A while back I wrote a post called 5 Arguments Against the Use of Media and Marketing in Church (I followed up with a related post about hologram pastors here). Not surprisingly I received some pretty irate feedback from other pastors. But today Eric Seiberling posted a very even-handed response disagreeing with me that is worth reading if you’re interested in this subject. I really appreciate Eric’s thoughtful response. Having said that, Eric and I definitely disagree:
Marketing and media is just another tool. It changes the dynamics of reach, immediacy and immersion of a message, but it does not change it. The message is the message.
If tools are neutral then he’s right. We can put the gospel on a postcard and all we have to worry about is being faithful to the message. But there are two problems with that. First, tools are not neutral; hammers, televisions, and guns are all engineered for purposes and with technology which prejudice their use. At the very least tools participate in the shaping of their subject in ways that are beyond the control (and sometimes beyond the awareness) of the operator. At worst they dominate to the point of becoming the message and even transforming the operator (yes, like a ring of power!). Personally, I think the degree to which that domination occurs depends on the amount of power the tool facilitates (for example, guns prejudice their own use and shape the character of their operators more powerfully than, say, hammers). There are few tools more powerful these days than media.
But there’s a second problem beyond the prejudice of tools. If you think the gospel is a propositional message meant to lead people to an action (like the sinners prayer) then any delivery system will do – indeed, the more powerful and compelling the “call to action” the better. But the gospel is not merely information to be conveyed, it is a person who must be both proclaimed and demonstrated. And because that person is not physically available to us, the means of proclamation becomes a demonstration of his reality. Hence, there’s simply no way to proclaim the gospel of Christ without personally, locally, and relationally demonstrating him. Marketing seeks to bypass that inefficiency, and in doing so eliminates the presence of Christ from the gospel. Do we really want to personify Christ in the same way that Madison Avenue personifies, say, Oprah Winfrey or Colonel Sanders?
Is it even possible to represent Christ with postcards, television commercials, and propaganda films without irreparable misrepresentation (Ceci n’est pas une Christ? – HT: Chris Nelson)? As far as I know, there is only one ikon that embodies the image of Christ on earth – the Church – and that ikon is so obviously flawed that dressing it up in marketing lipstick just makes her look, to the rest of the world, like a cheap prostitute.
Case in point: is this really an accurate embodiment of Christ?
Or, my personal favorite:
Each of these are real examples of church marketing products (mass-mailer postcards) from one of the largest and most successful church marketing companies in the U.S. (yes, there’s profit in this). I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that these postcards distort Christ in ways that range from mildly perplexing to blatantly idolatrous. Especially in the last two, the medium really is the message, and the message is most definitely not the gospel. Moreover, this is not just about the intent of the user or designer (although that clearly is a factor); marketing inherently tends toward expressions of leisure, affluence, and power in the same way that hammers tend toward expressions of blunt force. Otherwise they just don’t work because of the prejudice of their technology and design.
I’ll admit there are many nuances to be explored in this topic, and I do think media can be used by churches in missional and educational ways. Perhaps I’ll explore some thoughts on that in the future, but in the meantime I think my friend Bill Kinnon says it best:
What we win them with, is what we win them to. Win them with entertainment, and you’ve created customers – who expect to be continually entertained.
Picking up our crosses and following Jesus is not particularly attractive. Buying into a worldview where the last are first, and the first are last doesn’t win us any earthly popularity awards – and seems antithetical to the North American Dream.
Death to self. Becoming weak and poor. Identifying with the marginalized. Relinquishing the American Dream. Try putting that on a postcard and see who shows up.