4 Posts from February 2010

Marketing Jesus, Part 2

Our world has lost its way. So it’s no surprise when the church takes its cues from the world that the church begins to drift as well. But must we resort to gimmicks for people to come to church? Is biblical reinterpretation the new essential for church growth? Must we dumb down historic Christianity into shallow entertainment skits in order to pamper consumers? Surely, not!

I am convinced that the church doesn’t need marketing devices, worldly strategies, live entertainment, or a corporate mentality to be contagious. Not if the glory of God is the goal. Not if the growth of God’s people is in view. Rather, the church needs biblical truth taught correctly and clearly . . . and then lived out in authenticity and humility.

One of the worst things we can do in our churches is to take our eyes off the essentials. To take our cues of how to “do church” (whatever that means) from our postmodern world instead of determining our distinctives and priorities from the Scriptures. It’s a great temptation to ape the world’s ways these days, because there are so many churches doing that. They look like they know what they’re doing. The crowds swell. The ratings soar. The money pours in. They speak in such a convincing way that we are tempted to think, Well, maybe they’re right and we’re missing it.

Please. Don’t go there.

Let me define what it is that makes a church contagious. How should a church grow according to the Bible? What environment causes a community to take notice? It isn’t just the building or the sound system or the music. It’s not even the preaching. It’s the context that makes a church contagious.

Primarily, it’s the people. 

And it’s more than a curiosity at the numbers of people. It’s their passion. It’s their Spirit-directed enthusiasm. It’s the obvious work of God engaging the lives of believers in a meaningful connection, a genuine compassion, and an almost electric excitement about reaching out into the community and investing themselves wholeheartedly into places of ministry. Such people are, well . . . contagious.

Who wouldn’t want to be among folks like that?

—Chuck

See also Marketing Jesus, Part 1

Marketing Jesus, Part 1

Our culture is driven by marketing. There’s no escaping it. Consumerism and materialism have wormed their way into our lives, and the germs of marketing spreads the disease.

For instance, how can I possibly know which of the eight hundred cereals in the store is most healthy? Which car should I purchase? What vacation should we take this summer? See the dilemma? Consumers must make decisions.

I’ve learned through the years that perception overshadows reality. I hate that . . . but it’s true. From political candidates to polyester carpet, how people perceive things is, to them, more convincing than a truckload of evidence. Unfortunately, most draw their opinions from the shallow stream of perception instead of the deep reservoir of truth. I find that strange and disappointing. Perception actually overshadows reality. Scary thought, isn’t it?

It’s even more frightening when we realize that our culture doesn’t market Christianity very well. Have you ever noticed it’s usually the aberrant “Christian”—preferably an evangelical—that the media displays to represent the rest of us? Like William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trials, this poor individual is revealed in all of his or her pitiful naiveté, promptly vilified, pigeonholed and, finally, dismissed with a laugh. Christianity looks foolish. Perception overshadows reality.

Then, at other times, when controversial subjects like abortion, homosexuality, evolution, euthanasia, or the inerrancy of the Scriptures find their way to prime time debates, the “Christian” view is usually defended by some theological liberal who couldn’t tell the book of Genesis from Boy George. He or she only quotes verses about the love of God and calls no one to any standard. It’s invariably the theological liberal the world embraces in a politically correct culture. It’s the Bible-believing, evangelical Christian, however, whom our tolerant world cannot tolerate.

Our culture has branded evangelicals as narrow exclusivists, hypocritical killjoys, and religious fanatics. In short, we’re oddballs. (Not a great brand.) Who wants to be an oddball? Moreover, who wants to go to an oddball church?

So here’s the problem: How do I know which church to attend? What helps me identify which ministry is best for me? Aware of our stereotype, we evangelicals find it tempting to fight fire with fire . . . or marketing with marketing. “Our church is not boring,” we promise. “This is NOT your grandmother’s church,” we assure the younger generation. But we need to be careful with our words . . . fighting fire with fire could be dangerous.

Most people would never intentionally compare Jesus to Coca-Cola or Chevrolet. But in a consumer society, we run the danger of implying that the good news of Jesus is just one of many similar choices—all of which are equally valid. Just choose your flavor of Savior.

But Jesus doesn’t give us that option. He claims that He is the only way to God the Father (see John 14:6). In a world that’s bound for hell, Jesus’s claim isn’t selfish exclusivism.

It is grace.

—Chuck

See also Marketing Jesus, Part 2

If You Preach It, Will They Come?

