A. Fletcher, (1996). “Christian marketing and sales.” Reprinted with permission.
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The image of the salesman in American lore is an intriguing one. There are those much beloved, like Robert Preston in “The Music Man,” and those who are tragic, such as Dustin Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman.” Still, though they may occasionally be beloved in lore, the salesman as cultural icon is much more an item of ridicule and resentment than an idol of worship and respect. Of great fame is Cal Worthington (and his dog, Spot) on the West Coast, who filled late night television with ads for used cars that stretched to infinity; that is, both the ads and the cars seemed endless, and endlessly irritating.
Of much less fame and much more infamy are the faceless legions of those who call on our phones at dinner time, trying to sell us long distance phone service, photos of our families, and yet another credit card. We moved into our own home in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1994, taking possession on a Monday. We walked into the house at about 4:00 in the afternoon; the house was empty of anything but a telephone. At about 4:30, the phone rang with an offer of free prizes which resolved itself into a subtle and clever pitch to buy, yes indeed, photos of the family at a great discount. Not a soul on earth had our phone number, and yet, there was this miraculous and a little sinister phone call from an anonymous salesman.
I have thought a lot about salesmen. The only sales job I ever had, since I do not seem to have the spiritual gift of selling, was trying to talk people out of a type of future flying discount coupon given out free on flights of two airlines back in the late seventies. The objects that I was selling, in exchange for the coupon, were twenty dollar bills. I found that I was unusually good at giving people money. I have also found that I am unusually bad at talking people out of money.
But I have been in youth evangelism for a number of years. As a volunteer in churches and for parachurch youth organizations, and as a youth pastor, I was exposed to various youth evangelism techniques and methodologies. The essential working theory was to attract kids to events by making those events fun, exciting, and high-energy. Youth workers are attractive to kids, not necessarily in a purely physical sense, but in the sense that kids enjoy being with these youth workers. They tend to be creative, quick-witted, funny, and also caring and committed to relationships with the kids. Advertising about up-coming events sent out to the kids was brightly colored and energetic. It was, purely and simply, salesmanship, though if it was done with a Christ-like attitude (as it many times was not), the focus was penultimately on building caring relationships with kids, and ultimately on leading them into a caring, committed relationship with Christ.
Good enough, for a goal. But I have wondered about our methods. In looking at the sales methods traditionally taught and practiced by American salesmen, it becomes quickly evident that the goal is making the sale, whether or not the customer actually needs the product or not. This is not to say that there is anyone who does not need Christ. But in trying to make the sale, I have begun to wonder if perhaps we are not cheapening the product, to make it more desirable to the customer. I wonder if we are not watering down our Jesus to make him easier to buy.
Marketing and sales in America are based on the pursuit of individual happiness, the following of the American Dream. Advertising creates the desire in people for things that they truthfully do not need, in most cases, but they become convinced that their lives will be changed if they will only use this toothpaste, that deodorant, the other shampoo. Cigarettes will make us rugged and handsome, beer will turn us into party animals irresistible to the opposite sex, fast cars will transform us into fast lane high rollers. Medicines will make us healthier, lotteries will make us wealthier, mouthwash will make us happier-in short, we must be unhappy, since we don”t have these things, and all of these things will change our lives eternally for the better. Sounds like Jesus to me. Has Jesus become the thing we sell to change peoples lives forever? To make them happier, we offer them Christ. To solve their problems, we give them Jesus. Your life must be meaningless, since you don”t know Jesus.
My problem here is that each of these phrases above sounds exactly like what I have said to people for years, reflecting what I have always thought was sound Biblical evangelism, and yet they also sound like deodorant ads. Now, either the deodorant advertisers are copying evangelists, or evangelists are copying advertisers. Or maybe both have been drawn into a methodology of evangelism that is based too completely on the satisfaction of the individual”s wants, needs, and desires. Maybe our idolatry of individualism has caused us to rephrase the gospel in language that satisfies, not our need for Christ, but our need to have our needs met. Maybe the focus is on what Jesus can do for me, and not what I need to do for Jesus.
Some of us have been critics of television evangelists, because they ride that fine line between hucksterism and evangelism. There are those who were outright con artists, slickering the gullible out of their dollars and sense, but others proclaim Jesus on TV without sacrificing too much of our American gospel. You don”t have to buy shares in a Christian theme park to buy shares in heaven.
A pastor in a church I know well told his staff not too long ago to check the local newspapers for stories about kids killed in drive-by shootings. He directed his people to find the mothers of those kids, to focus on those mothers who were single, and to make them feel guilty and responsible for the deaths of their kids, guilty because had each mom been at home, her child would not have been involved in gang activity. That was his hook for bringing Jesus to hurting women.
Another church I know stops its services from time to time to have a hot waffle break. Everybody takes a break from worship to eat fresh waffles in the sanctuary.
