Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Branding An Eternal Message? Pt. 1

For the next few days, I am going to write on something that has been a growing issue in my heart; the idea of marketing the Gospel message as if it is a product on television. I am NOT against getting the message out in modern ways, but we must evaluate the implications of crossing the fine line of reducing the message of Jesus to a mere product of commercialism, instead of the life-changing Lord of Lords that He is and forever will be!

The church today has a weakness for numbers. We are infatuated with measurements and quantified data: statistics, opinion polls, market research, attendance figures, bestseller lists, budgets, and so on. We want specific numbers so we can keep tabs on things like market saturation, return on investment, and consumer satisfaction. We want to monitor what the masses are buying, where the people are flocking, and what is hot right now, so that perhaps our warehouse churches will overflow with seeker-consumers. In other words, the church today operates like a corporation, with a product to sell and a market to conquer.

But what happens to our faith when we turn it into a product to sell? What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible? What does Christianity lose when it becomes just one piece of a consumer transaction? These are questions that the brand managers of “cool Christianity” would do well to consider.

In Branding Faith, Phil Cooke talks about how Christianity’s brand appeal is strengthened due to its mystery, in the same way that Kentucky Fried Chicken’s brand is enhanced by the mystery of its secret spices and McDonald’s by its secret sauce. He also compares the sensory appeal of liturgical churches’ “smells and bells” (incense, etc.) to that of stores like Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works, which enhance customers’ experiences with smells. Christians are constantly making comparisons like this, using the language of mass-market capitalism to talk about how to polish and position the “brand” of Christ. But it strikes me as incredibly unseemly and wrongheaded to speak of Christianity in this way—as if it were just like any other organization or business that needed to be marketed. We market products, sports teams, movies, and … Jesus? We trivialize and demean Jesus when we place him in the company of yellow pages products like hairspray and hot wings.

Let’s think for a minute about what Christianity is and why it doesn’t make a good “product.” For one thing, products must be subject to markets, yet God is not subject to the consumer needs or wants of any market. God only and ever deals on his own terms. His grace comes from within him and is bestowed on us as he pleases. It doesn’t come when we are ready for it or when we long for it. We struggle to fathom something that can’t be purchased “on demand” in this day and age, but Christianity is one such thing. God saves at his discretion and on his watch.

Another reason why Christianity doesn’t make a good product is that it doesn’t lend itself to an easy commercial sale. Sure, there are appealing things about it, but there are also not-so-appealing things about it (um… taking up one’s cross, avoiding sin and worldliness, etc.). And although the Gospel is wonderfully simple in the sense that even a child can recognize its truth, it is also mind-blowingly complex in a way that doesn’t lend itself to thirty-second jingles. Marketing requires simplifying, cutting out all friction and obstacles to a sale, and focusing solely on the beneficial, feel-good aspects of a product. To market something is to empty it of all potentially controversial or difficult elements, which is maybe not the best method of communicating the gospel, says David Wells:

[Marketing] flattens, simplifies, and converts everything into what is appealing. That is what it has done in the evangelical church. The gospel, understood as a product, loses its depth and cost. This happens so that its appeal and salability can be elevated, but along the way Christianity becomes flat, empty, and banal.

Not only that, but Christianity also becomes indistinguishable from any other marketed commodity. When people are “sold” Christianity in the same way that they are sold a pair of shoes or a cell phone upgrade, people will naturally think of Christianity in the same way that they do any other consumer product; that is, as a lifestyle choice and brand with which they currently identify but might easily abandon if a better offer comes down the pike. If I primarily choose Christianity because it is slickly marketed, like I might choose an iPhone, the risk is high that I won’t stay loyal to that “brand” forever. I never was attracted to the “thing” itself, after all—just the attractive marketing, which can easily be one-upped in the future by competitors. Attempting to sell the gospel as “cool,” then, is a dangerous proposition. It’s dangerous because it bases the attractiveness of the gospel on an external definition of marketability and “cool” that will appeal to people but has very little to do with the actual content of the message. Converts to this gospel will likely be like the seeds on rocky soil in Matthew 13—rootless. As Tyler Wigg-Stevenson notes:

Any salvation that needs a sophisticated sales pitch is a salvation that won't really do anything. It will make you holy the same way a new pair of Nikes makes you athletic—which is to say, not at all. It only changes your religious brand… Spiritual shoppers have no reason to think that Christianity is anything but one option among many.

Just as “cool” has become little more than a happy meal product to satiate the desires of young people to “purchase empty authenticity and rebellion,” pop Christianity is on the verge of becoming little more than just another vacuous moniker and feel-better-about-myself, over-the-counter drug. It’s always easier to consume cool or buy a satisfactory status (whether emotional, spiritual, or physical) than it is to legitimately work for it, earn it, and become it. The church must make sure we aren’t selling an empty, easy, superficial product devoid of anything truthful or real. It’s easy to sell Christianity-Lite when you mention only the positive, “this will make your life so much better” selling points. It’s significantly harder to convince people to adopt a full Christian life that makes no promises about instant gratification and almost guarantees hardship. Such a thing isn’t as easily “sold,” but it’s worth more than anything you might ever buy.

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