Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Marketing the Gospel III

There’s a fascinating article at Slate about popular megachurches/televangelists opening “branch” churches and instead of being ministered to personally, parishioners instead are preached to by a “hologram” or video of the televangelist from his home congregation. One pastor is even quoted as comparing it to franchising a fast food chain. His quote is especially telling, “I believe in my product and what they are trying to sell.” But I have to ask, is the product that particular preacher, the brand-name of the ministry, the best-selling book series? Or is the product Jesus? If the latter, then it doesn’t really matter who is delivering the message (“unschooled, ordinary men” Acts 4:13). If any of the former, then they fall under the criticism of Paul when he wrote to the Corinthian church, “One of you says 'I follow Paul,' another, 'I follow Apollos'... ” (1 Cor 1:12) And considering the cult of personality this creates, the article compares this to church planting by noting, "church-planting, as it's known, can be arduous and time-consuming, and there's no guarantee it will reproduce the home church's success, especially without the same charismatic leader at the top." (emphasis added)

What’s even scarier is what the article calls these “churches”: gigachurches.

Now I understand what they’re trying to do here. It’s a natural extension of the televangelist reaching out via the airwaves. So it begs the question, when you’re watching a church service on TV, are you at church? To answer that question, we need to define what “church” is. I’m not going to get deep into polity or bring up the importance of participating in the sacraments, but I fail to see how you can have a church without ministry. And you can’t have ministry without someone ministering. And you can’t have someone ministering through a television set. Just what am I supposed to do if I’m having trouble with my marriage, my purity, an addiction? Email a pastor a thousand miles away?

And you have the same problem with the numbers game. How can a megachurch, or gigachurch for that matter, meet a particular individual’s spiritual needs? The “small group” has been revolutionary on this front and there have been many books written on what makes a successful small group/house church/etc. But really, if you’re in a crowd of thousands when you hear the Gospel, how well can your spiritual needs be met?

I bring this up as last weekend was the annual Harvest Crusade in Anaheim. Name recognition is a big draw here. Not just Pastor Greg Laurie through his radio program, but also the set list of supporting bands such as POD, Kutless, Michael W Smith, and Randy Travis. Personally, if I was invited I’d be just as interested in the entertainment as the Gospel. Again, “you say you follow Apollos…” I wonder how many in attendance were in the same boat. So what does it take to draw someone to the Gospel, a strong headlining act? A stadium-filling, multi-day, multi-media event?

A coworker was proud to comment that 2800 people accepted Christ on the first night. That’s great, I guess. But how sincere can that really be when every other person around you is crying their eyes out and everyone else is encouraging you to make an Altar Call? Yet, when Peter preached the first sermon at Pentecost, those in attendance were obviously moved emotionally ("cut to the heart" Acts 2:37), but do we question their sincerity? Of course not. So I’m left to wonder, is this the best way to market the Gospel?

Personally, on this subject I hold to these scriptural truths and trust God to deal with the rest. "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples." (John 8:31) “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14) "As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18) “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit... There is one Lord, one faith…” (Ephesians 4:3-6) "The important thing is that in every way... Christ is preached" (Philippians 1:18) “Live such good lives among the pagans…” (1 Peter 1:12) bookended by, “whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) and “therefore, go an make disciples of all nations... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you...” (Matthew 28:19-20)

I wrestle every day in prayer with what this is meant to look like in my life. And that’s where the name of this blog comes in, “Public Christianity”. I can’t tell you how to do it, I don’t even know myself. But I know that we have to be public in our faith. Bold in our convictions. And above all, we cannot allow the world define our faith for us. If it takes a crusade or a bring your neighbor day, a small group or Bible talk, a video evangelist or an in the flesh minister to bring the Gospel to the public, to God be the glory!

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