First Church of Authenticity and Trends

neon church…is it just me, or is this title hopelessly contradictory? And yet, this is the message that countless congregations endeavor to send to our culture. “We’re the genuine article, bona-fide disciples of Jesus, and we’re just like you, so you’ll fit right in!” Mercy.

So my wife and I recently visited a local festival associated with the harvest of some plant that makes delicious pies (and they were!). It was hosted by a local congregation associated with a (non LCMS) historic Protestant tradition who, though the denominational acronym had not been completely removed from their signage, had transitioned to the “Community Church” name and image. As a part of a nation-wide initiative, they were aggressively advertising “National Back to Church Sunday,” which I thought sounded just plain lovely, almost like “back to school,” but without all the corresponding sales. I said to my wife, “I didn’t know the Methodists took off Christianity for the summer!”

All snark aside, a few of the promotional materials, pamphlets, and fliers wound up in our hands, and as we read through them, a few paragraphs jumped out at me.

“You’re invited to church this Sunday at ______ Community Church! At ___CC, you will find friendly people striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages, and a focus on living life with a purpose. Come see what church has to offer for your life.”

If I were an unbeliever and the least bit skeptical, I think my initial response to that last sentence might be something along the lines of “Apparently, absolutely nothing.”

“Special coffee hour to follow. Casual Atmosphere, Real People, Active Mission, Mid-week Bible Studies, Fun Children’s Program, New Youth Programs.”

Now, if that isn’t cheesy or cliche, is it at least missing something rather critical that ought to have some prominence in a church advertising campaign? There is no Jesus in the equation. Does He have anything to offer my life? Or more importantly, does He have any life to offer me? From the pamphlets we received, you might indeed assume He was anything but high up on their list of priorities, most of which reflected the first world desire of consumer culture for historically unprecedented comfortability.

But the crass concept of church advertising aside, as if we were entrepreneurial businessmen trying to attract a clientele to our new product, consider the potential negative implications of such marketing phrases. Whatever you advertise yourself as will say something significant about what you wish to be seen as not. For example, when you advertise yourself as a church of “friendly people,” there is an implicit suggestion that other churches may be somewhat less than friendly. Otherwise, why would you advertise it if, in your mind, everybody expects every church to be full of friendliness?

Well of course, there are unfriendly churches. I don’t think they are a majority, or that being friendly makes you stand out. But the message seems to clearly imply, “We’re not like those indifferent congregations that you wouldn’t like to be a part of.” So maybe your people are friendly. You may even rightly consider that an asset. And by no means is it over the line to include that fact on your promotional materials. But let’s take a closer look at some of the other claims: Striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages, a focus on living life with a Purpose (TM), casual atmosphere, etc….

It kind of sounds like many other churches are probably irrelevant and purposeless. I’m reminded of Matt Chandler’s adage that trying to make the Gospel relevant is like trying to make water wet. So… do these other churches not preach the Gospel, or is this saving proclamation not enough? Is the purpose of church really to provide a relaxed, peppy environment for the pursuit of self-improvement? I don’t see that anywhere in the teaching of, you know, Jesus. Further, if your church is full of “real people,” do the rest of ours contain imaginary parishioners? No, this is a subtle, inverse way of playing the pharisee card: We’re real, which is different, because elsewhere you will probably find phony.

When a church says “you should join us because we’re friendly, upwardly mobile, creative, upbeat, relevant, purposeful, casual, real, active, fun, and new,” at what point have they crossed the line of being pretentious? They might as well just come out and say “We’re totally awesome in every way you could possibly dream of, and you really want to hang out with us so it can rub off on you!” I didn’t realize I was missing so many of these things from my life. It’s all quite intimidating, really, I’d want to ask if they have more of an introductory step or recovery group for my purpose-less excuse for an irrelevant life.

At the end of the day, it appeared to base a marketing image 100% on knocking over a straw man caricature of their own creation. These blurbs so attempted to define the congregation by how much it is not like the religious boogeyman that they failed to define themselves by that which actually makes one a Christian! Campaigns like this do not seem designed with the religious skeptic or uninformed in mind. Rather, it appears to target the comfortable Evangelical religious consumer; those who have lost interest in another congregation they either quit attending or are frustrated with its inabilities to meet their “felt needs.” Like it or not, shuffling the deck chairs and inflating conversion statistics is big business. Or at least, it used to be. It will be MySpace by the time the LCMS learns the ropes.

Where is Christ and His Gospel? I’m near positive that somewhere in the doctrinal statements of this particular congregation they are acknowledged, among the many false beliefs Methodists also have. But in the day to day operations, it would appear that they are more assumed than actively confessed. It’s as if once they are in the doctrinal statement, they can safely be ignored most of the time.

What if a congregation defined its “brand image” solely on belief the Gospel? How would this function in terms of negative implication? To put ourselves forward as “Christ-centered, cross focused,” or “Gospel driven” simply implies that our Christianity is about being Christian, and not about what isn’t Christianity (finding purpose etc…). What if it were clear from our advertising that our message is about Jesus from start to finish, and our methods are formed around that which keeps our eyes on Him, in what the late Michael Spencer described as a “Jesus shaped spirituality?”

God bless the people of this congregation for their sincerity and strategic intentionality in reaching out to their community. From the bustle of activity occupying their facilities, you might even conclude that their efforts are successful. But I can’t help but wonder: What are they being reached with? What is being advertised and sold to them? Is it Jesus, or is it the congregation, with her leaders, methods, and new, more relevant message?

If you can indulge me a moment of satire, what if the impression we sought to give our communities for the reason our church exists looked more like this:

“Grumpy people, bored or frustrated with life, mundane diet of dirges, dull worship, droning sermons, focused on just surviving, burnt coffee, constricting atmosphere, hiding behind a mask of formalism, and little activity outside of Sunday morning. What kind of a God would want us? Join us on Sunday to hear all about the wonderful love of a crucified Savior. We might bore you to death, but you’ll be in good company!”

If we’re going to advertise what we’re selling, let it be Jesus. Not ourselves, not a wonderful life, not a purpose-driven all ages 24/7 community activity center. Nothing more than Christ crucified, for the forgiveness of sins. Is Jesus enough if He is all we have to offer?

….so what if I told you that the church we visited was an LCMS congregation? Would you be surprised? Should you?


BJS_MiguelRuizLargeAssociate Editor’s Note: With this post we welcome Miguel Ruiz to our regular writers here at the Brothers of John the Steadfast. Here is what Miguel has to say about himself…

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He and his wife Ei and son Seth live on Long Island in New York where he serves as an LCMS church and school as the director of parish music and secondary music teacher. Having just completed the colloquy program through Concordia, St. Paul, he is scheduled to be commissioned as a Minister of Religion on Reformation Sunday, 2014. As a former “worship leader” and “youth pastor,” he has found blogging and arguing about theology on the internet to be a therapeutic way to process his journey out of Evangelicalism, and is very grateful for the influence of online communities and media, such as this site, for their role in helping him find his home in the church.

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