concerning holy grails and church marketing

In the church world, there are trend setters and trend watchers, opinion leaders and early (and late) adapters, marketing gurus and viral media mavens. Love em or hate em, they are out there. From every denominational stripe or the lack thereof, they make their preferences known as evidenced by the behavior of those whom they influence. Often this is good; equally often it probably is not. Why do I dare say that?

In my readings on church history, both in primary and secondary sources, plus my observations of and occasional involvement with church developments particularly in the last twenty-five years, I have noticed a pattern. A new idea, strategy, or expression of church comes to light. There is a combination of dissonance, both in terms of excitement from some, and consternation from others (usually those who were entrenched as opinion-leaders and power-brokers). Often the new thing is a response to a perceived inadequacy either in doctrinal belief, ecclesial practice, or behavior. Sometimes, all of the above. Or it may be a new strategy in light of changing culture, necessitating new ways of doing things. Perhaps some examples would be helpful. Consider the following:

  • Charles Finney launched fiery evangelistic crusades to convert people to Christianity. He had an “anxious bench” near the front where he spoke so that he could pressure particular people to respond to the message by virtue of his passionate appeals, catching them up in the emotion of the moment. This was a dramatic change from the approach of centuries of Christendom, wherein converts were persuaded to be convert either to Protestantism or Roman Catholicism (or Islam, for that matter), or be put to the sword (or worse).
  • Billy Graham modified that tactic, imploring people instead to “come home” to the faith they once had known. Where Jonathan Edwards preached to sinners in the hands of an angry God in the 18th century, Graham preached to the lost who were being sought out by a searching God.
  • Rick Warren showed us that church in the gated communities of affluent suburbs was possible, and that it did not require a tall steeple to alert people to its presence. Instead, it needed to instill a sense of purpose-driven vision, creating shared ownership in a common cause. Many other churches attempted to duplicate his model, mostly with lackluster results (for a variety of reasons too numerous to explain here).
  • Emergent folks (many of whom I know, admire, and love even though we disagree at various points theologically and politically) brought to light the failings of modernity, preferring instead what they perceive to be the hopeful prospects of postmodernity. Rather than calling themselves a formal movement, they prefer to be called a conversation. But I think they know better at this point in the conversation, especially when there are clearly designated leaders to whom they look for inspiration and guidance. While they do offer helpful critiques of evangelical modernism and a constructive advocacy for domestic mission (particularly a concern for the marginalized), in many cases their apparent beliefs slant toward liberalism, casting off conservative theology as a by-product of modernity.  
  • House churches have continued to spring up all over the USA, which I think is great. However, a number of them probably are a direct result of disenfranchised Christians giving up on the institutional church, rather than a missional strategy to reach their communities for Christ.

These are just a few examples of holy grails which people pursue in how they might do church more faithfully to the biblical text and better than their predecessors. It is nothing new, really. Church history is full of reactions to others, both in belief and ecclesial practice. My point is not to point out the failings of others, but to encourage self-awareness that the newest thing is not a holy grail which will solve all of your church’s perceived ills.

Since this blog normally is about children’s ministry, allow me to address that for a moment. Consider each new curriculum, magazine, book, resource, or conference that is introduced by publishers, organizations, or influential churches. What marketing pieces do they deploy? What kinds of slogans and marketing copy to they use to convince you to use their product? Do they use negatively-slanted pieces? Do they proclaim they have found a strategy, technique, or program which will revolutionize your ministry or local church, even your community? Are they selling a false holy grail and setting you up for yet another disappointment?  Is the cause of your disappointment more to do with your unrealistic expectations? Hmm?

I will let you chew on that for a moment. It happens more often that we would probably care to admit. It has happened to me, usually because I put more stock in a specific idea than in the Lord who empowers me to shepherd a part of his flock. Often we are not aware of it until long after the initial excitement fades and we have come to realize that ministry is so much harder and complicated than what any one holy grail idea can address.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the publishers and organizations and churches who give of their creativity and resources to encourage me in the trenches. They truly are some of my favorite heroes.

I am simply reminding myself to develop awareness of my place in Christ and in his church, while also keeping a discerning eye on new ecclesial developments and creative resources. That way I do not waste time exalting something as a false holy grail, regardless of what actual merits it might have for ministry.


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