Of Marketing and Ministry

Of Marketing and Ministry

Some fifteen-ish years ago, I found myself racking my brain about what degree major to declare. It was a bit of a struggle. Sitting in my academic advisor’s office, I told him I wanted to “go into a ministry of some sort.” His immediate response was that I should go into marketing. After all, he said, “that’s what churches look for in ministers.”

I declined.

His response was sincere. But it was also fairly indicative, I think, of the mood that exists within large segments of American evangelicalism. In this realm, the “market model” is alluring and hard to resist (especially if you want to pastor a “successful” church, they say).

But the “market model” is demeaning to people and blasphemous to God. It treats congregants as consumers, God as the product, and the minister as the salesman. In this way, the “worship” service becomes reduced down to nothing more than a crowd full of widget-buyers (congregation) listening eagerly and naively to a sleazy widget-seller (minister) about why they should purchase a newly-minted widget created according to their liking (God). It’s all about transaction, supply and demand, etc., etc.

I eventually chose to study philosophy and then, later, theology. Not a lot of flash or pizzazz in those things. (Knifing your way through Heidegger and Kant is not an attractive, let alone marketable, enterprise.)

But the love and pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) and the love and pursuit of God (theology) continues to be a fascinating journey for me personally. These disciplines act as a boot camp of sorts—a continual exercise in holy preparation for me as a pastor—for the people I serve, for the glory of the God I worship.

These things are hardly marketable for the “church-as-institution” model. But the good news is that I don’t see my church as an institution or a corporation. My congregation cannot be reduced down to a market of consumers, a mob of buyers, or a factory of widgets. It’s a family. And families are made up of people. And people are mysteries (as Eugene Peterson once quipped). People are God-imagers and should not, therefore, be defined by market analysis nor manipulated by marketing techniques or sleazy salesman.

People, at the end of the day, largely defy objective analysis anyway. They are, after all, full of gray—doubt and faith, anger and joy, love and hate (often all at the same time; read the Psalms). The church is a group of people to be journeyed with, cared for, and loved in Christ. And so, “church” has nothing to do with “what the market wants” or “what sells” or “entertainment.” Rather, it’s about being with each other as worshippers of the Triune God. It’s about living with each as followers of the crucified and risen Christ, even through the dark times and valleys of shadows of death. In those seasons and places, deep questions are asked—questions about good and evil, death and suffering, anger and pain, fear and anxiety, love and hate, existence and meaning, society and justice, sin and wickedness—the stuff of philosophy and theology, the shared experiences of our humanity.

At any rate, as I reflect on my past, there are a ton of things that I’d love to go back and change. My decision to focus on philosophy and theology is not one of them.

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