When the kingdom of God disrupts my church marketing

When the kingdom of God disrupts my church marketing September 3, 2016

"Trophies," Terren in Virginia, Flickr C.C.
“Trophies,” Terren in Virginia, Flickr C.C.

Everyone is always marketing. I suspect there were hundreds of college classrooms that began their first meeting this semester with that claim. It’s a true statement, especially in an hyper-capitalist society like ours. The world teaches us that each of us has a brand which must be managed and promoted in the right way so that we can win other people over to accomplish whatever goals we have. We are marketing ourselves every time we have a conversation with an acquaintance, because how we come across determines the future of that relationship. If we seem agreeable and hip and easygoing enough, we will make the “sale,” so to speak, and the relationship will continue to grow. If we’re rude and obtuse, that’s bad marketing, and we will lose friends and influence.

If you want people to come to your campus ministry, you have to be an excellent marketer, especially in the first two weeks that new college freshmen have arrived on campus, because after that two week window has closed, their social networks will be established and they will be very unlikely to wander into new spaces without a posse that agrees to go with them. When mainline Christians go to college, the laws of the campus ministry market dictate two most likely outcomes: 1) They will go to a clandestinely conservative evangelical parachurch ministry where there’s a sufficiently large crowd to create a high-energy atmosphere and sufficiently aggressive marketing so that they’ll bump into them very early if they’re looking for Christian community when they hit town. 2) They will stop going to church altogether especially if their roommate and the first friends they make aren’t motivated Christians.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been scrambling to grab United Methodist freshmen at Tulane and Loyola, because for the past two years, I’ve watched the more dedicated United Methodist students get gobbled up in the first two weeks by the evangelical parachurch ministries, while the less dedicated ones fall through the cracks and make their social networks elsewhere. The only way to build a crowd with millennials is to already have one when they arrive. This makes it very hard to rebuild a campus ministry from scratch, especially when your competition has thousand dollar tents with their ministry name embroidered into the fabric or enough money for every incoming freshman at Tulane to receive a free book-bag with their logo.

All of this is the way that the secular world teaches me to think about campus ministry. And it seems very true based on the outcomes I’ve seen. Like every other aspect of capitalism, it’s a cutthroat competition in which I have to figure out a good-natured, subtle way to make my sales pitch and explain why our ministry is way better than our competitors whose ministries are 10-20 times our size (where students are way more likely to find a spiritually wholesome significant other, which is why megachurches always win). I have to market and pretend like I’m not marketing. I have to act like it’s perfectly fine with me for new students who would be amazing leaders in my group to go wherever the Holy Spirit leads them, because if I give off a vibe that is too anxious, intense, needy, or aggressive, it will set off their acutely sensitive social radar and they’ll walk away.

I just wrote a book which claims that the Christian spiritual journey is a movement away from being a hyper-self-conscious performer and a return to the innocent worship of our childhood. In other words, the product I’m marketing as my vision for Christianity demands my vigorous renunciation of marketing. There’s not a moment when I’m unaware of that fundamental hypocrisy and when I’m not begging God for some kind of liberation from it. It’s very hard to eradicate this kind of hyper-capitalist competitive battlefield approach to evangelism from my thinking. I’m up against two aspects of my identity that go down almost to the bone: my evangelical upbringing and my first career as a social justice organizer. I cannot be anything other than ruthlessly tenacious in my pursuit of people. The question is whether I can learn to trust God enough that my anxiety doesn’t sabotage everything I’m doing.

Anyway, yesterday, I was out marketing my brand of Jesus at one of the schools I serve and a student walked up who’s an incredible Christian and completely not a part of what I’m doing. In fact, he recruited one of my most dedicated students away from me for his small group. But talking to him, it’s impossible to be resentful or jealous because he’s too genuinely humble and in love with Jesus. Whenever I talk to him, I forget that I’m supposed to be marketing, because we start speaking kingdom with each other. I don’t know how else to put it. The kingdom of God just happens in our conversational space, and it’s impossible to think of him as anything other than a co-conspirator in spiritual liberation and brother in Christ.

He’s releasing his first album in a couple of weeks. He’s an amazingly talented musician, rapper, and spoken word artist. And he’s dealing with some of the same stress I had when my book came out. Guess what we talked about? Marketing! We commiserated about how hard it is to get people to share your stuff on social media and how hard it is to trust God to open doors for you rather than trying to headbutt your way through them. And then I said, you know marketing is Satan. And we both laughed for a few minutes. I love this guy and I’m going to promote the hell out of his album. I’m sure our theology has some differences. He’s super-evangelical. I don’t know where he stands on all the issues, and I’ll probably never have the guts to ask him. But I know that he loves Jesus and God is using him to build the kingdom.

I’m still buzzing from that conversation we had. And so I wanted to pause and commit myself to what God did there. The reason I was able to have an authentic conversation with my brother is because I knew I wasn’t going to persuade him to join my ministry. And I wish that all my conversations could just happen that way. The AA Big Book talks about having no agenda other than “a sincere desire to help.” That’s what I want my spirit to look like. I want to simply live in the kingdom of God and say whatever comes naturally out of genuine love for whoever I’m talking to.

The last chapter in my book is called “Kingdom Not Stadium.” Basically I said that evangelism should not be about recruiting people to come to my stadium but about joining them on a pilgrimage into God’s kingdom. And to some degree, I live out that principle, except during the first two weeks of every fall semester when I’m trying to grab as many freshmen as possible. So God needed to smash up my stadium-building with his kingdom. And I needed to write about it so that I’ll remember that ministry is not about my self-validation. Then maybe I’ll be able to keep living in the kingdom.

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