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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Argumentation and Evidence I: church marketing followup

In a previous post on marketing and the church I made several claims, such as that the secular practice of marketing was a version -- a nihilistic version -- of the sort of revivalism that was popular in the nineteenth century, particularly in the Second Great Awakening. I further made the claim that the church ought to reject secular marketing practices, since they are a secular and nihilistic version of a dubious (and likely heretical) development in the church. (Or, if you're not so confident that revivalism is a dubious or heretical development in the church, I'm willing to make a weaker claim that, at least for those churches which eschew revivalism, marketing should not be embraced as it presupposes an ecclesiology which is at variance with their own.)

Peter pushed me to define church marketing and I put him off. I thought I would get to it later that week, but, well, things piled up as they tend to do. So here at last is a rough-and-ready outline of what I mean.

First, what I don't mean: I don't mean that evangelism is to be rejected. Certain forms of it might lean over into church marketing as I mean it, and should be examined carefully, but evangelism itself takes many, many forms and has been a key part of the Christian faith since the beginning. Most any reader of Gower Street who calls him- or herself a Christian is so by virtue of the church's proclamation of the good news: even if one grew up in the church, then one's parents, grandparents, or some previous generation lost in the mists of time heard the good news in one form or another and left whatever they previously knew to become part of the church.

Straightforwardly, although somewhat narrowly, church marketing would be forms of evangelism (usually corporate evangelism, corporate meaning "as a body" not "industrial"), which self-consciously employ the tactics and strategies of secular marketing, especially to the degree that the practices and categories of that marketing submerge the practices and categories of the Christian story. For example, in the book God is Not..., one of the chapters critiqued the idea that God is a capitalist, and specifically took aim at the book Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. This seems like a straightforward submerging of Christian categories to marketing categories (not "Messiah" or "Lord" but "CEO" or "entrepreneur"). There are many other books out there which have advocated using secular marketing techniques to advance the church's mission; although they aren't always as obvious about shifting categories like this, they do uniformly state that marketing is simply a neutral (and by implication, unproblematic) means to a chosen end.

Not as straightforwardly or obviously, but more broadly, church marketing is treating the Christian faith as a means to something else, commodifying or objectifying it into something that we might acquire as individuals for any reason (or no reason). In this scheme, church becomes one more thing/activity that we fit into our lives, perhaps for the sake of having a "complete life" or being "respectable" (though less of that these days). This means, too, that those who reject church attendance on the grounds of being "too busy" are buying into this mindset.

Or again, if Christian faith is seen as primarily about "eternal life", that is, with whatever happens after this life, and such faith is seen largely in terms of "eternal security" then the faith is taken up as a means to something else. Conversely, if Christian faith is seen as primarily about life here and now, that is, with how it can contribute to the liberation of people in their material situation and achieve justice and equity, then the faith is taken up as a means to something else. Of course, Christianity has important things to say about each of these topics, here and the herafter. But if the faith is taken up as a means to something else, then that implies that it might be discarded as soon as a better means is found -- perhaps Marxism or capitalism better achieves justice and equity; maybe Scientology or a stoic materialism better tackles the issue of the afterlife; it might be that joining the country club or the Kiwanis better establishes you as a respectable citizen. Yet this is utterly inimical to Christianity; the commitment and life envisioned by the Christian faith goes beyond a tentative allegiance based on achievement of certain results.

In fact, I would argue that seeing Christianity as a "religion" is a chief cultural indicator of something gone wrong. We seem to think we know what "religion" is -- that it's personal, that it's about the afterlife or "god", that it's a commitment one elects to take up (or not) -- and that its coexistence alongside other cultural institutions such as democracy or capitalism (or constitutional monarchy or communism) is unproblematic, because one is "religion", another is "politics" and the other is "economics". (I strongly suspect that this is true for other so-called religions, too: I think this category mistake is manifestly at the root of our (American) complete failure to understand Islam, for example. But I will allow adherents of those other "religions" to make their cases.)

This has gone further afield than I originally intended. To pull it back to the nonobvious sense of church marketing, give an example, and summarize: if Coca-Cola comes up with a new product -- Raspberry Coke, say -- they can market it as a commodity (with all of the advertising falsehoods that we are accustomed to: be popular, be sexy, be satisfied). If no one likes Raspberry Coke, they go back to the drawing board and come up with something new because the new product was a means to an end, the end being the company's (shareholders') profit. But even if Raspberry Coke is a hit, it doesn't change anyone's life and requires nothing of a person beyond buying it (shucks, you don't even have to drink it!). Brand loyalty is quaint and valuable to the company, but really has no genuine commitment behind it. Beyond the lies used to advertise it, there is no shape of a life associated with it.

On the other hand, the church is committed to -- lives and dies by -- the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Christian life. We can't go back to the drawing board and come up with something new, nor are we interested in some end outside of that faith (profit, for example). Our medium is our message, or to reverse McLuhan's dictum, our message is our medium. The Christian faith is something with implications for all areas of our lives, not merely an hour or so on Sundays; or maybe better, it is a life. Unlike buying a Coke, becoming a Christian is demanding and wonderful and is the only thing which ultimately satisfies. (God help me, I've created a slogan!) The Christian faith is (in a non-vicious sense) totalizing and any advertising or marketing of it -- perhaps because of the medium itself, but also because of the practice's background -- makes it into something else, which is a betrayal.

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Just so that you know that I know, I still need to give a thumbnail sketch of the history of marketing, an overview of revivalism (especially the Second Great Awakening), show connections (or at least strong similarities) between the two, and explain why the sacred/secular division of the world is so problematic. I should also probably outline why the notion of means being neutral is so perilous, and give an historical account of the development of that idea, too. Have I already told the history of the term "religion" and why it's such a problem? If not, I should. Also, some account of the conundrums and viciousness of individualism would be helpful. When will I find time? I have no idea, but stay tuned.

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