Because churches often manage to put their worst foot forward, one can easily have sympathy for those that argue for the need for better marketing. However, the values of Madison Avenue differ greatly from those of the Sermon on the Mount, and those who think that they can harness the former in the service of the latter often underestimate the ways that a marketing mentality can corrupt Christian proclamation. Preaching the Gospel to every creature is not synonymous with putting butts in seats, and that is a difference that many contemporary American Christians will agree to in theory but violate in practice.
This past weekend, I opened a locker at the fitness center where I regularly attempt to turn back the inevitable, and I found inside a slick, double-sided postcard sized advertisement for the largest megachurch in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The headline in large letters across the top asked, "What would Jesus say to..." and then listed six names: Katy Perry, Lance Armstrong, Ellen DeGeneres, LeBron James, Jerry Jones, and Kim Kardashian. Pictures are important in marketing, and this piece includes a bastardized close up of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, with the six persons just mentioned replacing the disciples closest to Jesus. On the back of the card, the pastors of the church ask what Jesus would say to these people in a "one-on-one conversation." Assuring us that Jesus cares about the "famous and fortunate, bold and beautiful, eccentric and outspoken, and the shocking and scandalous," the pastors explain to the readers that by knowing what Jesus might say to those people, we can "hear what Jesus has to say to us." We are invited to learn about this in a "series of talks" given at "weekend experiences" in the coming weeks, those being the terms that this church uses for what some of us refer to, in Luddite fashion, as sermons and worship services.
Where shall we begin? In this small advertisement, the church engages in questionable theology, pastoral care, ethics, and psychology in a manner that is cheesy at best and sleazy at worst. In doing so, the ad encapsulates much of what is worst in American evangelicalism.
Because the doctrinal problems are the most critical, let's start there. According to the post, the minister is going to attempt to tell us "what Jesus would say" in a "one-on-one conversation" with each of these people. Yet, the truth of the matter is that we don't have any idea what Jesus would say to these people, as he never has spoken to them in a "one-on-one conversation." In addition, we should note that in the Bible, when Jesus did engage individuals in such conversations, he frequently addressed them in ways that we would not expect (he talks to the woman at the well about living water and then tells her to go get her husband, he tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he owns, and he tells Nicodemus that he has to be born a second time, etc.). Because the pastor does not know what Jesus would say to these people, what he really will tell us is what he, himself, would say to these people, thus putting himself in the place of Jesus. While I suppose we are supposed to wink and understand this as a clever way of getting people interested in the sermon (excuse me, I mean "talk"), if taken at all seriously, it is a sort of idolatry, because it puts him and his words in the place of Jesus and His Word, making his own thoughts, words, and ideas out to be the words of God.
In addition, putting these celebrities in the positions of the apostles' at the Last Supper is theologically and historically offensive. This was a unique event in the Passion of Christ that had unique significance, and it should not be vulgarized in this way.
Second, it should also be noted that the motif is pastorally irresponsible, in that it models pastoral malpractice. While it is possible that the minister may know these people personally, I am guessing that this is not the case -- especially since he appears to be using some of their lives to model what Jesus would say to the "shocking and scandalous." Most of us don't go out in public to talk in that way about our friends. Certainly, he could not have counselled these people, because in that case the sermons might well be violating pastoral confidences. If these assumptions are true, then he is postulating what Jesus would say to people based solely on their public personnas, without having any knowledge or understanding of their personal lives and stories, much less their need for the gospel. In reality, the minister is not dealing with them as real people: they are just props.
There are additional ethical issues here. The church is appropriating both the names and the images of these people in order to market its product, and I suspect that it is doing so without their permission. The lines are sometimes blurry here, and I am sure that the church would argue that first amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion would protect its right to produce this material, but one can be sure that if McDonald's or any other large company were using the names and faces of these people in a major marketing effort, that such company would be hearing from their attorneys. While I am not qualified to state whether there are real legal issues involved, I would note that appropriating these people in a marketing program based on noting their vices -- even if the messaging will end up saying that Jesus will have pleasant things to talk to them about, it is obvious to see that the group has been selected because of public vices, real or perceived -- raises significant ethical concerns.
Finally, I want to talk about the psychological issues that are apparent. It is interesting to note the narcissistic strain that runs throughout this ad, which can in many ways be understood as an appeal to narcissistic personalities. By this, I am not referring to clinical narcissism -- narcissism can be seen on a spectrum, and many people have narcissistic tendencies or characteristics without having the clinical diagnosis. Indeed, authorities such as the late Chrisopher Lasch have argued convincingly that our culture as a whole is moving in a more narcissistic direction. That being the case, it is not surprising that a marketing strategy would attempt to appeal to and validate these unhealthy tendencies, though it is more than a bit suspect that a church would validate them in this way.
Narcissism is not merely selfishness. Rather, it is a sort of self-centeredness resulting from an inner emptiness. Lacking inner resources, the narcissist externally projects uber confidence and then demands constant validation from those around him. Narcissists care neither about the past or the future -- it is only the present that matters. Because of doubts about their own significance, narcissists also frequently live their lives through the lenses of important celebrities. They live for new experiences to validate themselves.
It is not hard to see these tendencies in the ad. Because history doesn't matter, it means nothing to replace the apostles with the figures of Katy Perry, Jerry Jones, and so forth; nor does it matter if we replace what we know about the sayings of Jesus or the Word of God with the clever present musings of the minister. In addition, we are assured that what Jesus would say to these famous and infamous people is a way of mediating what he wants to say to us. All of this can be gathered from a "weekend experience," a phrase that is notably self-centered, as opposed to the notion of worship service, which looks outward and upward.
Because this is one of the five largest churches in the country, it is considered a pacesetter. However, those who care about the cause of Christ need to resist and oppose these approaches. Paul, when going to pagan Corinth, determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. In our increasingly pagan culture, similar commitments are required.
For anyone that has read this far, the marketing material I have described can also be found online here.