A Christianity That Sells Itself

Faith Recovery Podcast
Faith Recovery Podcast
A Christianity That Sells Itself
/

Attractional churches imply they don’t have a Christianity that sells itself.

The timeshare relies on intensive marketing machinery to sell what they’re offering. That fact alone should alert consumers that timeshares aren’t a good deal. Churches for many years have used similar tactics to get people to participate in weekly 90-minute presentations aimed at pulling people into a lifetime commitment. With instant access to a world of ideas provided by mobile devices, the Christian message is facing unprecedented competition in the market. And it’s falling behind. In “A Christianity That Sells Itself,” the Three Failed Pastors examine these dynamics and compare them with the way the gospel first spread.

Notes for: “A Christianity That Sells”

The attractional church model implies that the gospel isn’t a very good deal.

You’ve heard of bargain hunters? My wife is a bargain predator. The right deal awakens in her a primal drive to pounce. This instinct used to make her an easy mark for timeshare telemarketers. That offer of free getaway looked and smelled like kippered herring left unattended in the forest. Even after getting snared in multiple high-pressure sales presentations, she’d still take the bait.

It seemed worth it to her since I always kept us from getting fleeced in the end, but I hated sitting through all of that. Even though I knew it was a scam I still felt the pressure to reciprocate for something received. No matter how slimy the salesperson was, I couldn’t help but regret taking their time. I tend to be a pleaser and I hated all ninety minutes of those presentations.

One time, the pressure got to be too much, and I went on the offensive. About an hour into the presentation, I went into a rant about how everything in their lair was designed to manipulate people into buying. Finally, I told the saleslady, “If this was worth having you wouldn’t have to do all of this to get people to buy it.”

I’ve read how people forced to mistreat others often salve their guilt by blaming their victims. I’m not saying that our sales associate was innocent, but my comments were more for my benefit than hers. Even so, I stand by what I said.

As I reflect on our experience with timeshare sales pitches, I wonder whether unbelievers see the Christian faith in much the same way. Do all the programs and perks offered by American churches suggest a deficiency in the faith? Could we envision a church plant succeeding by simply preaching Jesus sans concert-quality music and professional children’s programming? Just last night a local church held an event in a local park that advertised a free food truck. I wonder if the community suspects them of having ulterior motives. Maybe they think they’ll be expected to attend a ninety-minute presentation if they accept.

Church growth strategies have way too much in common with timeshare methods, but there’s one way the two are significantly different – the timeshare industry continues to grow[i] while the church has entered an era of rapid decline.

The number of self-professing Christians has been plummeting in America over the past fifteen years.

The portion of American adults who claimed to be Christians dropped from 78% in 2007 to 63% in 2021.[ii] For almost everyone I know, these hard numbers reflect painful personal experiences. I can’t think of anyone among my middle-aged peers without at least one prodigal among their adult children. I also can’t think of one couple who didn’t devote their best efforts to raising Christian adults. Looking back, it seems those who invested the most in their kids’ faith have received the least return. We’ve grieved with couples as they’ve watched each of their kids become vehement critics of the faith. What’s happening?

I’m not a social scientist but those who are don’t seem to know for sure.[iii] A 2018 Pew survey of the religiously unaffiliated[iv] found a majority agreed with statements such as “I question a lot of religious teachings,” and “I don’t like the positions churches take on social/political issues.” But it’s difficult to track how those respondents reached their positions. Certainly, nothing about basic Christian beliefs or practices changed in 2007.

Maybe that was the problem.

People are leaving Christianity because it can’t compete in an open marketplace of ideas.

Christianity didn’t change in 2007 but the world did. On January 9th Steve Jobs revealed a music player, a phone, and an internet communications device rolled into one. According to some analysts, the iPhone was the most revolutionary invention of all time.[v] Fifteen years later it’s hard to conceive of some aspect of human life that has not been touched by those ubiquitous screens. Surely religion has not been left untouched by them.

The role of the smartphone in the decline of American Christianity parallels the so-called retail apocalypse which has taken place roughly over the same period. Simply put, the smartphone did to faith what it did to retail. E-commerce had already become a dominant force by 2007 but the smartphone put online shopping in everyone’s pocket. Now shoppers can access the whole internet to find what they want at the best price. Whatever other factors have hastened the shuttering of local stores and malls their demise was already ensured by the simple fact that they could never offer the range of products and prices available online. The same can be said of the church. People no longer need to attend a brick-and-mortar facility to find community, affirmation, or guidance. The internet–made immediately accessible through our smartphones–offers a global marketplace of worldviews each with an online community to support it.

The church no longer offers a Christianity that sells.

While the retail apocalypse and the rise of the “nones” share some dynamics, they don’t necessarily point to the same conclusions. The shift to e-commerce was and is inevitable due to the inherent superiority of the online marketplace. The failure of Christianity to compete in an ideological marketplace reaches farther in its implications. If, as many of its critics would claim, the Christian faith has survived until now because it has enjoyed special status, then it deserves to pass into oblivion. But what if Christianity is failing because of something we’ve done to it? We mustn’t treat the recent decline in faith as an evolution to observe but as a revelation to heed. The rise of the nones is a call to action either for the rest of us to join them or for us to fearlessly assess whether we’ve gotten our own message very wrong.

I’ve written this book to advocate for that second option and to help with the process. I don’t find anything fundamentally wrong with the Christian faith. On the contrary, when all options are brought forth, Christianity continues to stand head and shoulders above its closest competitors. I admit that I’m biased but even my bias argues for the superiority of the Christian system (more on that later). Sadly, the “faith once delivered to the saints” has become obscured behind layers of doctrinal overgrowth.  All our mostly well-intentioned modifications have made our message unfit to answer the challenges of a global forum.

Let me offer into evidence the fact that Christianity initially entered an open arena of competing ideas that it overcame. The Roman Empire in the first century CE allowed its populace extraordinary religious freedom. Consequently, a religious seeker could select from a plethora of beliefs and practices. Ideas were discussed openly and frequently. After all, we get our word, “forum,” from the Romans. Far from enjoying special status, early Christians came into the marketplace, synagogues, temples, homes, and colonnades with an offensive and unlikely story. It shouldn’t have been able to displace established religions, self-congratulatory philosophies, or sensuous mystery cults, but it did.

How?

The same way it will in our day.


References

[i] https://www.hvs.com/article/9121-The-Timeshare-Industrys-Road-to-Recovery

[ii] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/

[iii] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/

[iv] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion/

[v] Popular Mechanics and History Channel 101 Most Influential Inventions