Last week, it was interesting to read the BBC’s take on Hillsong (“Hillsong: A church with rock concerts and 2m followers” – 13th August: The comment that caught my eye was towards the end of the article given by Steven Paulikas, a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Brooklyn and a doctoral student at Oxford’s school of theology, questioning the growth of Hillsong churches and their ‘fan following’ by asking  ‘is that Evangelism or is that marketing?’ It’s a well-worn line of protest to say that church growth should not be measured by numbers alone, but to emphasise the importance of deepening commitments. Ultimately, however, whatever way you look at it, people do matter and effective engagement with those not already in a church is important – a church without anyone there, is just a shell. And this brings us back to the question of marketing.    

During my Masters Degree in Marketing, I was taught a rule of thumb – you either make a product that the market wants or make the market want your product. One approach starts with the market and the other starts with the product. It’s the push and pull of market forces – you can “push” a product or the market demand “pulls” the product development. This rule of thumb is maybe a blunt instrument, but it depicts well the broad dynamic.

You see, I’m not really that interested in debating church growth, I think it’s a bit of a red herring (hopefully by the end of this piece it will be clear what I mean by this!) Instead, I want to think through what “effective engagement with those not already in church” looks like. For some, the shorthand of this phrase is church growth in the form of mission or evangelism, but these terms are often loaded and I prefer to spell out in a little more detail what I am attempting to discuss. “Evangelism” to some can sound very much like a one-way flow of information shouted by a street preacher and “mission” is sometimes understood as something that is done to others with colonial overtones of exerting one’s power over another. We need to set both these approaches aside once and for all. Therefore, I want to consider two ideas when looking at “effective engagement”?

First, there is a phrase that is credited to Marshall McLuhan which states that the medium is the message and I’ve found it a helpful idea to reflect upon.[1] In short, it suggests that what we say is influenced by how we communicate it, or perhaps even as far as holding that the method we choose to communicate something determines the message. A conversation in person with someone is quite different to tweeting at them – especially when you disagree! When it comes to churches this produces some interesting contrasts. On one hand, it is common to hear a message that Christianity calls us to a different lifestyle than those living in the “world”; but, on the other, evidenced in the case of Hillsong, churches draw heavily on the way of life outside of the church (albeit with some differences). Contemporary social practices such as music, dress, visual effects, branding all seem to figure large on some of the most “successful” churches. The question, therefore, becomes: does the (familiar) medium contradict and compromise the (alternative) message?[2] Rather than mimicking the practices outside of a church, shouldn’t a church consciously look different? And there’s some reason to do so. Despite organized religion declining, there is discussion of increasing spirituality and a renewed interest in high church formats – is this search for transcendence evidence that people are looking for something different, rather than something they see every day? More importantly, is this a case of the tail wagging the dog? Should church practice be influence by the practices of the non-Christian community, if the church is specifically live up to being the body of Christ? To go back to the marketing rule of thumb, are churches “products” that should be shaped by what the market demands at all?

The second idea I want to consider might very well help to resolve this tension. Churches can’t be insular, only marching to their own beat, to the exclusion of anyone outside that community, but neither can they collude so closely with every wider social practices that they lose any sense of being a prophetic witness in the world.[3] The first step in this balance is to consider what is the goal of adopting a certain style of church practices.[4] If stylistic choices are to stop a decline or simply to increase “adherents” then I wonder if the motivations are correct. It seems to me that this simply serves to further ingrain the attractional style of church where the market determines the product.[5] Mimicking culture becomes detrimental to the integrity of a church when it turns a congregation into consumers (or more accurately, consumeristic). Instead, I wonder if our practices should start from reflecting upon the person and work of Christ. [6] If Christ is our goal, as the apostle Paul writes, then it seems like a good measure to use with our church practices.[7]

So far, this might make sense, but it is all a little theoretical. When the rubber hits the road, what does this look like? From the BBC article we can see one of the tensions that bubbles up if we don’t figure this out. Hillsong keep in step with their surrounding contexts in appearance, but dig a little deeper and their convictions are at odds with the majority of the people in those contexts. As the writer suggest, ‘this presents an inherent contradiction: a church marketed widely, with contemporary branding, that remains decidedly conservative.’ Kester Brewin has an enlightening story about a church’s outreach event which gave out free burgers in the local town much to the annoyance of local vendors whose living depended on trade. He further notes that cheap burgers are not the best food for the body and so questions this decision also. But what was perhaps most damaging was the “bait and switch” of a “free” burger – it’s never really free if it goes hand-in-hand with advertising a church service / gospel tract / explorers course.[8] There’s a quote that goes around social media, when paraphrased, goes something like this: “If something is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Very quickly, engaging with people outside the church can become a consumer exchange rather than an encounter with Christ. There’s an issue of integrity when it comes to “marketing” churches.

