For many comic book geeks and movie fans, this weekend’s release of “Avengers: Infinity War” is one of the most anticipated cinematic events in their lifetime. Some comic book lovers have waited their entire lives to see Marvel’s lineup on the big screen, and those, like me, who have been a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Tony Stark put on his Iron Man armor ten years ago, are anxiously awaiting the culmination of this series (well, the beginning of the culmination, as we won’t know the end of the story for another year).
But many churches are also awaiting “Infinity War” because it gives them what they see as a great opportunity to reach the lost through savvy pop culture marketing.
Earlier this week, comicbook.com had a story about a church that had created a poster incorporating the Marvel look/feel to entice people to visit. Instead of “Marvel Studios” it said “Marvellous Savior,” (sic) and instead of “Avengers: Infinity War,” it said “The Almighty: The Infinite God.” I’m sure several pastors will walk out of the theater equipped with sermon illustrations about how Jesus can put an end to the infinity war of the soul. Even Clickhole seems to know that Christians will be looking for any way to Jesus Juke Marvel.
To every pastor preparing to encourage congregations to assemble in the name of our holy Avenger, or to urge them to quit pursuing Infinity Stone-esque idols, can I offer a helpful word?
Don’t cheapen the Gospel
Syncing up faith to pop culture didn’t start with Marvel, of course. I worked at Family Christian Stores for three years; I’ve sold my share of shirts that replaced the Pepsi, Good N’ Plenty and Reese’s logos with Christian tie-ins (but Lord help the poor soul who wore this one). When I was a kid, sometimes my dad would come back from the Bible bookstore with comics that had licensed the Archie characters and used them to evangelize. This blog has attested to my love/hate relationship with the Christian music industry, but even I knew at the time that many groups were attempting to copy mainstream success to make a buck.
This rarely works out well, either for art or for Christianity. To paraphrase Hank Hill: “You’re not making Christianity any better; you’re making pop culture worse.”
When churches nakedly co-opt fads, slogans and products and use them to attract people to church or evangelize, it comes across as naked pandering. It’s the equivalent of an old man saying they’re hip to the music of the kids of today, or an adult wearing a backwards ball cap to fit in with teenagers. Few people outside the church are likely impacted positively; instead, they can smell the manipulation and desperation. People in the congregation may get a flutter of excitement in thinking they’re engaging the culture, but if all you’re doing is roping people in with fancy graphics, shiny pictures and cheap jokes, what are you really selling? What you call engagement is really just marketing. And the Gospel is a truth to be believed, not a product to be sold.
As Christians, we believe quite simply that we have a better story than the rest of the world. We believe the Gospel is a redemption tale that is deeper and truer than anything offered anywhere else, and that its truths are life-giving, hope-filled and eternal. How much value do we show when we attach the proclamation of this truth to clever puns and jokes about fads that will be gone and forgotten in the next year? What if the most popular item in pop culture is antithetical to our faith and values (I’ve seen churches co-opt branding for everything from ‘Desperate Housewives’ to ‘Austin Powers’). What does it say about our faith in the Holy Spirit if we feel we have to resort to clever marketing to convince people to give God a shot?
It cheapens the Gospel when we sell it as a fad or product and pander to people who are often already suspect of our self-awareness and authenticity. It shows our faith as hollow, fad-driven and not separate from the world’s structures and values.
That’s not to say that art, culture and pop culture should be totally separate from Christianity. We can go too far in the other direction and be isolationists, which I don’t think helps either. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pop-culture and film obsessive, and I’ve written often about the spiritual impact film has had on me. Pastors who have an affection for pop culture can often find thoughtful illustrations and insights to tell their congregations. Entire websites run well-written, thoughtful articles about the intersection of faith and art. There have been movies, TV shows and albums that don’t speak explicitly about faith at all that have moved me deeply and stirred my soul. By all means, keep this thoughtful and honest engagement and dialogue coming; it’s the shallow marketing and the tendency to attach ourselves to a culture of cool that worries me more.
Keep church transcendent
I don’t doubt that the intentions behind these actions are most often pure. It’s a desire to show our relevance to the world, to argue that the Gospel matters in modern society. But tin-eared, fad-driven gospel marketing actually has the opposite effect: it tells the world we’re out of touch and that we don’t have anything new to offer.
We don’t need to strive to make the Gospel relevant to life; it already is and it always will be. The spiritual searching and need people feel won’t go away, and the answers to it won’t change. They’re already in the pages of the book they’ve been in for thousands of years, and they will always speak to our current needs. We don’t need to make the Gospel flashy; indeed, as Derek Webb once sang, “The truth is never sexy.” And if we trust that the Holy Spirit draws people to Him and uses our words to communicate truth, we don’t really need to worry about the effectiveness of our marketing and advertising or if we’re coming across as cool and hip for the kids.
In fact, I think deep down people don’t want church to be cool. They don’t want a show to attend our a country club to become a member of. They want a community to be a part of and a space to worship and feel part of something bigger. They want truth, hope and family. They want to come in knowing they’ve escaped the flimsy trappings of our culture for an hour or so and are caught up in something transcendent, important and meaningful. Church is where we go to remember that this world and our cultures will pass away, but the truth of Christ will remain forever. That’s not something you can easily market; it has to be experienced.