On Church Marketing

You may not have heard about Richard Reising or his blog Beyond Relevance, but you’ve probably seen their video, “What If Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?

I tend to cringe when I hear the phrase “church marketing,” because I usually associate the word “marketing” with trying to convince someone that a product is better than it really is. However, when you really think about it, every church markets itself in some way, whether intentionally or unintentionally. How do we put our best face forward? Our church has recently done an overhaul of our communications, including printed materials and our website. It looks great, but we continue to remind ourselves that it’s not about looking good, it’s about accurately and effectively communicating what we’re about as a church in order to reach people with the Good News of Jesus. This post at Beyond Relevance has some good points, and I especially resonate with this excerpt:

Promotion without connectivity is destructive. I often share with church leaders that most of the churches in the United States should not promote themselves. Why? Simple. If your current membership is not actively inviting people or visitors are not staying, there are reasons why. If you do an advertising campaign, you are asking people to come in your doors only to realize why no one wants to invite anyone to your church. They never come back and leave to tell all their friends what they did not like about your church. This is not good marketing.

If you are connecting with people well, your membership will validate this by bringing their friends. If you are not, they won’t. The problem with your church-goers not inviting people is not their problem—as church leaders, it is our problem. It is not time to craft a message to get people to invite their friends. That is the equivalent of preaching a message on not falling asleep in church. It is our responsibility to want to make them want to bring their friends just as it is to keep people awake.

Dear Facebook Friend

The following is an excerpt from a fictional letter imagined by Brian Ford:

You keep telling me it’s not about religion and that’s it about a relationship. But…if it’s about a relationship why haven’t you invited me to your youth group or church? Why haven’t you told me about this Jesus you SAY you have a relationship with? And if connecting with what you call “non-believers” is SO important, than why am I just one of your 500+ Facebook friends that you never actually speak to or see in person? Doesn’t your Jesus tell you to love others? So how is sending me invites to something in the virtual realm showing me love and pointing me to the eternal realm you say you’re living for?

I think I will read this letter in our Sunday morning gathering sometime this month. It’s not just a good reminder for students, it’s a good reminder for all of us, whether or not we spend time on Facebook.

Rick Warren on the "Future of Evangelicalism"

Take some time to read through it all. It’s a good reminder that for those of us who live in the States, we are the mission field now, not the home base. What does this say about youth ministry in our culture?

The last 50 years has seen the greatest redistribution of a religion ever in the history of the world. There is nothing even to compare to it. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1900, 71 percent of all, quote, “Christians” lived in Europe – 71 percent. By 2000 that percentage had declined to 28 percent. Only 28 percent claimed to be Christian, and I’m sure it’s far smaller than that who actually even go to a church.

On the other hand, Christianity was exploding in Africa, Asia and Latin America. If you want to know the future of evangelicalism, it is in those continents. To give you an example, in 1900 there were only 10 million Christians in all of Africa – 10 percent of the population. Today there are 360 million Christians in Africa, over half the population. That is a complete turnaround on a continent that’s never, ever been seen or done in history.

You may be surprised to know that there are more Christians in China than there are in America, by far – by far. There are more Presbyterians in Ghana than there are in Scotland, where they came out of with John Knox. There are more Baptists in Nagaland, a state in India, than there are in the South here in America. There are more Anglicans in either Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria – any of these – than in England. There are 2 million Anglicans in England. There are 17 million Anglicans in Nigeria.

The Church of England is a misnomer. It is now the Church of Africa. I have been involved in the ordination of many of those Anglican leaders. They have spread all over. Last Sunday there were more Christians who went to church in China than all of Europe combined. That is a fundamental shift. If you want to know the future of Christianity, it is the developing world. It’s Africa, it’s Latin America, and it’s Asia.

In fact, there are about 15,000 missionaries now working in England from Brazil, China, Korea, other countries that you used to think, well, those would receive missionaries. In fact, Brazil sends out far more missionaries than either Great Britain or Canada combined. So that’s a fundamental shift.

That’s all I’m going to say about the future of evangelicalism. It ain’t here. Okay? It isn’t Europe.

Does Satan Exist? (Features Mark Driscoll)

I’m watching an interesting program online from ABC’s Nightline called Face-Off. The episode I’m watching is a debate about the existence of Satan, featuring four people: Deepak Chopra, Carlton Pearson, Mark Driscoll, and Annie Lobert. (The link is here, but the interface is confusing, because it’s broken up into several separate videos, and many times it reverts back to the latest episode on infidelity in marriage, which also looks interesting. So, I haven’t yet made it through the whole thing.) I think that the fact this is being debated in such a public square is a great thing. It is also good for me to expose myself to ideas that are being considered in my culture that are contrary to biblical thought, so that I can think through the ideas, study them further, and provide sound, logical reasons as to why they are not true. One quote from Deepak Chopra was of interest to me:

Healthy people do not have any need for Satan. Healthy people need to confront their own issues, understand themselves, and move towards the direction of compassion, creativity, understanding, context, insight, inspiration, revelation, and understanding that we are part of an ineffable mystery. That the moment we label that mystery as good and evil, right and wrong, then we create conflict in the world, and that all the trouble in the world today is between religious ideologies. There are approximately 30 wars going on in the world, and they are mostly in the name of God. So I would say be done with Satan and confront your own issues.

