My three-year old son is infatuated with the Pixar produced “Cars” series. You have to hand it to those folks behind the movie: they have marketed it to perfection. Every time I turn around we have something else with Lightening McQueen or Mater the Tow Truck on it. Aside from the toys, we have found Cars breakfast cereal, chicken soup, baby wipes, pull-ups, juice boxes, and clothing. He even has a Cars-themed bedroom, complete with blanket, sheets and wall decorations. I think we watch the DVD every day…usually more than once. He can’t get enough of it, and even sat still in the theatre to see Cars Two. I am sure when the DVD for the sequel is released we will be watching it daily as well.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a cute cartoon. I like its message about friendship and loyalty, and even its focus on the simple things in life. Of course, focusing on simplicity is a little odd considering how much stuff these people are pimping our kids, but that is another story. There are far worse things my kid could like, so I am pretty content to buy him this stuff as opposed to other things. In my mind however, Cars has started me thinking a bit about how the church markets itself.
The days of building a building and having people show up out of brand loyalty are over. Americans are conditioned to be consumers, and will seek out a church based on that church’s ability to meet perceived needs. Because of this consumerist mindset in church seeking, many churches have resorted to a model of outreach or evangelism that is more akin to traditional marketing techniques than anything else. Some of the advertising is slick and good-looking and even seductive.
About once a week or so I get a postcard from some local mega church advertising their programs or sermon series. These programs and sermon series are supposedly meant to meet the needs of the consumer. There is one problem with this approach: I don’t think people really know what their own needs are.
Let me say it one more time with clarity: I don’t think most people know what they need. Yet we have an entire church marketing machine that is based on fulfilling consumer needs. The trickle-down effect of this is that smaller mainline churches feel the need to compete with such efforts as a matter of survival. We begin to ask what people want out of church instead of asking what people need from the church.
I was watching Religion and Ethics Newsweekly a couple of weeks ago when they interviewed Eugene Peterson, who is a retired Presbyterian pastor and prolific author. In the course of the interview, Peterson said, “The minute the church and pastors start saying what do people want and then giving it to them, we betray our calling. We’re called to have people follow Jesus. We’re called to have people learn how to forgive their enemies. We’re called to show people that there is a way of life which has meaning beyond their salary or beyond how good they look.”
I was really struck by the statement. The prophet Jeremiah (as translated by Peterson in The Message) says that, “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.” How can we structure the church on the basis of what the human heart desires when we know that the human heart is capable of deceit? The truth is that this following of Jesus and forgiving of enemies is hard stuff. Who wants to do hard stuff?
Thomas Merton once said that the world is in need of a revolution, one that only Christianity can provide. Churches need to better discern who they are and what their core message happens to be before entering the fray of engagement with the world and culture around them. So often churches become nothing more than a reflection of the culture around them rather than a threat of revolution. I have often been critical (and will remain so) of mega-church evangelicals whose use of pop music and pop psychology turn the Gospel from being a light burden into no burden at all. With sermon series designed to give you hints on living the good life with a Jesus tacked on to make you feel spiritual to a professional pop band to keep you entertained and dancing in the aisles, these churches don’t so much use the cultural trappings to evangelize as they conform to the culture to keep people in the pews. Remember: numbers equal success.
That doesn’t mean that the mainline gets off easy here. Mainline churches often bow down at the throne of trendiness as well by its participation in various causes. Though it often claims to be engaging the culture, the mainline church offers nothing distinguishable from the culture. I recall being at Synod Assembly one year when I got up and walked out of a Bible study because it was nothing more than the Democratic National Committee’s political platform with a few Bible verses to “Jesus” it up a bit. The best term I have heard to sum up much of the mainline drivel we have heard the past few years is “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The difference between the mainline churches and those churches that are independent and driven by an entrepreneurial spirit is that the independent churches happen to be faring a little better at the moment. Both are guilty of betraying their calling according to Peterson.
The Church – and all churches – needs to stop and figure out who they really are and what they really believe. What are beliefs and practices are to be the guiding principles? How are they going to communicate this? Most importantly, churches need to ask questions about what it means to be a disciple, what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to preach Jesus and him crucified and raised. This needs to be the foundation. Everything else needs to become secondary. The church needs to reclaim its voice and its identity and then learn to speak clearly to the culture once again.
In the first installment of the Cars movies, Lightning McQueen can’t stand Radiator Springs or rusty old cars and trucks. What matters is glitz and flash and looking good and being stylish. After being stuck for a period of time in that little town, he comes to love it, to love the values they live out, to love the community they have to offer. The town knew who they were, knew what they were good at, and offered hospitably to share it with others. That is what changed McQueen’s life. Maybe we could learn a thing or two about the church from Pixar.
Editor's Note: This commentary is courtesy of Robb Harrell, a Lutheran pastor in Florida, and is from his blog “Praying with Evagrius.” He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Florida, a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory.