Marketing the Church

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It has often been observed that Sunday morning between 11 a.m. and noon is the most segregated hour in America. While there are some hopeful signs that race may not play as great a role in defining the body of Christ in the future, covenant families are increasingly broken up according to the demographic niches that have been created and enforced by a culture of marketing.

Jesus and Paul spoke of the kingdom of God as “the age to come” breaking in on us even now, in these last days of “the present age.” Christ had accomplished our redemption, and the Spirit was poured out. This is the big news! The world trains us, however, to think in terms of its own headlines, regardless of how the passing fashions come and go. Daily exposed to the relentless bombardment of advertising that would define us and our children, we enter the Lord’s Day as the “today” of salvation into which God creates His own cast for the real drama of the ages. On this day, the Lord of the covenant publicly placards Christ before us. It’s a campaign that is not manipulative, nor is it one that leaves us with one more “make-over”; it’s nothing less than the crucifixion of the self and its resurrection in Christ unto new life. 

That’s why the current fascination with church-planting and home missions based on niche demographics (that is, dividing the market up into age, race, gender, socio-economic strata, politics, etc.) is such a problem. The church becomes a collection of consumers or tourists rather than a communion of saints and pilgrims. However, it’s not our choices, but God’s, that create this new society. 

The older denominational divisions are tragic enough, but at least many of these were due to different interpretations of biblical teaching. Today, in the same denomination, even in the same local church, there are new divisions that are not only tolerated but encouraged by the leadership. Where the only division that we find in Scripture is “in Adam” or “in Christ,” our churches are increasingly divided by consumer loyalties — which means that they can no longer be united by the public ministry of Word and sacrament. This means that where the whole church learned God’s Word together, it is possible for the different segments to meet only in passing on their way to their specially-formatted events. Where the older men and women used to teach the younger (as Paul enjoined Timothy), now the likelihood of the youth learning the catechism of their parents and grandparents is diminished. 

Evangelical pollster George Barna, in fact, has introduced an even newer demographic: the “Revolutionaries,” the “millions of believers” who “have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead” (Revolution, Tyndale House, back cover). According to Barna, these millions of “believers” are opting out of organized churches altogether — a trend that he celebrates. Intimate worship, says Barna, does “not require a ‘worship service,’” just a personal commitment to the Bible, prayer, and discipleship (Barna, p. 22).

Where the common worship prescribed in Acts 2 focuses on God’s work of giving gifts to His people, creating a body for His Son, centering on the means of grace (preaching and sacrament), Barna says that the main thing in the Christian life is what we do as individuals for God. “What matters is not whom you associate with (that is, a local church), but who you are,” says Barna (p. 29). “Scripture teaches us that devoting your life to loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul is what honors Him. Being part of a local church may facilitate that. Or it might not” (p. 37).

What is called for in these, as in any other time, is a church that is a genuine covenantal community defined by the Gospel, rather than a service-provider defined by laws of the market. For this, we need nothing less than a new creation, where the only demographic that matters is “in Christ.” In Christ we embrace both, in a communion of saints. We are not baptized into a sect of secular sociology and marketing, so shouldn’t our hearing and fellowship be governed by our being in Christ? When the Word creates community, the result is a church and not a lobby, special interest group, or market niche.

Here and there even now the triune God is creating a place of grace out of the abstract space that is defined by sin, futility, and death. In the public confession of sin and absolution, in the prayers, singing, and hearing of the Word, at the font and table, we not only recall that the most decisive niche is “in Christ,” we actually become located there, together with everyone else who may not share our life experiences, cultural preferences, or political views. In a covenantal perspective, where “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39), there can be no niche markets. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90:1; see also Pss. 100:5; 102:12). Under the sun — that is, from the perspective of this fading age, “A generation goes, and a generation comes,” and “all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:4), but in the Son, each generation of the covenant community belongs to the Lord, transcending itself by participation in the catholic body of Christ, whose “kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Dan. 4:34).  

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