The sentiment is, “Let’s be done with religious disagreements because they cause harm in the world.” I wrote a bit about pluralism yesterday, so I won’t revisit it here. However, two points: first, it’s interesting that Deepak Chopra is on national television debating a theological view he has (namely, that Satan does not exist), while in the same segment saying, in effect, “let’s just stop all these religious conflicts, because they cause trouble.” Second, I would like to point out to Carlton Pearson that orthodox Christianity does not believe that Satan is omnipresent and omniscient. Only God is. There are two dangers when studying and teaching about Satan: 1) we can ascribe to him too much power, making us so fearful of him that we doubt whether God really has authority over him; and 2) we can ascribe to him too little power (such as believing he doesn’t even exist) and unwittingly follow his way and not Jesus’ way. Okay, I said only two points, but here’s a third: it’s a good thing to label things right and wrong. I have spent time with students this week hearing about how they have been treated very, very wrongly, and that is sin. It’s okay to call something evil if it is in fact evil. In fact, that’s the really healthy thing to do.

Evangelism: What do we need to rethink?

As I grow older and spend more time in youth ministry, I learn more and more that I have a lot to learn. I love to write, but you’ll notice that I spend a lot of time thinking about what others have written on this blog. I find that I feel like I’m at my best when I humble myself to learn from others rather than thinking I’ve got it all together. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about evangelism, and came across the following article from last year in the Journal of Student Ministries. Grant English writes about an experience he once had with his youth at a evangelism conference where he realized that he didn’t want his students equating handing out tracts with evangelism. Here are his thoughts:

Theological Collisions
I figured that studying Scripture would make Jesus easier to follow, easier to accept, and easier to explain. I seriously thought the more I knew about Jesus, the better I’d be able to explain the unexplainable and live the ultimate Christian life. I figured there’s no way my life wouldn’t get better and clearer.

I wish I knew who was responsible for filling my head with those assumptions—I’d have a few choice words for that individual.

Disturbing Reality #1
Jesus’ conversations with people in the Bible were disturbing. He talked in code with Nicodemus. He argued with the religious elites. He comforted the woman caught in adultery. He confronted personal issues with the rich young ruler and woman at the well. He told stories to the fishing communities and laborers and seekers.

In short, Jesus used no “method” when he evangelized. Rather, everywhere he went, he simply engaged people relationally—and on their level, with language they could understand. He never started out with set lines or a memorized pitch. If they needed healing, Jesus healed them. If they needed a listening ear, he listened. If they needed some strong rebuke or encouragement, he provided that, too.

Disturbing Reality #2
Grace trumps everything. To those who thought they had it all together, Jesus pointed out that they didn’t—not to hurt them, but to show them that they, too, needed grace. And to those who “knew” they were beyond redemption, Jesus showed them otherwise. Whenever Jesus engaged people, he led them from where they were to his grace.

Disturbing Reality #3
Jesus wasn’t in a hurry. He didn’t press people for commitments of faith. In fact, he was really comfortable letting them walk away. (Can you imagine that encouraged at an evangelism conference?) The terms Jesus used to invite people to “believe in him”—e.g., “follow me,” “pick up your cross,” “walk with me,” “put my yoke on,”—all pointed to the idea of a process or journey. Even in the Great Commission the command was to “make disciples”—i.e., learners and apprentices—not super-Christians-one-rung-from-perfection.

I believe part of the reason Jesus wasn’t in a hurry was because he knew that people didn’t need another system or method or “secret” to live life well. He knew they needed him.

In spite of all the academic, theological, and political questions and problems people faced, Jesus knew they needed more than answers to those questions.

Just him.

They needed him for the moment…and for eternity.

Disturbing Reality #4
Lastly, for those who chose to follow Jesus, life often got harder, not easier. Does Jesus redeem our messes? Yes. Does he heal? Absolutely. But none of those processes are necessarily pleasant or even easy.

To be fair, those who’ve gone through redemption and healing are typically happy when they come out the other side in better shape—but you’ve got to wonder if they had that same perspective in the middle of the process.

For me, the bottom line is this (I love that my senior pastor pushes this a lot): our example for evangelism is Jesus. Of course, we are not God, but we are to become more Christlike, not just in some areas of our lives, but in all of them. If we’re to become more like Christ, there’s no better example to look at than…Christ! That’s why I love Grant’s approach here: question what we’re doing as the Church, and look to Jesus to see if we need to change anything.

