In an era in American history when Christianity has taken to the defensive, many Christian churches have turned to marketing campaigns to attract churchgoers. Unfortunately, the kneejerk reaction for many churches when they begin feeling like they’re losing ground in a world that is moving away from religion is often to blame or attack others for creating an unfair advantage.
“The media” is destroying Christian values. “Atheists” and other “outspoken minorities” are removing the Christian god from the public. “The government” is declaring the state to be more important than the church. “Other churches” are using false teachers and ideas.
Or so the defensive arguments go…
But I don’t think Christians as whole have anyone to blame but themselves for the rising generations losing interest in church. Opposing groups have the same rhetorical artillery as the Christians do; Christian churches just often misuse, as Aristotle would put it, their “available means of persuasion.” In reality, many Christian churches are killing themselves by using marketing campaigns that make them look like precisely the characteristics they hope to avoid: hateful, condescending, prideful, trendy, angry, and/or ridiculous.
The modern fight for religion (or lack of religion) in our country has become a fierce battle of words and images. To win this battle, carefully chosen imagery is required to communicate real messages of substance. Unfortunately for so many Christian churches, there has been a growing reaction to feel as if they are in a losing battle, plagued with injuries, and all they can do is cobble together desperate solutions to merely survive one battle to the next.
The conversation that has arisen since CNN reporter Rachel Held Evans’ fabulous article on why millennials are leaving the church has caused me to reflect on why so many of the rising generation are, in fact, turned off by Christianity. Based on the collection of images I put together below, I think it is easy to see why so many people are resisting organized religion: it is too often insulting and superficial.
As I have traveled this great country, I have paid close attention to the billboards and marquees and literature used to promote Christian messages. When I see a large sign beside the freeway that uses a clichéd icon of Satan and a pitchfork and telling me I will burn in hell without Christ, all I can do is shake my head (or pound it against the steering wheel) and roll my eyes. The campaign is not only idiotic, but it actually insults the intelligence of the people viewing it. Can such a cheesy scare tactic really work on grown adults?
In a contemporary, media-savvy culture, that Satan billboard, as far as I am concerned, is just about as worthless for converting Christians as a talking cartoon asparagus is for converting vegetarians.
But worse, such a billboard actually creates an unsavory, almost repugnant visceral reaction in viewers that likely instills a distaste for Christianity in general. If, after all, in all sincerity, a company told you that you either buy their soap or you’ll smell like a decaying carcass, would you buy it? The ridiculousness of it seems either just plain silly or simply insulting. A Christian message about “buying its product” or else burning in hell seems equally ineffective.
As I have reflected over the years on what is damaging the image of Christianity as a collective group, I have become convinced that it is in large part its own churches’ marketing campaigns—not the perspectives of opposing groups like atheists or governments or fellow Christian churches.
Rather than marketing what Christians really stand for (things of substance, like love, family, charity, life, freedom, marriage, giving, service, and so forth) the messages Christian churches often push are too frequently centered around offending non-believers, attacking each other, being cool to younger generations, defending themselves, or being just plain goofy.
It is somewhat alarming, in fact, how much effort is going into campaigns that do nothing to promote what Christians stand for. Instead, time, effort, and money is being drained on resources that simply communicate what Christianity is against: offending, belittling, attacking, or trying to fit in with the world.
As visual evidence of what I see going wrong with the marketing of Christianity today, I put together this list and collage of five campaigns that are killing the effectiveness of Christian church messages:
1. The “Burn-In-Hell” Campaign. In this kind of a marketing campaign, communications are used as scare tactics (which often come across as downright degrading or inadvertently humorous). Churches using this tactic are taking the fear approach: if you don’t follow our rules, your life is worthless and you will suffer forever. This campaign makes churches appear like closed-minded bigots, hateful and unforgiving of outsiders.
2. The “We’re-Better-Than-You” Campaign. In this kind of marketing campaign, communications are used to criticize other Christian faiths that follow different doctrine. Rather than promoting what is good within their own particular group, churches that use this tactic are using the bullying approach: if you aren’t just like us, we’ll make fun of you until you cry. Seriously? When, besides junior high school, did incessant insults win people any substantial friends? This campaign makes churches look hypocritical and prideful, pompous and mean, as if being better than others is the ultimate goal.
3. The “Cool Club” Campaign. In this kind of marketing campaign, communications are used to appear cool, new, open, and forward-thinking. Churches who use this tactic forego the past to prove they are contemporary, “with it,” and will adapt to the world to fit in with the crowd. This campaign makes churches look like they have little to stand up for and will change with the winds of the world or will do anything to get visitors and/or paying customers. “Godcert?” “Rizzle for the Sizzle?” If those campaigns don’t sound ridiculously desperate to attract young churchgoers, I don’t know what does.
4. The “But…but…but…” Campaign. In this kind of marketing campaign, communications are used to defend churches against their attackers. Rather than turning the other cheek and promoting what churches actually believe, they feel compelled to fight back against the groups that insulted them first. This campaign makes churches look desperate and unsure of themselves, always on the defensive. It also makes them look like they have nothing substantial of their own to talk about.
5. The “Cute-and-Pithy” Campaign. In this kind of marketing campaign, communications are used to turn a point of doctrine into a punch line. Churches who use this tactic assume witty one-liners will effectively lure congregants. This campaign makes churches appear goofy, almost as if they believe that the church with the best joke will attract the largest crowd.
From my perspective, and in agreement with Evans’ CNN article, if Christians want their messages to really resonate, there needs to be substance to what is being communicated. Rather than being defensive or attacking others or trying to be cool, messages ought to encourage what Christians see as their core: living like Christ, strengthening marriage, living up to potential, serving others, raising children, seeking hope, overcoming trials, loving others, being honest, and so forth.
From a communication perspective, promoting what they stand for will be far more rhetorically persuasive and will resonate with younger and older generations alike. The five campaigns listed above are arguably doing far more damage than good. Collectively, if Christians want to win this battle of communication, something drastic needs to change in the strategies.