Scratching Where They Itch?

One of the most troubling things I see when I look at contemporary Christianity is the mentality that the church should fashion itself according to the needs and wants of the “audience.” It’s an idea that grew out of the evangelical church growth and seeker movements and is practically an epidemic today. Almost every evangelical church these days is to some extent thinking in terms of what the audience wants and how churches can provide them with a desirable product. It’s unseemly, to be sure, but it’s just a symptom of the consumerist culture we live in. Presumably, it’s how things must be done. Whatever else you might say about a product you’re trying to sell, the one thing you know for sure is this: the audience is sovereign.

But of course, the question the church must reckon with is this: is Christianity a “product” we must sell? Looking at the language many pastors and Christian leaders use today, it certainly sounds like it. In Pop Goes the Church, Tim Stevens argues that effective churches are those that identify the needs of their audience, speak their language and “scratch where they itch.” In Branding Faith, Phil Cooke says that the church needs to “start thinking in reverse,” by focusing on the audience rather than the message and realizing that “it’s not the message you send, it’s the message that’s received that counts.”

Cooke also says this: “Pastors, Christian leaders and broadcasters always thought they had the answers to what their audience wanted and, more important, the audience would listen. Today the audience is in charge. In a virtually unlimited channel universe, the audience has more choices than ever before, and for us to justify their attention, we need to get on their wavelength.”

Indeed, it may be true that people have more choices than ever before and that Christianity is competing for increasingly depleted pockets of attention, but I hardly think the answer to this dilemma is to start with the conceit that “the audience is in charge.” Especially for Christians, it should be clear that the audience is not and should not be sovereign! The audience consists of broken, depraved, n’er do well sinners. God is sovereign. He comes first, not the audience’s idea of what they want God to be or what they want from religion.

The problem with the “audience is sovereign” approach is that audiences rarely want what is really in their best interest. Giving audiences what they want might make a company money, but it rarely satisfies the audience in the long run. And it hardly ever edifies their soul. Furthermore, in terms of Christianity, what the audience “wants” has very little bearing on what Christianity actually is. In a market economy, consumer needs are those that consumers identify for themselves. But as David Wells points out in The Courage to be Protestant, “the needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them… The product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel.”

To “scratch were they itch,” then, seems like a futile pursuit for a church trying to win converts to the Gospel. People are itching for a lot of things, and some of them might actually add up to what the gospel of Christ offers, but at the end of the day the gospel is defined outside of and with little regard to whatever it is people think Christianity is or should be.

The logic of consumerism is that people want what they want and get what they want, for a price. It’s all about ME—the brands I buy, the products I consume, the “gimme more” mindset of never having to wait long to have any desire fulfilled.

I’m not sure there are any circumstances under which Christianity fits comfortably into this paradigm.

To position the Gospel within this consumerist framework is to open the door to all sorts of distortions, mutations, and “to each his own” cockamamie variations. If it’s all about selling a message that scratches a pluralism of itches, how in the world will a cohesive, orthodox, unified gospel survive?

In his article “Jesus is not a Brand” in Christianity Today, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson raises the warning that by adopting a marketing mindset, the church “will subtly contort the gospel into mere personal fulfillment,” focusing only on the benefits of becoming a Christian and presenting a message “not fundamentally different from commercial advertising about the existential benefits of this car or that soap.” And this sort of “what can the church do for me?” mindset is completely contrary to living a God-centered, neighbor-focused life.

To conceive of Christian identity in terms of consumer satisfaction is the wrong way for the church. We cannot let ourselves—or our message—be form-fit to the fickle demands and fluctuating interests of the market.

As Wells puts it: “Relevance is not about incorporating something else as definitive in the life of the church, be it the hottest marketing trend, the latest demographic, the newest study on depression, what a younger generation thinks, Starbucks, or contemporary music. None of these is definitive. None should be allowed a defining role in how the church is strengthened and nourished.”

There are a lot of things that scratch were the average person itches. Things like aspirin, coffee, reality TV, cookies, cigarettes, sleep, sex, and orange juice. To place Christianity in that category of just “one among many” desires that people might have is to do it a monumental injustice. Christianity transcends all that. It is much bigger and above all earthly whims, fads, desires and emotional cravings. If we think we can “sell” it best on the terms of the consumer, we are gravely mistaken.

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17 responses to “Scratching Where They Itch?

  1. OK Brett. So you’ve given us your (well-reasoned and insightful) opinion of what the church should NOT be. How about your opinion of what it SHOULD be?

    Are you saying that churches that “do marketing” are inherently self-serving, therefore bad?