In fact, while I’m on the topic, that’s pretty much a good thing to do as ministry leaders and youth workers: question our habits and the way we normally do things, and look to Jesus to see if we need to change anything. Actually, that would be a great thing for me to do personally. Of course, that would ruin my life even more…something Jesus is great at doing!

Chicago Area Church Fills Pews by Giving Cash

I had to read this carefully to make sure it wasn’t a satire piece from LarkNews.com:

At Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip, the congregation can get more than just prayer at the Sunday worship services.

If a lucky — or “blessed and highly favored” — churchgoer is in the right seat, they can also receive a cash prize.

At each of the three Sunday services, the Rev. Dan Willis pulls a number of one seat from a bag and the worshiper in that seat wins a cash prize. Two of the churchgoers win $250 and the third gets $500. The church gives away $1,000 each Sunday, Willis said.

The cash prize is part of Willis’ recent focus on helping his congregation pay bills and begin a debt-free life, he said.

“We’ve had soooo many of our people displaced from jobs, facing foreclosure,” he said. “When people’s faith was high, their debt was down. When their faith was down, their debt was high. I realized the two are connected.”

Willis concedes the cash prize is a gimmick to fill the pews. But he’s unapologetic about the plan, because it’s working. On a typical Sunday, his church draws about 1,600 people to its three Sunday services. But since the money giveaway started, about five weeks ago, the congregation has grown to about 2,500 each week, he said. The money for the giveaway comes from the church offering. Lighthouse is a non-denominational church.

A USA Today Commentary has some good thoughts on this.

After wading through my disbelief at the story and identifying some misguiding and false theology pastor Dan Willis gives, I got to thinking: do we as a high school ministry ever engage in these kinds of tactics? Now, there’s nothing wrong with engaging people and trying to draw them to church with the hope and prayer that they will hear about Jesus, repent, and begin a relationship with him. However, I believe some strategies are off limits. To give an extreme example, it would be wrong to draw a sex addict to church by offering one free session with a prostitute in return for attending. But do I practice more subtle forms of this?

Matt Lepsis Goes to Seminary

Normally, I balk at stories that feature celebrities who are also Christians. I enjoy seeing God glorified in all areas of our society, but too many times we as believers can end up glorifying the celebrity rather than God, who works in the celebrity’s life. In addition, I think youth pastors can at times fall into the trap of highlighting celebrities that are Christians to say, “Hey, look! Christianity’s cool! You can follow Jesus, too!” When I lived in Colorado, the Colorado Rockies would host a “Faith Day” at Coors field on a Sunday. After the game, a Christian musician would perform, and different players would share their testimony. Now, I think this is a great thing for the Rockies to do, because as far as I could tell, they were trying to use the platform they’d been given on account of their God-given talent to share Christ with others. However, I never felt comfortable that churches would highlight the event with huge gusto. This was especially true at my own church, which would make a big deal of this event, far bigger than our annual “World Missions Sunday.” My beef is not with the event itself, but with the American Church (in general, not across the board in every instance) giving more kudos to Celebrities Who Happen To Be Christians than to faithful servants who serve their whole life long as missionaries–whether as their vocation or as their way of life in whatever position they find themselves.

That being said, here’s a story about a celebrity who has allowed God to work in his life. I see this particular man as a celebrity who seeks not to glorify himself, but to humbly serve God in everything he does, knowing that he is a sinner in need of Jesus.

“I know a lot of people will look at this and say, ‘Here we go again, another professional athlete who got mixed up on drugs, was in the gutter somewhere, and decided to become religious,’ ” Lepsis said Friday from Dallas, where he is studying at a theological seminary. “My story couldn’t be any further from that. I didn’t grow up in the church. I wasn’t at rock bottom. I’m not stupid. I didn’t seek God, God was seeking me. This happened to me and it can happen to you if you accept the free gift that God has given us.”

Read it all here (the link goes to an expanded version of the article, which was originally published in The Denver Post on October 11th).

Is God Big Enough For Our Questions?

This morning, I taught a lesson to high school students at our church about the trustworthiness of the Bible. Where did it come from? How can we know it’s inspired by God? I was a little nervous about it, because it was basically a large amount of information in almost a lecture style format. Still, I thought it was information that they needed to hear, even if for some it would be lots of boring dates, archaeological evidence, and the transmission of manuscripts through the centuries. It ended up being a really fun lesson, and I was surprised at the level of interest.

During the session, I pushed students to give me good reasons for why we can trust that the Bible really is the Word of God. I said that we need to ask these questions, because God is the God of truth, and he’s not afraid of our questions. They seemed to enjoy discussing different sorts of evidence for the reliability of the Gospels, archaeological evidence that matches up with relevant passages in the Old Testament, and arguments that support Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. What really encouraged me is that some students seemed almost relieved that they were allowed to ask questions. One student who was at an event at a park afterwards said that he appreciated my openness to honest questions about the Christian faith, and that there have been times when he’s been made to feel faithless for questioning the assertions of orthodox Christianity. Somewhere along the way, we (the Church) have communicated that expressing doubt decreases our faith.

