and other fellowship groups, there are lots of opportunities to socialise. It’s part of the whole fun package.

Now I don’t have any problems with any of these things. I think they are good things to do and that all churches should be doing them. It makes sense that if churches want to attract people, they have to make church attractive. But I am concerned about how far churches go in selling the church – at the expense of other, more important things. And I definitely have issues in seeing Jesus as a commodity or product to be sold.

Let’s take the message. One strong message that comes across in the evangelical churches is that God wants to make your life better. He will bless you. He will heal you. He will get you that job, answer your prayers, give you what you want. The preacher speaks of how he had absolutely nothing going for him, but God completely turned his life around. Some sermons sound like 30 minute advertisements for God. I’ve seen TV advertorials with less hyperbole. From a selling point of view, it makes sense to focus on this message. The way you sell anything is by drawing attention to the benefits. But Jesus shouldn’t be reduced to some kind of religious product that will solve your problems and change your life. That’s not what Jesus is about.

Jesus did a pretty terrible job of selling himself. He said things that made people uncomfortable. He got on the wrong side of the religious leaders. He asked people to do things that seemed practically impossible to do. He said that people had to be servants. He asked rich people to give up all their money. He told his followers that they would be persecuted because of him. None of the early Christians would have followed Jesus because he was the best religious product on the market at the time. They followed Jesus because, although they knew it would make their life harder, Jesus was someone worth following.

I wonder about today’s new generation of Christians. Are they following Jesus because he is someone worth following? Or are they following Jesus because someone did a good job of selling him to them? And if it’s the latter, what happens if the product fails to deliver? What if God doesn’t bless them, heal them, get them that job, turn their life around? Do they ring up God and ask for a refund? Or do they simply go searching for a better religious product?

Churches should be attractive places. When people go to church, they should get some benefits. But Jesus should never be reduced to a good religious product. He is so much more than that. 

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