Up till now, I’ve intentionally left some ideas hanging – to market, or not to market, that is the question! So what do I think “effective engagement” looks like? In truth, I’m still working this out in full. However, here are a few thoughts that I am working through:

  1. Redefining engagement – for me this is about participation or genuine involvement in a person’s life. God participates in creation, and in Christ we see His on-going and costly commitment to that process. It’s not about mission or evangelism, in the negative senses, but about engaging someone in the love of God. This usually takes time and involves some kind of investment, but that’s what Christ modelled.
  2. Redefining effective – connecting with people outside of churches is important. We don’t become more holy by isolating ourselves, but by letting God’s Spirit flow through us into others. So effective engagement isn’t measured by simply connecting with more people, or having branding that resonates with people, or good worship that more people enjoy, but about opportunities to let the Holy Spirit use us and transform others.
  3. It’s not about the product or the market but about the goal. By this I mean, I’m not so sure that form of church is as important as what churches are aiming towards. Whether a high church with liturgy or an emerging worshipping community, I think all churches should be aiming at the eschatological vision of the coming age where God and creation are fully reconciled…and in the meantime, our role is to work towards that by being the body of Christ and representing God on earth. That’s no small responsibility, but it does move the conversation from style to substance.

I’m not convinced that seeing this as a balancing act of how much we embrace “contemporary culture” and how much to reject leads to a good outcome. Debating if the printing press, the television, the internet, social media etc. should be allowed by churches will rarely end well. We will constantly find ourselves disagreeing over what is acceptable and what is not, and more often than not find tension between an appearance of embracing the contemporary zeitgeist and our convictions which reject some of that zeitgeist. I think a better question is how does a specific method or style impact the message of Christ? Does it enhance it? Does it diminish it? Maybe handing out free burgers shackled to an invitation doesn’t enhance the message of Christ; but getting to know an “outsider” by sitting around a table with them does sound like something Christ might do. When the form or style of a church transforms Christianity into consumerism or offers a bit-sized gospel to make it easily digestible, then we have a problem. But the problem, if it’s a problem at all, doesn’t start and end with skinny jeans and upbeat tunes – there’s something far more at stake.

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using or through social media if that’s where you see it!

[1] See Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, 1964.

[2] It’s interesting to note that many of the significant missional writers today will hold to an almost uncritical relationship between the social practices outside the church and the practices of a church. Hirsch and Frost think ‘the church is inseparably related to its cultural milieu.’ Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, 15. Although they are more nuanced in their portrayal of this relationship, there is a presupposed acceptance of this influence. Martyn Percy is more critical, writing that Fresh Expressions (and I think more broadly culturally-adapted forms of church) are, ‘a form of collusion with the post-institutionalism that is so endemic in contemporary culture.’ Martyn Percy, “Old Tricks for new dogs? A critique of fresh expressions,” in Evaluating Fresh Expressions: Explorations in Emerging Church, (edited by Louise Nelstrop and Martyn Percy), 31.

[3] Cf. Volf, After Our Likeness, 15.

[4] James K. A. Smith has an interesting discussion on Augustine concluding that ‘it is the telos [goal] of a people’s love that defines a people.’ Smith, Awaiting the King, 51.

[5] Cf. Roxburgh, Missional, 21. Roxburgh thinks that changing forms is not what is needed and such questions are the wrong sorts of question to be asking.

[6] On reflection, I think in churches, we sometimes struggle to balance the hope and joy of Christ’s resurrection with the call to following Christ’s example of a sacrificial life. It is far easier to “market” a gospel message that offers rewards of a #blessed life with healing and prosperity, than it is to attract people to a message of sacrificial love and humble service. It is not that we shouldn’t do both, but we also shouldn’t have a “bait and switch” gospel message where we “sell” the good stuff and then only later hit with the hard stuff! As a visiting speaker in churches, I find the allure of preaching a “happy” message far stronger than that of a challenging one (and more often find the response to a happy message is far more positive!)

[7] See Philippians 3

[8] Brewin, The Complex Christ, 119-120. I use Brewin as an example in this area, but confess to having been party to such schemes – handing out (non-alcoholic) mulled wine on the local street while inviting recipients to a Christmas service; playing live music in a coffee shop with a gospel message sandwiched in the break – they were good, creative ideas to engage…but I’m not sure they had complete integrity.