Marketing Jesus: The Friday Five with Tim Sinclair

Can the Christian gospel be marketed? Should it be? Many evangelical churches feel a tension between the desire to maintain the countercultural challenge the gospel poses to all human society, and the need to contextualize the gospel and make it accessible and compelling to the modern world.

Tim Sinclair lives where marketing and ministry intersect. As a pastor's child, he grew up in the life of the church. Yet he also helps businesses market their products and hosts a morning radio show on WGBL in Champaign, IL. His provocative new book, Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture, will be released at the end of June.

When you talk about marketing, branding and the church, Christians can get nervous.   

Webster's defines marketing as "the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service." According to Mark 16:15, it seems that Christians are called to do the same thing with Jesus. ("Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.") We are to show (promote), share (sell), and spread (distribute) our faith... so, to me, evangelism is marketing, just under a different, far less controversial name.

Do you think, as Brett McCracken argues in Hipster Christianity, that we've tried to make Jesus too "hip"? 

Jesus and his teachings, with or without our help, are relevant. They're "hip" in that sense. The problem comes when Christians try to change who we are in order to bring people to Christ. God has given each of us different gifts and talents and abilities, with our own unique styles and circumstances and techniques. If we focus on being exactly who God calls us to be, and if we allow that honesty and authenticity to shine through, those who naturally resonate with us will naturally resonate with Jesus too.

Jesus teaches that his followers should expect persecution. How do you understand this in light of your program to make Christianity more appealing?

Some will always find the gospel message itself offensive. So those who share that message are not going to be "liked" by everyone. That's okay. The rub comes when Christians try to change or adjust their beliefs in order to widen the funnel. We sometimes think we can bring more people "in" the fold by changing our message or by watering it down.

Our methods should be fluid, but our message should not. Jesus himself employed culturally relevant methods—songs, stories, parables, lines in the sand—in order to share biblical principles. Making Christianity appealing isn't the same thing as relevantly showing people how it already is appealing.

You minister in an atmosphere, at the University of Illinois, that is rich with college students. What is the biggest challenge to the gospel on today's college campuses? 

It seems like an entire generation (and not just college students) is of the mindset that their actions should guide their faith, rather than allowing their faith to guide their actions. Our culture has adopted the idea of a flexible faith in which society, instead of the Bible, dictates right and wrong. The challenge lies in convincing our teens and twenty-somethings that right and wrong are constant, not a variable... and, just as importantly, that following Jesus' example of how to live really is better in the long run.

You're a Christian broadcaster, author, and speaker. What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to spend his or her life in Christian communications? 

Don't try to appear perfect.

Even with all of our flaws, our stories have power. People automatically distrust those who claim to have it all together... mainly because they know it's impossible. None of us is perfect—even those who work in ministry—and if we try to share our faith under the guise of utopia our story will never be effective. Your honest, authentic self is better than any other one you can come up with.