I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.

If God really is the God of truth, and if the Bible really is the inspired word of God, then questioning those two premises does not weaken them. Rather, honest questioning and honest searching will in the long run bring us and students closer to the God of the Bible. Where those of us who love youth come in is by serving as guides on the journey, to offer advice and insight from time to time. Let us encourage others to express with words the doubts of their minds and hearts and to wrestle with the difficult questions. Because God is bigger than our questions. Sometimes, he leads us to find the answers, but he wants us to find more than just answers; he wants us to find him.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” -Jeremiah 29:13

Listening for the sake of the Gospel

This past weekend, I was in Los Angeles at a Christian youth convention called “DCLA.” Our group decided to spend an afternoon in a busy marketplace talking with people and sharing with them about Jesus. Talking to any stranger in general is a huge deal to me (I’m the guy next to you on the plane with his head buried in a book from the minute I board, clearly communicating that I am happy we are both fortunate to be enjoying the trip together, especially if we get to do so with as little communication as possible). Given this, you can imagine how much I enjoy walking up to a person I’ve never met and starting a conversation about Jesus. Still, I walked with my group in the marketplace, starting my share of conversations with unsuspecting shoppers enjoying a brief bite to eat. I did so with a firm resolve, in much the same way I might take bad tasting medicine: “It’s good for me, and I love Jesus, so I have to do it!” Looking back, I may have had the same sort of grimacing look on my face as well!

It’s not that I don’t think “street evangelism” is a negative thing. I believe that many are called to such a ministry and that we all need to be aware of instances where the Holy Spirit is leading us to speak to a perfect stranger about Jesus. The exercise of asking our youth to share Jesus was also a positive experience, because some really productive conversations occurred, and the youth were great at not offending people (our group made sure to ask people right off the bat if they had a few free minutes to chat, and we didn’t hide the fact that we wanted to share about Jesus). It’s just that, well, it’s a very unnatural thing for me to do. Sometimes I wonder why God called me to be a pastor, given my great dislike of talking with people!

The experience has had me mulling over in my mind how we should lead youth to be missionaries where God has placed them, and how we can walk alongside them as they learn to share the good news of Christ’s redeeming love and work on the cross with others. Lisa Borden shares about an experience she had while sitting in her hair dresser’s chair, and her decision to listen rather than dive right into “sharing the good news” with her:

Sitting in those strangely intimate hair times, when someone you hardly know is hovering near and running their fingers through your hair, I used to listen to her as she chattered on. “You have a beautiful blue aura,” she would tell me. “You know, blue means that…” I can’t quite remember what blue means but you get the idea. Beyond the color observations, she would talk about her conclusions on the meaning of life, the problem of evil, the reason she didn’t drink, the way people behave.

As a well-schooled believer in Christ, I used to feel this knee-jerk reaction welling up inside me to correct my friend. Her beliefs were, according to me, way out in space and she just needed to be told what’s what; to be set straight.

But as I sat there under my lovely plastic poncho, I felt the Lord telling me to be quiet. My clear impression was that I was to listen and hush my mouth. “Fight the urge to be in the right. Listen and love this person.”

Time after time, I listened and one day I heard something very deep and vulnerable. My friend was desperate to have a baby and she was deeply distressed to have recently miscarried once again. This was heart-talk. Woman to woman, soul to soul. I told her about the miscarriage I suffered before my 4 kids were born. I sat with her in the pain of it all.

A couple of days later I dropped by with a card. In it I told her that I would be praying for her to have a baby. I would be praying in Jesus’ name to have this desire of her heart fulfilled. She cried. And she pinned my card to her office wall.

A year later I snuggled her baby and we giggled together at the beauty of her daughter. Then I moved away from Europe. I have no idea how she is today.

This is what I know: If I had come on strong with my beliefs my friend would likely never have shared the deep hurt of her heart with me. And I would not have had the chance to grieve with her and then tell her of my faith in Jesus’ power to bring her a baby. I would not have had the opportunity to see my card pinned to her wall, or to smile knowingly as I held her daughter.

I don’t know if my friend has chosen to follow Christ, but I do know that she knows that Jesus is loving and powerful and able to hear prayers and answer them. I guess I leave her choice in his hands.

I’m glad our youth (and I!) had the chance to be faithful and share Christ with others, not knowing how the listener would respond. I also hope that we can teach youth to be loving listeners who aren’t afraid to let the Spirit work and allow him to have control of the conversation rather than blurt out our spiel without listening. It’s something I need to learn in my own life.