The marketing of faith…and why it is futile.

I have been known to complain about our culture of consumerism – though I complain as one who benefits from and (secretly) enjoys the pursuit of stuff. My desk and office are littered with the detritus of my gadget habit; cables and cameras, an exercise bike (broken), three old lap top computers, several cell phone chargers, a CD player and an electric pencil sharpener – not to mention the stuff that still works. Consumers is what we are (or what we have become) and that impulse includes things we cannot touch, taste or operate with rechargeable batteries. We have an insatiable hunger for ideas, opinions and philosophies. We include religion in that list, at our peril.
But these are perilous times, and there is a troubling trend in the church – in North America, at least, to ‘market’ the church as just another ‘product’. Thus, our worship must also ‘entertain’. Our programs must be capable of drawing attention away from countless exciting and entertaining things. I tossed out a pamphlet for a VBS program this week that spent more time describing the “optional equipment’ that was available for purchase than it did on the program; these included puppets and props, and incentive items for the kids – to make the event more memorable (ie. entertaining) Backpacks and coveralls designed to look like space suits – this is how you promote a VBS???
So we struggle to make faith real to a new generation – as we always have – but surely we must know by now that devotion and commitment cannot be bought? Surely we realize that faith is a gift offered out of the grace of God, and no marketing scheme can accomplish more than having one person, overwhelmed by their encounter with this marvellous grace, share their story with a friend. It’s tempting to go for the big splash – to draw the crowds with bells and whistles, and overwhelm them with flashy technology and a charismatic presentation – but the church has, for generations, thrived on much more ordinary effort; much plainer profession.
The body of Christ is called to engage friends and strangers – neighbours and sceptics – through the story of our encounter with the love and grace of God.. I suggest this morning that when ever we are tempted to go the marketing route – to find a way to sell our product or fall into the trap of trying too hard to satisfy people’s need to be entertained (aka satisfied) – we might remember the story of Naaman.
Naaman’s story proves my point from the wrong way round. Naaman tries to impress the prophet with his ability to pay for the privilege of being healed – he is the ultimate ’consumer’ of his day. He comes bearing gifts, claiming the right of being tended to by the prophet himself, and is disgusted when the word of grace is delivered by a servant. “I thought that, for ME, he would surely come out and call upon the name of the Lord his God and wave his hand over the spot, and cure [me]”
Naaman wants a show – he is sure that is the only way to healing; the only way to get what he wants. He is prepared to pay – and pay handsomely – but for his trouble, he wants the full treatment. He will be healed, but first, he is disappointed – then, he is humbled – only then can he receive what God has offered through Elisha.
Do you recognize the danger here? Do you see the challenge to us? To this ‘get your money’s worth’ culture, Naaman’s story offers a real wake-up call. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. First, you must put aside your pride – your belief that you can acquire all you need by merit (or money). Naaman’s leprosy was only a symptom – his real disease was pride, and that is the first thing that must be cured. His servants help him see the truth; “…if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?”
Those who know the value of grace – those who don’t have the ability to buy (or take) whatever they want must teach their master humility – then, and only then, is the ‘miracle’ revealed.
Compare this to the real humility of the gospel encounter. “Rabbi, if you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper has nothing to offer – no bargaining chip – he knows that the power to grant this request belongs entirely to Jesus – whose ability comes entirely from God. “I do choose…”, Jesus says, and the man is made whole. This grace – the gift of God in its countless forms – is not a prize to be won by the most worthy competitor, or the highest bidder. And the man, once cured, is unable to keep that grace to himself. Jesus forbids him speak; “go show yourself to the priests…as testimony to them.” but silence is not an option; the story must be shared; grace must be celebrated. Naaman is likewise compelled to share – in his case, he begs permission to (wait for it) worship Elisha’s God when he returns to Aram.
Our experience of faith is not a marketable thing. A vacation bible school should be fun – sure – but it must first be a place where the story of God’s love and grace is shared and celebrated, and it seems to me that incentives (backpacks and spacesuits) are not the best way to tel the story of Jesus. The controlled and reverent response that is our worship is not an exciting opportunity for church growth. It is, instead, a place of joyful sharing in the truth, and thanksgiving for the mighty acts of God that have changed us for the better . We must tell the story – and we must share our experiences of grace; that is the only model for growth that the church has ever needed.
We cannot buy God’s love, and our attempts to ‘sell’ God’s grace – to make it attractive and marketable – are bound to fail. We cannot earn the gift of wholeness and peace, and we cannot turn our response into something designed to attract -Grace is attractive on its own; God’s love expressed in our lives is more attractive than any carefully planned program. The gospel of Christ is an irresistible force that needs only our voices; singing, praying, sharing the news that God has chosen to make us whole.


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