Much more subtle are church movements such as the Willow Creek model, charismatic churches, or prosperity theology. Somebody gave me a brochure from Willow Creek the other day, and inside is a menu of offerings, a help-group for every dysfunction: “Alone and Pregnant,” “Chronic Illness,” “Divorce Recovery,” “Marital Restoration,” “Couples,” and on and on. Under ministry opportunities we find “Sports Ministries,” “Ushering,” “Seed Resource Ministry,” “Good Sense (financial counseling),” and so on. On the one hand, one might say that the Christian community is serving God by trying to meet the deep-felt needs of the people within the secular community as well as their own, and by doing so, bring people into the church community and ultimately into a relationship with Christ. And that is certainly true and appropriate.
But on the other hand, the church might begin to be seen as the servant of the people, a place to go to get fixed, to seek solutions to problems, to find a product that will make one feel better. This is not far from prosperity theology, where God promises believers the abundant life, and one defines his or her own desired level of abundance. It is also near the experiential faith of the charismatic churches, where how the Holy Spirit makes one feel determines how one feels about his or her faith. In short, one”s interest in church, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit becomes uncomfortably close to “What”s in it for me?” theology. A few paragraphs from an article by Earl Shorris in the October 1994 Harper”s Magazine might provide an alternative focus:
I saw that selling, in all its forms, has achieved dominion over the world in our time, not only determining the economic spirit of the nation but deeply affecting its social, political, cultural, and moral life. I saw that America has become the land of the salesman, Homo vendens, who is both dangerous and afflicted.
Under the dominion of Homo vendens, we are no longer free to know the world. The salesman now informs us. In the mix of mind and matter that is perception, the information comes not from our sense encountering reality but from the salesman. Thus we have lost the world. By conceding the world to Homo vendens, human beings enter into an agreement in which everything exists as part of a transaction. We are interchangeable with things; we no longer determine our own worth. We have lost our humanity.
When Homo vendens, who recognizes himself as merely a means, makes all people into a means for his use, he takes away our freedom. We have lost our nobility. Mr. Shorris was not writing from a Christian perspective, so his observations are for our purposes incomplete. Selling is also determining our spiritual life, not just cultural and moral. We are informed by the salesman about God, and thus we may have lost our understanding of how we relate to God, and how we are to relate about God to others. And evangelism as sales allows us all to be considered as means to an end. Our worth is no longer determined by God, but by the marketplace of Christian evangelism.
I find myself torn by these conclusions. I have done attractive evangelism in churches and in the mission field. I have created programming to draw people into the church, to impress people with professionalism and excellence, and I have prayed that they will be opened up thereby to considering the Gospel of Christ. I have been intellectual, so that intellectual people will see that intelligent people can indeed be Christians, that Christianity is, as Tony Campolo would say, a Reasonable Faith, a faith that can be discussed in intelligent and reasonable terms. I have seen people saved as a result, and lives changed. I have admired Bill Hybels and the megachurch movement, and have admired as well the metachurch model, where every need is met, every dysfunction offered a group where pain can be approached by Godly men and women seeking to heal with the power of the spirit. And yet. And yet. I am forced to wonder if what we are saying about Jesus is that one”s life in Christ is for one”s benefit alone: that Jesus will do for you what nothing else can. That he is the ultimate deodorant.
I am forced to confront the thought that Jesus is not for me. I am for Jesus. I am for his benefit. I am his slave, a slave to his righteousness. I am to serve him, rather than myself. And if my salvation comes only in the words of ultimate self-realization, then I am not for Jesus. He will then be for me. And I become the god, and he becomes the servant. A question that I often hear is, “How could a good and loving God allow evil into the world?” Evil we define as anything that makes me uncomfortable, especially if it is profoundly uncomfortable. I always seem to be more concerned over the death of a loved one than I am about the death of thousands of ones loved by others on foreign shores.
The answer is, in part, that God”s purpose is not that I am spared the blows of an evil world. His purpose is not my health, my peace of mind, my personal happiness. His purpose is not to make me feel good.
I told that to an adult Sunday school class one day. There was a long, shocked pause, and then a voice from the back said, “Well, what is it, then?” That is, what is his purpose for us? If it is not to heal us and enrich us, to make our lives more comfortable, then what does he want?
His purpose is to further His kingdom, and His purpose with me is to do with me whatever it takes to spread His kingdom as far and as wide as possible. He loves me. But my walk with God does not necessarily shield me from disease, dissolution, death, or despair. On the contrary, it will most probably expose me to more struggle and pain than if I chose to walk alone.
But no salesman could sell a product like that. So I am forced to think, perhaps, that we are selling another Jesus altogether.
One wonders then how should we do this thing called evangelism? Jesus healed, he touched people where they hurt, he raised from the dead-a touch for every need. Shall we not do likewise? And does not Christ promise to change our lives, to end hopelessness and despair, to bring us into his kingdom as his family, his children?
