What Do You Want?

Some of my favorite, or comical, internet advertisements are those marketing Christian dating services with taglines such as "hot, Christian singles!" and "hot singles for missionary dating!" This trend, called tailored advertising, has engendered much controversy—shrouded as it is by matters of privacy violation and constitutional rights. However, barring spamming and phishing, the greater concern that is being overlooked is the looming threat that consumerism poses.

Over forty-five years ago, Harry Blamires spoke of this as people "replacing purpose for function" (see "Its Concern for the Person" in The Christian Mind). That being said, it should be keenly disturbing for everyone to consider the implications of tailored advertising: everything that makes you who you are is marketable. Worse still is if the church bought into this and began 'marketing' the gospel.

It is important to preserve the message of the gospel. We might first note that the gospel is not something that can be packaged and priced. Paul speaks of his commissioning to preach the gospel without, "lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). He makes it clear that people are not drawn to Christ through man's cunning or persuasiveness; rather it is through Christ himself (e.g. John 12:32).



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Also in these correspondences to the Corinthians, Paul remarks that he presented the gospel "free of charge" so that there would be no obstacle to its reception (1 Corinthians 9:18). Though it was well within his rights to request compensation (1 Corinthians 9:14), Paul did not want anyone to misconstrue the purpose of the ministry (e.g. Peter and Simon the magician; Acts 8:9-24). Thus, to conform the message of the gospel to marketable standards is to present a different gospel entirely (Galatians 1:6-9).

It is important to progress alongside contemporary mediums of communication because God does not approach all people throughout history the same way. There is a substantial difference between preserving the message of the gospel and preserving the medium of the gospel. Scripture demonstrates how God communicated to all kinds of people with directness (Genesis), judgment (Judges), wisdom (Proverbs), discretion (Esther), compassion (John) and power (Revelation). The message was always the same—men sin and God redeems—but Jesus spoke to the Pharisees differently than he spoke to the woman at the well.


Paul summarizes this idea in 1 Corinthians 9:22: "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." Screaming for people to repent of their sin (legalism) is not the gospel message anymore than proclaiming that God will forgive people despite their sin (libertinism), for the gospel must present both elements. Instead of this conforming of the message, the church must conform itself: the medium of the gospel.

It is important to redeem the practice of tailoring our message into tailoring ourselves. Years ago, the church warned us against materialism. Today, this has so entrenched itself in our culture changing the ontology of humanity from creation to consumer. And with this change, it is tempting to market a more palatable Christ to a fickle culture. In that event we must then ask ourselves, what do we want? Do we want the Jesus we are selling? Or do we want the Jesus of Scripture: son of God, son of man, compassionate and just, forgiving and judging (those honest themselves will recognize that they thirst for both compassion and justice alike)?


We are not in the business of selling salvation; we are in the business of offering salvation. And we can offer it in more than one way. Much like Jesus spoke truth sternly at times and gently at others, we must learn to discern our audience and not fear changing our mode of communication. Only then will God's healing redemption reach all people without compromise.

Comments

  1. We I first read read "Screaming for people to repent of their sin (legalism) is not the gospel message anymore than proclaiming that God will forgive people despite their sin (libertinism)" I honestly thought proclaiming the forgiveness of sin to people even though they are sinners is exactly the gospel. However, when I reread this and then the part that follows I realized that we use that word differently and that we probably agree.

    I break these things apart and call them law and gospel. The law is that which kills (that which reveals sin) and the gospel is that which brings to life (that which reveals the promises of God, namely the forgiveness of sins.) So I do believe both are needed and called for and this is actually the way that I preach (8 out of 10 times) law then gospel.

    It is important that we use different medium to get the message out. When I started reading your first part I was like "The gospel cannot be sold" and then you went on to say as much. We are not a business that sells instead we are a body that proclaims. I don't know that I would say we are a business that offers salvation. I know that the church is classified as certain things under the laws of the land, but I think our own understanding of ourselves should be less of a business and more of a family or a community. Business is not about relationship and love, and God is all about relationship and love so our model is different.

    As for offering salvation, I am afraid to say that this is one of those points where I think we will disagree. We do not offer salvation we give it away with our words. It is God primarily who gives away salvation, but God uses our spoken word to do it, so in essence we do not offer salvation, but instead we give it away. We speak of Jesus and forgiveness of unconditional love and the Holy Spirit is there within those words and creates and makes faith in those who hear. (which is why preaching is so important.)

    To say that we offer it is still a business transaction. It becomes "do you want salvation." "Yes I do." "Ok, you just need to do this." It still leads to an understanding of receiving grace that relies on what the human is doing. God has already done it all. There is no "If you pray this prayer then you will be saved" business. If one has to choose Jesus then one really is choosing salvation, or choosing the good in spiritual matters. A human cannot do that the human is completely helpless. It is not "if, then" instead it is "you are forgiven" and in the speaking of the words it is true, it has happened God has forgiven, and as a beloved professor of mine would say "and if you don't like, deal with it!"

    Now on to different medium. I will say that I really like very traditional liturgical practices. I feel as if there is power and great unity and meaning in saying the exact same words that people in the church have been saying and hearing for 2000 years. (well a little less because of the way liturgical structure came about, but you get my point) So I am very hesitant to change things, however, the liturgy must communicate the gospel to the people, and if the symbols have lost meaning, or if the liturgy itself is a hindrance to hearing the gospel then the liturgy needs to be changed. I will say that in my experience education can break a lot of those barriers though. You can teach people why something is important and then it becomes important to them too. However, I suppose that more contemporary forms of worship should be implemented if the people in the community really are having trouble with the ancient liturgical forms. It isn't about my preferences after all, it is about being as little a stumbling block as possible when proclaiming the Word of God. So change can be good as long as the message doesn't change.

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  2. You've captured my point, Steve. Although I think we agree more than you think: first of all, the word "business" was used more as a colloquial, literary parallel than a semantic distinction. I would never call our faith a business. Second, I would define "offer" in your terms as "giving away." I intended no progenitorial or hierarchical connotations. Perhaps it was just not the best choice of words.

    This post was not so much about abandoning ancient liturgy as it was clinging to tradition simply because we do not know our faith apart from it. Time and history are naturally progressive; this fact is inescapable. Thus, I think it is a failure on the part of the church to refuse to reach people where they are and remain entrenched in convention. On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to hand over our faith to the culture and let them have their go at it. The heart of the gospel (or as you like to say "law and gospel") cannot ever be compromised, but we can present it in more than chants and hymns or tracts and choruses. God created us as creative beings, so let's be creative.

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  3. well I'm not really that creative and in all honesty I like worship in my church to use traditional liturgical forms.

    However, I do think that those forms do allow for creative use. In my experience we have used different parts of the liturgy and different settings of the liturgy depending on the season of the Church year.

    Also, I have been to a church that gets in worshipers physically involved by moving them around during worship. They move from one section of the church to another as the progress through the service. I really like that.

    As for music I do prefer singing hymns as opposed to praise songs. Hymns are usually easier for congregational singing then praise songs, and they also usually have more theological meat to them, and can be used as a teaching moment within the worship itself. There are more contemporary hymns available and I would utilize those.

    I personally do not like projecting things, but I can see how that could be useful sometimes.

    So I will end the same way I began, I am not really that creative, however I am willing to listen to creative idea's if anyone has them.

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