Cream of Wheat in a Pop Tart Culture

My wife worked for a major advertising firm in Chicago and one of their clients was Cream of Wheat.  In the face of a culture that was increasingly given to things that were sticky, sweet, and easily prepared — like Pop Tarts — the folks at Cream of Wheat struggled to market their product.

In working with the firm it became clear that one of the challenges they faced was that they were trying to sell Cream of Wheat — instead of selling its experience or its benefits.  What finally worked for them was a campaign that promised warm, happy tummies.

I haven’t eaten Cream of Wheat in a while — but today, of course, the problem with the old product would be that it contains too many carbs.  And that underlines the nature of the challenge that churches face.  How do you convince people that the experience is good for them?  After all, it’s Cream of Wheat in Pop Tart culture.  Some observations:

One, sell the results, not the experience.  There is nothing intrinsically attractive about the activity of attending church: getting out of bed on Sunday morning, sacrificing time over coffee, gathering with people you see once a week, or making nice with people you see rarely — none of that is a lot of fun.

The results, on the other hand, are a different matter.  At church you should see God, find hope, nurture strength, gather wisdom, and find friends on the same journey.  That’s worth selling.  Church?  Not so much.

Two, make sure the product really does those things.  The problem for Cream of Wheat today is the carbs — people want warm little tummies, not warm bulging tummies and clogged arteries.  Church has the same problem.  People do God, they aren’t interested in doing bureaucracy, politics, or church for the sake of church.  Far too many churches fail to deliver the experience of God, content with arguing that church in and of itself is a good thing.  It isn’t, actually.  Church without God isn’t worth doing at all, in fact.

None of this means that a Pop Tart culture will connect with your message.  It’s hard to underestimate the attraction to something sticky, sweet, and easy.  But there is clarity to be had in naming the thing that should compete for people’s attention.  It’s not a box of carbs.  It’s an encounter with God.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.