Sunday, January 11, 2015

Repost: D. Stephen Long, "The Theological Danger of Church Marketing"

[4] The local church must avoid a marketing strategy that targets the unchurched, because there are no such people as "the unchurched," and to think that there are is to have already committed a serious theological mistake. To use the term unchurched is to subordinate the mission and the witness of the church to the logic of the market.

The "unchurched" is a category invented by sociologists and advertising executives; like other such categories—Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennium Generation, etc.—it seeks to describe in neutral terms broad sociological target audiences in order to convince these target audiences they need certain products. If you are to be a successful Baby Boomer, for example, you need to drive a SUX or a minivan, and [...] use Michelin tires if you love your children. Generation Xers have different needs and wants, and we must understand them. Some drink Coke; some drink the Uncola. Some are churched; some are "unchurched."

The "Unchurched" Error

The term "unchurched" produces a new target audience that will inevitably require a different kind of gospel. We do not call our target audience "sinners," "the unbaptized," "the lost," or even "the world." The "unchurched" lose the theological status of those former categories precisely because, consistent with corporate America, we wouldn't want to offend our target audience. We target the "unchurched" instead and ask them to become "churched." And I fear—not always, but on the whole—we promise this on their own terms, falsely promising self-fulfillment. That is a long way from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's claim "when Christ bids someone, 'Come and follow,' He bids that person 'come and die"" (The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Touchstone, 1995], 89). "Church" itself becomes a consumer item that persons need for their own self-fulfillment. This works against the Christian tradition of conversion and replaces it with manipulative market relations.

So I ask, can the commission, "Go and church the unchurched by developing a market strategy that draws upon the best sociological expertise and uses the market as well as any Fortune 500 company," fulfill or even be consistent with the church's commission, "Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded?"

The Specificity of the Gospel

Now those who argue for a marketing approach that targets the unchurched surely envision their work as being consistent with our Lord's Great Commission. The theological argument that is almost always used to justify this is that we must make the gospel relevant in our context through an incarnational ministry.

But notice what we already have had to do to our theological language to justify this practice. Can the term "incarnation" be used in such a context? The Incarnation is a specific particular event; it is God assuming Jewish flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, who is then crucified and bodily raised from the dead. Any appeal to the incarnation [sic], if it is theologically warranted, must have a direct relationship to the risen body of Christ. But once we justify a marketing strategy, the Incarnation often loses its particular bodily significance and becomes vacuous, meaning something like using the best available technological means to present some idea of the Gospel. Almost always, virtual reality replaces the material reality of the Incarnation in such justifications.

Another theological argument to justify using a market strategy is that we should use the [5] wisdom of our age to express the Gospel, just as Paul did in his. But can the logic of the market be that wisdom? Before using Paul's "all things to all people," we must ask, "Is the logic of the global market a hindrance or merely neutral to faithful Christian living?" Make no mistake about it, if you say: "yes, we should use a marketing strategy," you are inviting the logic of the Global Market into the sanctuary of the church, and the logic of the market is like a cancer. It grows and it grows, solely for the sake of growth, taking over everything in its midst.

Now, we are not yet at the place of other cultural industries. We don't yet stop in the midst of a service and say, "And before I begin, let me remind you that today's sermon is brought to you by the good people at Starbucks." But we are not that far off. The dangers are more real than many of the church growth experts want to believe.

I am convinced that the logic of the market is a threat to the Church's mission, because growth replaced faith. Growth is important as a secondary concern for the life of the Church. The first concern is faith, because Jesus said to Peter, not multiply my sheep, but "feed them." And He said, "The question when I come back is, will I find faith?" I am convinced the global market is a threat to the church and should be kept out of the sanctuary. Even if some good could come from the influence of the market, we must be scrupulous. [...]

Christianity is a local particular culture with a specific kind of language that has to be passed on from generation to generation. Christianity is a democracy of the dead founded in the communion of saints where no single generation has the right to say, "We have to do it differently, because our context is so new and unique." And I know, as Joseph Schumpeter, has taught us, that the logic of the market is what he called "creative destruction." It seeks to destroy the old, always for the new and improved. The logic of the market claims that it will provide the wealth of nations if we are obedient to it. It replaces Christian eschatology.

So for that reason, even if some good would come from it, the local church must avoid a marketing approach that targets the unchurched.


Source: D. Stephen Long, "The Theological Danger of Church Marketing," Discernment (Spring/Summer 2005): 4–5, accessed January 11, 2015,

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