    • Bob,
      I don’t think marketing is in itself bad. I work in marketing for a living at Biola University! I just think that it becomes a problem when the church focuses too much attention on marketing, or begins to view the gospel as a product to sell. As for what the church SHOULD be… I think it should be a New Testament-faithful community of love, grace, and truth, living in as Christ-like a manner as possible.

  2. Brett – it’s an excellent topic and one which I wrestle with every day. But I think some context might be needed to really explore it. When I speak on getting on the audience’s wavelength, I’m talking about getting their attention, not building a church. Jesus was brilliant at meeting people where they were – engaging them at the level of their concerns. The woman at the well is a great example. Rather than spout religious platitudes, he asked questions that opened up deep wounds in her life that allowed him to connect. Without respecting the audience and justifying their attention first, we’ll never get our message heard.

    If you’re building a church, then absolutely go deep. Preach the scripture. Call people to a higher standard.

    But in my books “Branding Faith” and “The Last TV Evangelist,” I’m talking about sharing our message in the most distracted culture in history. When people are literally being bombarded by media messages, the question is how do we cut through that clutter and connect?

    It’s not about pandering or watering down the message. It’s about finding a way in, so the power of the gospel can do it’s work.

    Thanks for bringing it up. As I said, I wrestle with it every day and certainly haven’t found the right balance. Good critiques like yours force me to re-think it on a regular basis, and that’s a good thing.

    • Phil,
      Thanks for your comment! I’m honored that you found the post and are engaging in this conversation. It’s definitely a big issue and this is only an excerpt from a larger chapter in my book, where I give the topic a fuller treatment. I agree with you that “Without respecting the audience and justifying their attention first, we’ll never get our message heard.” But I think that the most respectful and loving thing we can do for an audience sometimes is to ignore what they think they want. That may sound harsh, but I think David Wells is totally correct when he argues that the needs people identify for themselves are usually not what they actually need (“The product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel…”). The best thing we can give (as the church on an institutional level or on an individual daily life level) to non-Christians is simply the Gospel straight-up, whether in word or in deed.

      The woman at the well is a good example of Jesus being sensitive to an individual person’s situation and predicament, which is a good example to follow in any evangelism context. But there are other times when Jesus was saying things that were exactly the opposite of what his peers and followers wanted to hear or thought they needed. For example, many of the disciples expressed vocal disapproval of Jesus went he started mentioning his future death. They didn’t want this. They didn’t think it was necessary. Did Jesus say, “ok, you’re right. You know best. I don’t need to die.” No. And likewise, I think the Gospel is frequently and necessarily something that must transcend the fickle emotional interests and felt needs of the marketplace.

  3. shakespeherian

    Phil, with all respect, I think that, as Brett says, seeing Christianity as one more media message in competition with other media messages is emblematic of thinking within a consumerist paradigm. One of my favorite bloggers, Fred Clark, suggests that we think of evangelism not as product, but as hospitality: To get a sense of what I mean by evangelism as the practice of hospitality, visit your local church. Don’t go upstairs, to the sanctuary, go downstairs to that room in the basement with the linoleum tile and the coffee urn. That’s where the AA and NA meetings are held.

    At its best, Alcoholics Anonymous embodies evangelism as hospitality. They offer an invitation, not a sales pitch. They offer testimony — personal stories — instead of a marketing scheme. They are, in fact and in practice, a bunch of beggars offering other beggars the good news of where they found bread.

  4. Thanks for your good essay, Brett. Like Phil and Shakespeherian, I would complicate the issue by saying that not all churches use the vernacular in a consumerist model. I can’t say it better so I will just say it again: some of us use the vernacular to meet people where they are and to offer them hospitality.

    We offer familiar environments and social cultures so that participants can examine them from the inside and slowly have the opportunity to realize that, like 1 Kings 19: 11-13, God is not in the wind or the fire. However, the wind and the fire are useful for getting our attention so that we don’t miss the gentle whisper that was there all along.

    If folks hear God as part of a complementary choir of voices in an “orthodox” church culture, it would be easy to mistake the voices singing harmonic notes for the gentle whisper that establishes the key. The gospel is only threatened when people do not connect directly with God because they mistook human interpretation for God.

    Creating space to listen for God and engage with God that is actually inviting to people is not scratching their itch, it is offering the balm of Gilead in a way that it has the best chance of being accepted.

