Marketing the Messiah

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
–Luke 10:1-4

I’ve had this passage stuck in my brain for a couple of years now*, always wondering the same question: how do the people of Christ today fulfill their calling in a way that is congruent with this beginning? (Maybe I’m still a restorationist at heart after all.)

Sometimes we think the palpable weirdness of the New Testament is a function of gaping chasms of linguistic and cultural difference that must be crossed when reading an ancient document from another part of the world. And sometimes that’s true. But even in his own day and age, Jesus was a weirdo. I can’t imagine that anyone else who intended to start a new global movement would do it this way–send people out into the world resourceless and vulnerable, looking for a friendly home to take them in so they could spread their message of the kingdom.

Churches today–at least, the ones I know anything about–do almost the opposite. Rather than walk through the world empty-handed, looking for places where the Spirit is already at work, our impulse is to show the world how much we can offer it. “Exciting Youth Program! Upbeat Worship! Relevant Preaching!” I remember getting a advertisement in the mail for one congregation’s Easter service. Six different times it mentioned that the Easter bunny would be there in person to meet the kids who came to the egg hunt. Not once did it mention that Easter was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the words Jesus or Christ didn’t appear anywhere in the ad. And this wasn’t one of the flaky “Best Life Now” temples to personal success. It was a fairly well-grounded congregation that I had attended for a couple of years. But their idea of reaching the world, at least on that day, involved a volunteer in a bunny suit and a proclamation of the good news of free eggs and prizes.

The rebuttal I usually hear when I get all cranky and reactionary about this stuff is that we are supposed to do Nice Things for Our Neighbors and, anyway, Once We Get Them in the Door, We Will Tell Them the Gospel. This is where I’m kind of simple-minded. I think we ought to do Jesusy things in Jesusy ways. If you can honestly picture Jesus spreading the word that his new movement will have “Well Staffed Nurseries!” and “Beautiful Worship Spaces!” and “Your Kids Can Meet Astarte Herself During the Spring Fertility Rituals!” then go for it, I guess, but that’s not the vibe I get from him in the gospels. It looks to me like a bunch of us are deciding that the world doesn’t want what we actually have to offer, so we’ll give them what we think they do want, and kind of see what happens from there. Maybe everyone is in agreement that the pastor they interviewed on the Daily Show, who tries to win converts through Ultimate Fighting, has gone off the deep end, but I think of him as a kind of living reductio ad absurdum argument against evangelism that relies on the power of clever marketing rather than the power of the spirit working through our resourcelessness and poverty. Once you decide that you are going to offer the teeming crowds what they want in order to get them inside, you may as well notice that some of them really want Ultimate Fighting, so what’s the harm?

I think it would be an interesting learning experience for a church to try to recreate some of these gospel scenes as closely as possible. What if we agreed that one Saturday morning we would put on simple clothing, leave our wallet and keys at home, and walk out into the world looking for a place where God is working, praying for open eyes that will let us see where we can join in, and praying also for hospitable strangers who will welcome us?

Yeah, I know–do I want people to think we’re a bunch of weirdos?

*In fact, I probably blogged it before, but it’s on my mind again and I’m not going to let redundancy slow me down. The internet isn’t running out of pixels.

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1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Evangelism, Ministry, Reflections

One response to “Marketing the Messiah

  1. There seem to be several stages to theological stances on the results of evangelism. Some preachers make it clear that they expect, by faith, an imminent surge of converts, and it’s just a matter of going out and getting them. The Bible can be plausibly interpreted this way, and bless God, God said it, I believe it, and that settles it, Amen?

    Then you have those who start to acknowledge that this isn’t happening, and conclude that there must be something wrong with them and the people they’re preaching to. They start obsessing about revival, to get the supernatural juices flowing. It all ends up very much like a rain dance, except with self-blame, and congregants getting “re-saved”, and kids growing up thinking it’s impossible to ever be a true Christian or they would be getting true supernatural results, so they may as well just chuck the whole thing.

    Finally you have the “kick the sand off your feet” camp, like Westboro Baptist Church, who acknowledge that the hunger for Jesus simply doesn’t exist in their surrounding population, and decide in a fit of bitter disappointment that the whole world deserves to end in a flaming apocalypse. It is as if they are mustachio-twirling villians in a melodrama.

    This transformation from Jake Lloyd to Hayden Christiansen to Darth Vader could be avoided by accepting the observed reality that although Jesus satisfies a deep need in one’s own soul, not every human needs Jesus. If anonymous surveys about secret apostasy among the clergy are to be believed, many preachers privately cope in this way.

    It truly is apostasy, because the texts from which we get our idea of what Jesus is alleged to have said make his position clear. He was quite unambiguous on the point that everyone needs him. Other passages make clear that Jesus expected the approach he describes in Luke 10:1-4 to succeed (with the exception of those places at which they should kick the dust off their shoes). One cannot make a serious case that he was giving this advice and accepting that it would fail.

    Indeed, its success with several billion people is precisely why it is starting to fail, like a multi-level-marketing scheme, reaching market saturation. We get the gospel message on the radio. On the television. On billboards. From the sign in front of the church on every street corner. There is no point in going forth unto the highways and hedges and compel them to come in. They already heard it and made their decision.

    And yet, that’s what Jesus commanded you to continue to do. It is one of his most visible, and least divine, errors.

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