Yes. But what he does not promise to do is to make our lives free of pain and suffering, nor to promise us a constantly exalted emotional state, nor to provide us with wealth and prosperity. And this is the part of the Gospel message we neglect. It is the Pain Part, the rest of the story, where we will suffer when we rebel against his lordship, and we will suffer when we follow his lordship. A passport into heaven does not translate into an easy ride here on earth; we are promised pain as a part of our earthly time. Two organizations for which I have worked have been Young Life and Youth for Christ. Both sell the Gospel well to kids: Young Life attracts them to clubs and camps-the best clubs and camps on earth, and YFC draws them to large events with incredible music, spell-binding speakers, laser shows, and in both cases, the highest levels of professionalism. It is the selling of Christ at its best.
But both YL and YFC do not stop with an easy Gospel, a pain-free salvation. Both plan and execute service projects around the U.S. and the world for kids, believers and non, to attend. The kids have to raise their own money, and when they arrive at the service project, they are greeted with blood, sweat, and tears. My old YFC program in Geneva combined this year with my new YL comrades from elsewhere in Europe to take 50 kids, including many non-Christians, and 20 leaders into a Bosnian refugee camp in Croatia for a two-week building project. First-world kids lived in refugee housing, ate refugee food, and worked hard for two difficult weeks. There was physical pain and fatigue experienced by all the kids and leaders; more importantly, there was the moral and emotional pain caused by being in a area so recently afflicted by war. They met and spent time with people who had suffered unimaginably through no overt fault of their own, and saw that it was not God who allowed this evil, but man who caused it.
They also realized deep in their minds and souls that a walk with Christ is far more than praying for help in making a decision about which new car to buy, or healing for a sore knee.
So what”s a youth leader to do?
A Few Suggestions
Focus on building relationships with your kids. Everything you do, every program event you plan, should be an outgrowth of the relationships you have with kids. Don”t do events to attract kids; do them because you love being with kids. If you focus on excellent programming at the expense of time spent in friendship with kids, then you are competing against Hollywood and Madison Avenue. A friend of mine doing outreach ministry in London told me in frustration that she couldn”t compete with the activities available in central London. Kids wouldn”t come to her events because the activities weren”t interesting enough. The solution is relational. If your programs don”t look good, your kids won”t come back. If you love them, and they know it, they will forgive you any programming failures.
The process of evangelism should look something like this: Outreach, In reach, Reach out. Do outreach to kids, building relationships with them to introduce them to the love of Christ. Reach inside those who look for that relationship with Christ, to teach them what it means to be a follower. Teach them what it means by teaching them to reach out beyond their comfort zone. By that I do not mean that they should feel pressure to sacrifice themselves socially to witness for Christ on their campus. I mean that they should be led to sacrifice their material comforts to reach out to those in need, and thereby to learn that being a Christian is more than being moral; it is being sacrificial. That is especially true for the many Christians who are materially comfortable-we cannot be allowed to believe that God aims us at continually higher levels of comfort. We are the rich; we are threatened with condemnation if we do not grapple with that in our lives.
Take all your kids on service projects. The message of Christ rings clearest and truest when Christians and non-Christians alike are together in service to those who hurt and suffer, and it rings clear and true to those who hurt and suffer when we reach out to them, not just with the Word, and not just with a helping hand, but with both, together. Make service an integral part of your program-when I was a youth pastor, we had ongoing projects to help local people in need, and annual or semi-annual projects to go to other parts of the state or world to help distant people in need. Our kids understood that the call to Christ was a call to sacrifice, and they felt the deep wonder of that sacrifice when it was made.
I watch kids who fight against the faith in standard presentations of the Gospel. Many times they are unimpressed by what they hear; it does not drive a spike into their cynicism, their own idolatry of self. It is because when we try to sell them Jesus as the ultimate deodorant, without thinking they compare our ads to those of Madison Avenue, and we come up short. We can”t compete with the pleasure mongers of the world.
But when you take a tough, self-absorbed, rebellious pagan kid into a slum, a ghetto, a refugee camp, a home for dying children, you cut through the facade of the world and slice past the frivolity of marketing and sales. Then a kid can meet the real Jesus, and see that a life with Christ is hard, dirty, desperate, sacrificial-and deeply meaningful-for now, and for eternity. It is the only Gospel message that transcends our superficial world and answers all the questions.
What does a kid really want from God? He wants to belong. He wants to be loved. He wants to matter. He wants to make a difference.
Works for me.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why do we feel compelled to “sell” the gospel? What are the cultural origins of that methodology?
- What are the issues involved in using a “needs-based” evangelical message? What is right with it, and what might be wrong?
- Talk about our need to “close the sale” in evangelism-does it fit with the example of Christ?
- Are we afraid of presenting a potentially negative gospel? Why?
- Would a “hellfire and damnation” gospel presentation be viable in today”s world? Why or why not?
- There may be deeper, darker cultural reasons than just pure technique for using salesmanship as our evangelistic method of choice.
- The direction salesmanship takes us as a Christian people and church may not be benign.
- Trying to sell Jesus reduces him to just one more religious product and lends strength to the argument that all ways to God are legitimate.
- We need to learn how to present Christ apart from culture rather than as a part of culture.
© 2018 CYS