When did “evangelism” become “marketing?” At what point did the church rise up and say, “You know? Evangelism doesn’t have to be personal. We can phone (email, billboard, television, webcast) it in!” The shift from relational evangelism to representational evangelism is almost complete in some areas. At the School of Congregational Development I listened to one woman jubilantly explain about the “agency” her church hired to “do” its evangelism. She gushed about the slick brochures, the professional quality 30 second TV spots and web videos, the phoning push they contracted with a telemarketer to conduct on behalf of the church, and their direct mail strategy. She boiled it down to “once we receive 82 new giving units, the campaign will pay for itself in 3 years!” Praise Jesus.
I asked what the substance of their message was, and she immediately parroted, “Church for people who hate church!” I pushed a little deeper. “But, what is your invitation? What are you offering to people as “good news.” She cocked her head and said, “We’re leaving that to the professionals.”
My question is: who are “the professionals” when it comes to evangelism?
Historically, evangelism — the “sharing of the good news” — as a spiritual gift (charismata) was a personal and intimate expression of faith. Evangelists told the good news of Jesus the Christ in their own lives. They were first-hand witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ to change lives. Evangelism at its finest happened one-on-one and was grounded in a two-fold personal relationship invitation: invitation to relationship with God and invitation to enter a supportive spiritual community. Evangelism wasn’t preaching, it wasn’t teaching, it wasn’t a stadium crusade, it wasn’t handing out “The Four Spiritual Laws,” (though this is closer than many definitions), and it wasn’t a pathway to institutional growth and support. Evangelism was evangelism — the heart and soul of the Christian movement. It was a positive viral Christianity. In the premodern world, the writers of the gospels were evangelists because they were sharing personal, unique, supposedly eye-witness accounts of their experience of Jesus the Christ.
But something has happened to our understanding of evangelism. It corresponds directly with the shifts from church as Christian community to church as corporation, from worship as liturgy (the work of the people) to worship as performance art evangelism, and from missional outreach as identity to missional outreach as growth strategy. The past 150 years have been a time of transition from Organic Expression to Ecclesial Industrial Revolution — from family to business.
We live in a different world. To stay relevant and attractive we find ourselves needing to assimilate new technologies and techniques, but always with the risk of assimilating values and worldviews as well. For centuries, churches held clear identities within their communities. A town might boast a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Roman Catholic church and everyone in town knew where each church was, what it was up to, and who went where. Not long ago I was in a small town of 6,200 people and there were 79 churches/temples/mosques listed in their little phone book! It would be impossible to know about every one of them. In today’s terms, this is a highly competitive market.
Churches used to establish a missional identity — a congregation was known for its key ministries or lack of same. Today, this is no longer true. Many churches lack any kind of communal reputation. New churches have no reputation, so they must create a “public image.” Adam Hamilton in his book “Leading Beyond the Walls,” does an excellent job describing what a church must do if it lacks a missional identity or an evangelistic witness: marketing. Today, churches create their image. What a church does is less important than what it says it does. This is true as a denomination as well as a congregation or conference. It pushes us to find a “brand” identity. We need to distinguish ourselves. I remember talking with a Christian marketer while doing some research a few years ago who said, “Every church has Jesus. What you need is to find something else no one else has, or that they haven’t thought to exploit. The only Jesus that sells is a new and different Jesus. If you can discover that, you have a winner.”
But what if you’re stuck with the Jesus you’ve got? What if you don’t think creating a new Jesus is such a good idea? ReThink Church, maybe. ReThink Jesus? Okay, changing the way WE think about Jesus would be a great thing. It’s changing JESUS that I’m concerned about. And that is what I so often see happen. Marketing is selective. We focus on a few catchy positives and downplay the costs. Christian Life — blessings abound (yes!), comfort and security (yes!!), healing and wholeness (yes!!!), Jesus is your best friend (yes!!!!), cost of discipleship (not so much).
Is marketing evangelism? The answer is not a simple yes or no. Marketing is a form of evangelism. It is representational evangelism. Representational evangelism is evangelism done for us, not by us. It lifts the burden of having to tell another person the good news and inviting them into relationship. It shifts focus from dialogue to monologue. Generally it is not invitation into community so much as an invitation to a church, where “the professionals” will take over — leading worship, teaching Bible studies, etc. It is less focused on Good news and more focused on Church news. Representational evangelism makes the local church the mediator between a person and their relationship with God. Growing up in the Midwest, I was taught (yes, part of our Sunday school program was being taught to share our faith with others…) that we NEVER invite a person to “church;” we invite people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, emphasize the importance of Christian community, and then encourage them to go to a church of their own choosing — even offering to accompany them. Then, and only then, is it okay to invite them to “your” church. By the time I entered ministry in New Jersey, one of the leading evangelists in that conference, Doug Miller, offered a very different perspective: “We don’t just make Christians; it is our mission to make United Methodists!” Today, the leading evangelists are less concerned with making United Methodists than they are swelling their own rolls.
The risk of representational evangelism is that it isn’t “real” evangelism. It is partial, incomplete evangelism. Faith sharing requires reciprocity. Relationship. Dialogue. Partnership. Journey. It is grounded in community. It is about integration. Evangelism is about more than the message — it is about a radical reorientation of a person’s life and worldview. You cannot do this adequately on a billboard, television, or computer. And it isn’t the job of the pastors and preachers. Evangelism is the work of the whole body. Not everyone can speak the message well, but everyone can witness to the influence of Jesus the Christ in their lives. Every person should have a witness (especially now that we made it part of our membership vows. We all know how seriously United Methodists take THOSE…) No one can do our evangelism for us. Jesus asked the twelve and continues to ask millions today to be his witnesses. We can’t pay someone to do it for us. Surely we can pay people to create wonderful messages and witnesses about us, but it isn’t about us — it’s about Jesus the Christ and God’s will for the world. Can I get a witness? Anyone? Please?