God, Evangelicals, and Advertising: Expanded Blog from 9Marks

I just posted my first piece on the 9Marks blog, Church Matters.  Here’s the piece, albeit with a few tweaks.  I attempted to make some changes to the original but have had some challenges with Typepad.

The piece is on “God, Evangelicals, and Advertising” (here’s the original).


Let me quickly say that it is an honor to post on this blog.  As a 9Marks blog rookie, I’m glad to be called off the bench (where I belong) to join the game.  For the record, I’m just here to pass into the post and keep the starters happy.  Thabiti, I see you down low.  Menikoff, show them the up and under.

Thanksgiving break afforded me the opportunity to do something I always enjoy: perusing evangelical magazines.  It’s always interesting to peruse certain periodicals to see what content they feature, what the cover story is, and so on.  I noticed recently how many advertisers, many of them seminaries and colleges, in said magazines promote themselves in formats similar to secular marketers.  The lingo used in many of these color-splashed ads might include something like this:

  • “Distance learning you will benefit from”
  • “That’s the essence of [College X]”
  • “Take your knowledge to a higher level”
  • “Discover how to use your God-given gifts”
  • “The flexibility you need; the depth you crave”

And the list goes on.

Let me say that there is not necessarily anything heinous about these taglines.  Marketing is tough, and it helps to craft a catchy slogan that stands out from other products.  Furthermore, I don’t approach marketing assuming that Christian advertisers need to quote Scripture or have certain words in the pitch.  There’s room for all kinds of wording in our advertisements.

However, I did wonder in my reading whether there was not an element missing from many of the ads I saw: God.  Many ads made reference to me, or a theoretical me, but few of them made reference to God.  Fewer still put God front and center in the advertisement.  I was left with the suspicion that one could change the names and titles in many of the ads I saw–secularize them, so to speak–leaving many of them fit for any old magazine, Christian or not.

So what’s the big deal?  They’re just ads, right?  Well, I wondered whether these institutions weren’t missing out on a great opportunity to reach the Christian audience with a message that far exceeds “Tailor your learning to your needs.”  What if Christian organizations and schools advertised themselves like this:

  • “God looms large over everything we do”
  • “Come learn about the transcendent majesty of almighty God”
  • “Begin a distance learning program that engages your love for Christ the King”
  • “God. Is. Awesome.”
  • “Experience the Exhilaration of the Gospel”

Some schools and organizations do run these kind of ads.  But many don’t.  Is there something missing here?  I think so.  Reading those kind of ads would, for me personally, grab my attention.

It’s no secret that today’s younger generation is captivated by God and “large-God” theology.  “Small-God” theology is out.  The grandeur of a holy King is in, thankfully and deservedly.  Would it behoove our marketers–and more importantly, our leaders–to see this?  Could we not better honor our God by such promotion and, at the same time, reach the Christian audience hungry for more of God more effectively?

I wonder here if the way we market our schools and organizations shows how we think about them, and about God more broadly.  We know from James 3:1-12 that the tongue plays a major role in leading us into error.  We might think that, if we wish to grow and change for God’s glory, we need to first tackle the heart and then bridle the tongue.  But the Bible seems to suggest that to grow in grace we need to tackle the heart, yes, but we also need to know that bridling the tongue will help us greatly in our fight against sin.  If we allow ourselves to speak unwisely, then we will live unwisely.  If we change the way we speak, however, holding our tongues captive for Christ (to use a mildly strange metaphor), then we will be surprised at how the way we think changes in the process.

So what’s the bigger point?  Well, noting that this is a major question not only for schools (which advertise in magazines) but, more significantly, for churches, I would ask what might happen if we evangelicals thought of marketing more as an opportunity to showcase God and less of an opportunity to cater to so-called felt needs, we might see interest increase in our products.  Perhaps if we allowed God and the glorification of Him to shape all our promotion, publicity and thinking about our churches and institutions, we might see renewal of vision, “success” in our efforts, and most importantly, increased glory for the Lord of our lives.

Church, school, parachurch involvement–when faithful, these are equipped not to meet our needs, burnish our resumes or increase our sense of personal fulfillment, but to bring us to a breathtaking awareness of the majesty of the Triune God.  That–to me at least–is compelling, invigorating.  That makes me want to get out of bed in the morning and serve the Lord in my calling.  I am guessing that the same is true for others.

To close, I would submit that advertising is not simply the slogan that a group of marketers think up in a large room with nice couches and stress balls.  Advertising, as with all that we communicate, shows not only how we think about our churches and schools, but how we think about God Himself.

"A sane voice in this discussion. Thanks."

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  • Jane Steen

    You are quite correct, and you’ve given me a couple of things to think about. Thanks.