How many of us have seen the commercials, the advertisements, the marketing schemes that try and sell us a product or service? In a few weeks the Super Bowl will come to a T.V. near you, along with all the multi-million dollar commercials. Today Super Bowl commercials have become almost as important as the actual game—especially if you do not care for the teams playing. Many of these commercials, advertisements, and marketing schemes attempt to allure and entice people to buy a product, try a medication, or go on a vacation. As an allurement or enticement companies create gimmicks. These gimmicks can be subtle, like an airbrush model, famous person, a doctored picture or photo; on the other hand, these gimmicks can be obvious, like giving a percentage off or having a BOGO deal. In the end, companies display their product in the best image possible, with the best deal possible, and wait for the people to come consume. But here’s the thing about commercials, advertisements, and marketing schemes, they are an easy way to connect to consumers, but they can carry a high price tag with low effect.
According to Bloomberg’s Businessweek, “product or service recommendations made by friends, co-workers, or neighbors you know and trust—is still the most effective way to win new customers.” The article goes on to note, “While traditional advertising such as TV spots and newspaper ads, as well as digital marketing such as sponsored links of Google, can build awareness, they increasingly do not resonate with target audiences.” Therefore, the slick, glossy, gimmicky, advertisements have not over-taken word of mouth, living, breathing, billboards of everyday life—namely real people.
Here’s the point that I want to make, there is always a tendency for the church to be affected by culture rather than adapting to and contextualizing to culture. Looking at various practices and methods of churches to reach people over the past twenty-five years or so, it seems that there has been, and is, a tendency for churches to be gimmicky. Let me define “Gimmicky Christianity;” “Gimmicky Christianity” is elevating practices and/or methods to the place of preeminence. In other words, it is making idols out of tools that should be used to reach people. And these idols come to replace the hardcore practice of discipleship—being conformed into the image of Jesus.
“Gimmicky Christianity” can come in a variety of forms, but it mostly comes in how we “sell” church, or Christianity. Some sell the image of Christianity and their church’s image by stating—“We are not like all the other churches.” By putting down other churches in the area, they try and elevate what they have to offer as if they are better than the others—as if they are perfect and will not let you down. Their “image” becomes the gimmick. Others sell their church, and Christianity by where they meet. By meeting in a school, movie theatre, a bar, dance studio, or night club they think somehow they are “going” to where the people are. While I have no issues regarding where churches meet, the problem with this “sell” (this mentality) is that churches are still asking people to come to them. In other words, it is still a “Come and See” mentality—even though it is done in a “neutral” space. Nevertheless, the space becomes the gimmick. Still other churches “sell” Christianity with their sleek environments, advertisements, and generic talks as if to arise the sleeping backslidden believer, the religiously immune, the Darwinian agnostic to come and check us out. Therefore, the presentation, the advertisement, and the way we “spin” church becomes the gimmick.
While I am not against, but in many cases for, these practices, I believe we can do the gospel an injustice when we come to rely on these practices to the point of elevating them over the hard, dirty, difficult, and demanding call of daily gospel living and sharing among our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. In other words, I believe we miss the boat if we come to rely on gimmicks to reach people rather than trusting the gospel and the work of the gospel to reach people. These very well may be ways we contextualize our environments, worship services, buildings, and language in a twenty-first century culture; but the last time I checked, contextualization, while important, is not preeminent and has never transformed lives. Contextualization (i,e, methods, practices, language, etc.) is only tools by which we bring people the gospel. Worshipping contextualization as preeminent would be like us ascribing preeminent value on the kind of phone we have and forgetting that the phone is just the tool by which communicate and connect with others. It is just the medium by which we connect with people. The value and transformation does not rest with the phone (although it may have transformed the way we communicate) but with what happens on the the phone. Therefore, we must not forget or muddy the power of the gospel and the transformation of the gospel by relying more on the avenues by which we bring or communicate the gospel. As Paul tells the Corinthians, ”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5).
The gospel should be the filter and intent by which we do everything. If not, we will come to rely more on our tools, our methods, and our practices, elevating them to idolatry status.
But why is it that we have the tendency to rely more on the mediums and not the message/truth itself? If we were honest, the reason we have the tendency to rely, or depend, on the advertisements and gimmicks is because they are much easier than the demanding, difficult, and dirty call of living and sharing the gospel. Yet, while discipleship (gospel living) is dirty, difficult, and demanding, I would argue that just as having a living, breathing, walking, and talking billboard is the best way to resonate and reach people with a product or service, it is the Jesus way of reaching and resonating with people far from God. In all honesty while many may enjoy our methods, practices and environments we create, this is not what they are ultimately looking for. They are looking for substance; they are looking for truth. They are not looking for the ultimate weekend entertainment hour, they can get that elsewhere. In the end, people—especially the ones that are skeptical about Jesus, Christianity, and the church—are more curious and investigative of whether or not Jesus is real, loving, gracious and one who can transform their lives, while at the same time curious and investigative of whether or not his people really believe that he is real, loving, gracious and the transformer of lives.
Our desire as churches should be for the gospel to shape and mold our church body in a way that catapults individuals to live and share the gospel as well as the corporate body to look for ways to demonstrate and bring the gospel to bear on and in the community at large. And therefore, the number one reason why we would want people to be part of our church, or for people to invite others to gather with the church is not because of where we meet, our sleek environments, fancy productions, or because of how different we are from “our grandma’s church,” but because God has transformed lives and he is using this body of believers to help shape and mold people into his image. Let us, the church, be careful not to make Jesus, Christianity, or church about the next and latest gimmick—the medium of how we communicate the gospel. But rather let us lead our people to be authentic Christians; Christians who are living, breathing, walking, and talking examples of people who have been, and are continually being, transformed by the gospel. I believe when we put our focus here, over time we will see that this strategy will be the most biblical, the most effective, and the most strategic way of reaching people far from God. For it will be the most authentic, rather than gimmicky, way of communicating the transforming power of King Jesus.