Y’all know I love Church, right? LOVE it. For all of its imperfections, bumbling ways and love of minutiae, there is no collective body on earth more capable of harnessing sheer joy, world-changing compassion, and the transforming power of presence with those in need. I’m here for it, every single day.
But. Sometimes we are terrible at marketing.
When I say “we,” I’m talking about the larger body, the big “C” church. Advertising is, shall we say, not our spiritual gift.
The reasons for this shortcoming are manifold. For one thing, we operated under the delusion, for decades, that all the Church had to do was exist. That worked for us for a hot minute in the 50’s. So we got comfortable. We kept the lights on, we ran great programs, we sat through mediocre sermons and ate stale communion wafers and, unless there was a big blow-up over the carpet color or which hymnal to use, we mostly did ok. And then, a minute later, the world changed A LOT, because women went to work and cars and planes faster, and technology basically went off the rails and our lives turned into one big episode of the Jetsons overnight… and in every way that mattered, the Church sort of sat by and watched–with popcorn–and did not transform itself accordingly.
Another big memo we missed: with big change comes nuance. Traditional family models shifted, the economy took a roller coaster ride, things like education and healthcare became luxuries for the elite, and the pace of our work lives went into overdrive. The Church’s overall response? We hauled a praise band up front, started live-Tweeting sermons, and maybe installed a coffee bar in the lobby. But fundamentally, so much of what church IS has stayed the same, regardless of the rapidly shifting world around us. Large or small, progressive or conservative, mainline or mega, it matters not… we are still, in many ways, what we’ve always been: a destination.
What we like to do is invite people to PLACES and STUFF. To hear our rock-star preacher, take part in our wonderful youth or family group program, join our baseball team… Our invitations consist of a time and place to be, and maybe a thing to do. But as for the ability to capture and convey an alternate vision of humanity, and the power of the gospel to make that vision a reality? Not our gift.
There is a church here in town with a giant banner out front. It’s been there forever, so clearly they’re proud of the message. It says this:
“A Church Where Anyone Can Come.”
Grammatical butchering aside… what does that even mean? If I am a person unfamiliar with the congregation, what do I learn from that sign, other than the fact that I’m allowed in the building? And if I am a person unfamiliar with the gospel in general, what does that sign tell me about God’s love for me, or God’s desire for the world? The message is almost aggressively passive, if that’s a thing.
But then I wonder if the rest of us are doing much better.
I’ve been painfully aware, just lately, that the corporate world frequently smokes our pants when it comes to sharing a message of hope, community, compassion and transformation. Just this week, Burger King came out with a new video ad campaign that is breaking the internet. For my money, I haven’t touched a Whopper in decades, because they are just gross. But this message is powerful. Check it out, if you haven’t already:
The sad irony is, big businesses, celebrities and other secular entities often manage to convey a vision for a better world; a vision of peace and justice and reconciliation that makes us want to be better people and also run right out and buy a product that is probably destroying the environment and our bodies but that’s ok because they made us feel feelings.
Remember the Coke “America is Beautiful” ad from the Super Bowl? It was powerful enough to bring the racist trolls out of their La-Z-Boys, but left the rest of us sobbing through the halftime show… and strangely thirsty for Coke products (weird.) Or the Amazon thing? With the Priest and the Rabbi? That, right there, is the meaning of life captured in a 30-second ad spot.
Oh! And you know who else? There was this beautiful “Food is Love” commercial, a long, lovely litany about how we care for and love each other with food. It is so warm and inspiring and you’re like YES, I am in for whatever this is… And then the name pops up on the screen and whose message is it? Monsanto. Single-handedly monopolizing the food supply AND destroying the environment while poisoning us all. They are basically evil on a stick and yet, they can tell this beautiful story about human connection and land, and make you think for a minuthat’s what they’re selling.
In a perfect world, Burger King–and Coke, and Amazon, and whoever else–can tell these wonderful stories with their commercials, and the vision they share for humanity becomes our lived experience. Advertising is powerful like that. I mean, start putting men in the commercials for cleaning products and they can change the dang world.
But these corporations, for all the lovely messaging, are always going to be part of the problem in bigger ways than their ads convey. They are the voices of capitalism, for better or worse, and they don’t exactly practice what they preach. As a friend pointed out, Burger King took a mom and pop burger joint to court, forcing them to change their name (“Whopper Burger,”) even though they had the name long before the trademark. Anyway. A bully is a bully, epic commercials notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, Amazon is putting small businesses out of existence and running their employees into the ground; and Coke is (rather effectively) trying to kill us by way of obesity and diabetes.
Great commercials may or may not inspire us to be better people. They may or may not change the narrative about how we treat each other. But the thing is, it is not Burger King’s JOB to call out that basic humanity in us. It’s the Church’s job. And we aren’t always great at it.
Granted, corporations have billion dollar advertising budgets, whereas most of our churches have, what, maybe $500/year? What can we get with that, Don Draper? (As he takes a midday shot of whiskey and laughs us out of his office). But the power of these ad campaigns teaches us an important truth about what resonates with people… Story. Connection. Beauty. Showing up for our neighbors. Overcoming differences and embodying a spirit of unity. These are the things that our neighbors are hungry for right now; and things that the church should be sharing better than anyone.
After all, the “Product” we’ve got to sell is far more life-giving than the sodas, burgers, and GMO’s that the competition are hawking.
Rather than upping our advertising game (and budget) what our churches really need is a more compelling story. An embodied vision of the world-as-it-could-be. Maybe we need to dispense with the bland invitations to fellowship–and the focus on getting bodies into the building–and learn instead to tell powerful stories about changing the world. Make videos (I promise, your youth group can do it for free), make creative hashtags, slap it on a t-shirt, tell picture stories on Instagram, whatever. Package it any-whichway, but more importantly, let it be our lived experience in the world. If Burger King can do it just for the sake of selling a burger, we should be able to do it far more effectively with the power of the gospel at hand.
What better story could anyone tell? And who could tell it better than us?