Some movies have quotes that have become so inimitable, so distinctive, that you could say the first part of the line, and most folks could finish it for you. Let’s try a few:
  • “Houston, we have __ _______.”
  • “Go ahead, make __ ____.”
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she ____ ____ ______.”
  • “Frankly, my dear, I don’t . . .” (Well, let’s not go there.)
The movie Field of Dreams has one of those lines as well: “If you build it”—can you finish the quote?—“he will come.” Some people think it’s “they will come.” In fact, when I graduated from seminary, long before the movie came out (back when the earth’s crust was cooling), I thought a similar line would be true in the church: if you preach it, they will come. Wow . . . was I wrong!

I have lived long enough to realize that while a strong pulpit is essential, a contagious church also requires a context of other distinctives. There must be more than preaching. More than one gift at work. More than the conviction of one person. A contagious church has a number of individuals living out clear, biblical principles with the result that people pause in the midst of their busy lives. They realize this is a place worth coming to and participating in.

When you look across the landscape of churches today, you find many congregations that have experienced phenomenal growth. Unbelievable growth. But upon closer examination, you discover that they have not committed themselves to the four biblical essentials for a church as prescribed in the book of Acts: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (see Acts 2:42). The church may have more than these four . . . but it must never have less.

It is precisely these four areas that the Adversary will attack so that he can disrupt and, if possible, destroy the church. That’s why it’s important to keep our priorities straight. It’s essential that we not get distracted by all that we can do as a church . . . and stay focused on only what we must do as a church. Otherwise, we may be attracting a crowd for the wrong reasons.

This emphasis on the essentials is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he passed on the torch of ministry to a young pastor named Timothy:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)
Notice both the command . . . and the reason for it. The command is clear: “preach the word”—followed by an explanation of when and how to do it. But there’s also a why, a reason to proclaim boldly the Bible on a consistent basis: there will come a time when biblical truth will be rejected in favor of the stuff people want to hear. The biblical alternative? I have said before that the Lord will honor and bless any plan that upholds prayer and promotes His Word.

This is what Paul was affirming to Timothy.

—Chuck

What Preaching Needs: A Contagious Context

I wish I could have been there to see it.

It was 7:51 a.m. on January 12, 2007. L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C., a busy subway station, had its usual morning rush of commuters.

A young man wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and faded jeans entered the plaza and quietly removed his violin from its case. He tossed in some seed money to bait the passersby then lifted the violin to his chin. The player? Joshua Bell, some would call the finest violinist of our generation. His instrument? The rare Gibson ex Huberman, handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari . . . one of the most coveted and expensive violins in existence. The music? Bell began with “Chaconne,” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, hailed by some musicians as the one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed in history. The response? You will be surprised what was caught on camera.

Of the 1,097 commuters who passed Bell that morning, only seven stopped to listen. That’s right . . . seven. Just three days earlier, Bell had played to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall where the average seat cost $100. His earnings that morning in the subway? A little over $32. Bell usually earns around $1000 a minute. (I should have stayed with the violin!)

The Washington Post sponsored Bell’s incognito performance in order to evaluate the public’s taste, priorities, and perception. But for me, the experience remains a powerful lesson on the importance of something else.

Context.

No matter how beautifully Joshua Bell played his Stradivarius, and no matter how exquisite his musical selection was, it took more. His giftedness wasn’t enough. It took a context that was conducive and favorable to it.

I find the same true of preaching.

Excellent exposition of the Scriptures alone isn’t enough to cause people to continue attending and to stick together as a church. It takes more.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m certainly not diminishing the importance of preaching and teaching God’s Word. I simply mean that there are preachers all around the world who faithfully declare the truth . . . and yet their local church is not growing. In fact, many years ago I served at such a church. I preached just as passionately there as I do in my current ministry. But there wasn’t growth. The marks of an attractive church weren’t present. In fact, I remember one Fourth of July weekend when there were seven people in the entire congregation . . . and four of them were Swindolls! That was not an inviting context. I might as well have been preaching in a subway.

Why is it we will drive past any number of churches in order to worship at one particular church located farther from our house than all the rest? What is it that draws us in, causing us to stay excited about, invest our time and money in, and become an active participant of that church instead of some other? How can one ministry become so attractive, so meaningful to us, that we’re willing to adjust our lives to fit its schedule, rear our children in it, and even invite other people to come with us to it?

The best word to describe such an attraction is contagious. Webster defined the root word, contagion, as “an influence that spreads rapidly.” When a church is in this category, word quickly travels. People witness the passion in our enthusiasm as we talk together and listen well. They hear the excitement in our voices as we sing and laugh. They see characteristics that set our church apart. They finally become so curious that they can’t stay away; they have to come to see for themselves. One thing is for sure: they observe a set of distinctives being modeled like nothing the world around them has to offer. A contagious church is unique. It provides a magnetic context.

I’ll be sharing with you what makes a church contagious in the upcoming posts.

—Chuck

P.S. You can see Joshua Bell’s subway performance here.