  5. shakespeherian

    To clarify, I wasn’t arguing for an audience-oriented church (although I will note that St. Paul urged us to be ‘all things to all people’), but rather that the Evangelical church needs to take less of a market-based approach to evangelism. It needs to be less about numbers and converts and reaching as many people as possible and more about creating a close, inviting, comforting space to which the world feels welcome.

    I’m reminded of a point that a friend of mine made a few years ago w/r/t teen pregnancy: If you were a pregnant teenager, is the church the first place you’d turn to for help? If it were me, the church would probably be the last place I’d go. This perception of ourselves is what we need to change, and this is what evangelism consists of, rather than growth models and marketing strategies and highway billboards.

  6. Great thoughts, sir. I really appreciate your passion for God to be sovereign and foremost in our churches. After all, the Church does not exist to serve itself – the church exists for God and His glory alone!

  7. 2 Timothy 4:3
    “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
    There is a difference between loving others while speaking in a way they can understand and pandering for numbers. God does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Thus, I believe we should care about serving others and helping them come to know and follow Jesus, not how many people attend our church.

  8. I’ve had many a tough night wrestling with persuasion and coercion within the context of the modern christian church. Your post brings light to the consumer mentality that we are all subjects to. How we became consumers with the right to demand our way is something that Generation Me author Jean M. Twenge looks into.
    My concern (and what seems to be yours) is that the church has lost the holiness and reverence for God. Do we really go to church to truly worship God? Do we even know what it means to worship in spirit and in truth? At times it seems that churches are marketing a comfortable atmosphere with amenities which seems absolutely contrary to what the Bible tells us about being a follower of Christ.
    I’m glad that you have posted an article on this cultural attitude that exists in the church. What does scare me is that the marketing of the church is creating “believers” who are absolutely irrelevant. This could only lead to lukewarm people, and they, unfortunately are spit out. I think this struggle between marketing mentality and true religion is something that this generation will be known for in years to come. I pray we make the right choice.

  9. Brett,

    Thank you for the thoughtful post that helped me consider the ways in which our consumerist culture impacts our approach to ‘doing church’.

    I have recently been introduced to the writings of Frederick Buechner. In his book “Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale” (pg 33) He describes how the gospel is first a tragedy that lays us bare.

    “Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions, beneath our religion or lack of it, we are all vulnerable both to the storm without and the storm within(referencing King Lear), and if ever we are to find true shelter, it is with the recognition of our tragic nakedness and need for true shelter that we have to start. Thus it seems to me that this is also where anyone who preaches the Gospel has to start too–after the silence that is truth comes the news that is bad before it is good, the word that is tragedy before it is comedy because it strips us bare in order to ultimately clothe us.”

    I think Frederick would agree with you. Its hard to get to ‘the tragedy’ when our starting point is the sovereignty of the consumer.

    Blessings,
    Justin

  10. CreativeDeath

    Brett,

    With all due respect, I’m not sure how this ties in to your book. Let me phrase that a bit better. I know exactly how it ties in to your book, however I’m perplexed as to what message you’re hoping to convey. I know, I know, read the book for myself when it comes out. But until then, I’m scratching my head.

    I could be wrong, but you seem to have a fascination with hipster Christianity that you may not know what to do with (mentally, spiritually). The other excerpts you’ve posted that I’ve been able to read, gave no indication of the struggle you speak of above. And while I like your book cover, it certainly doesn’t, in any way, suggest a greater, deeper struggle (or message) that you hope to convey as it pertains to excerpt shared in this post.

  11. CreativeDeath

    ……………………..

  12. I would also add to Wells’ list regarding relevance that we also not things that are traditional to the definitive list like hymns, certain forms of protocol, etc. Those can be just as detrimental to the life of the church if it stifles people’s ability to see and hear the living Christ. Interestingly enough, each camp feels their way is the best way and if only we would do things “their way” the church would be better off. Is there any way off this merry-go-round??? I think the main challenge for church leaders is to make decisions prayerfully and stick to what God is showing you regardless of the pressures (both real and perceived) from the audience. Either Jesus reigns or the audience does. Which one will it be?

  13. After working on a church staff for almost seven years, I saw first-hand how the perceive “needs” of the church body can steer the ship. I believe many of the comments are directing their confusion to the specifics which they feel you are talking about, rather than the concept behind it. Marketing isn’t bad. Trying new ideas and programs isn’t evil. It’s the intention and pursuit behind them that should always be questioned.
    This was a great post and I appreciate your candor. It is my first time to your blog and I will most certainly be coming back.

  14. Pingback: Pop Goes Two Book Reviews – LeadingSmart

  15. Pingback: Church Marketing – Pleasing the masses (part 2) « aaron niequist

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