Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What are we selling?

Rick Sullivan is a homebuilder by trade. But the former chairman of McBride & Son developers was appointed by Missouri governor Matt Blunt to serve as the CEO of St. Louis public schools. The appointment of a businessman to oversee a not-for-profit institution like a public school system has some people concerned. Why? Because, they argue, a school is not a business.

What’s less of a business than a school? The Church. Unless, of course, you ask church marketing gurus.

There's a growing trend in Christendom to treat the Church as a business and the Gospel as a sellable commodity. There are marketing firms that cater exclusively to churches, offering advertising campaigns, promotional kits, and church growth guarantees. If you believe all they’re selling, all you need to fill the pews and win more people for Jesus is a catchy tag line, a fancy logo, and an interactive website.

Even businesspeople are realizing the business prowess of church marketers. Rich Karlgaard, writing for names the most successful book on business: Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church.

But the whole notion of using a business model to grow the church is contrary to the Gospel. The Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, St. Paul says, is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). How in the world can you sell “foolishness?” You can’t. Well, not without making it seem less foolish.

If you want people to buy your church marketing approach, you’ll have to avoid Jesus’ statements about taking up one’s cross and following Him (St. Luke 9:23-25). And forget even talking about the Christian life being one plagued by suffering, like St Paul says (Romans 5:1-5).

If, on the other hand, we believe that “we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him” (Small Catechism, Apostles’ Creed), if we believe that the message of Christ crucified for sinners is foolishness, if we believe that growth in the church comes only from God (1 Corinthians 3:6-7), then it’s not up to us to worry about “growing” the church. And it’s not up to us to make the outlandish message of a God who loved us so much that He was born with human flesh, lived a human life, and died a criminal’s death more palatable or less foolish.

What is up to the Church is that she remains faithful. The Church exists as the place where God grows Christians. She exists as the place where He distributes the means of Grace. And she exists as a “mouth house” to proclaim the message that causes sign seekers to stumble and wisdom hunters to discover only folly, the message of Christ crucified for you. That’s the Gospel.

When the Church is faithful to be a station where the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered, any growth that happens is entirely God’s gift.

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