Advertising the Gospel: How Church Growth Strategies Compromise the Gospel
Technology and mass media have changed the face of western culture in the last century, bringing with it a bombardment of sounds and images no population before has ever known. As American culture becomes increasingly defined by the marketing industry, Christianity and the fundamentals of the faith are being compromised in order to assimilate and compete with the high-tech propaganda of a secular generation. Many in the non-religious community have a skewed understanding of Christians today, believing that Christianity is an elite, human-focused struggle of morality and the continual perpetuation of living “a good Christian life.” The emphasis of popular Christian culture has increasingly become a more human-focused theology, one that is negatively influencing the way western culture perceives Christianity and the Gospel.
According to James Sundquist, president of Rock-to-Salt Publishing, pop-culture Christian denominations originate from certain doctrines of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) and the Purpose Driven Church (PDC). The teachings of the CGM and the PDC began with missionaries who needed new evangelizing techniques in order to reach more people in foreign countries (feeling that the Gospel message is perhaps outdated with its growth methods) (Koester 108). These techniques soon found their way into many Western churches whose leaders were despondent over inadequate church attendance. The CGM promotes the use of psychology and sociology, as well as other contemporary methods, to increase church attendance, while deviating from any specific theology (Conway, par 2-4). Advertising and marketing are the key doctrines upheld by these churches, who believe that attendance is the only measuring factor of a church’s success. The same growth techniques that strategists apply to government and private business have been integrated for church growth (Kjos par 7). They would say, if the church has huge numbers attending, then they must be doing something right. This flawed measurement is probably the biggest difference between Bible conservatives and CGM churches. The secular strategy of conveying a human-centered message of felt needs is creating false perceptions of true Christianity today.
Dr. Bob Wilken, Executive Director of the Grace Evangelical Society, discusses the problems with the “generic gospel” that is presented in many of the CGM churches he surveyed. His research and supporting evidence concludes that many growth churches are calling for conscious moral change and active “leaps of faith,” rather than simple trust and God-given faith in the message of forgiveness and means towards sanctification. Os Guinness, a church growth critic cited in Dr. Wilken’s essay, writes, “Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency—an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs.” The idea that Christianity’s only function is to instill moral teachings and a plan to live a “Christian life” is distorting the views of non-believers who tend to feel that Christianity is only for the elite few who are able to resist the temptations of the world. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The book of Romans describes the flesh as being weak and sinful, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, no one may boast about his moral living, nobody is pure unless the blood of the Lamb has covered him (Romans 3:27-28). Then one may only boast in what Christ has done for him rather than what one can do for Christ.
Consequently, this young American generation before us sees the advertising of the Gospel as patronizing; the attempt to reach a media driven demographic sociologically creates the illusion that Christianity is simply an equally fun alternative to secular advertisements and media. The truth is that Christ was crucified with the weight of humanity’s sin on his shoulders, and he bore the unimaginable pain and suffering, not so that we may live a good moral life, but so we may be able to have a relationship with God the Father who created us to love Him and to live with Him in heaven (1 Peter 1: 19-21). As Christians, we welcome this gift of grace and allow God to transform us only by His forgiveness.
This is the role of the Christian Church. Robert J. Koester’s book, Law and Gospel: Foundation of Lutheran Ministry, examines the early church’s position in regards to evangelism, stating, “The nature of the gospel forced the [Apostles] to acknowledge that only through the Spirit and only by the grace of God was anyone saved” (126). Although the Apostles realized and accepted that rejection of the Gospel was going to occur for some, the Gospel alone, untainted, was perfect in its message of forgiveness and does not need to be detracted from in an attempt to accommodate those whose hearts are hardened. After all, the Apostle Paul writes to us saying, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them” (1 Corinthians 2:14). No amount of marketing strategies and advertisement ploys aimed at assimilating Christianity into mainstream secularism will ever genuinely convert non-believers. Rarely does one hear someone announce, “Your Christian T-shirt and Christian hardcore music really changed my perspective about Christ’s forgiveness and what he did for me.” For assured Christians, it is nice to have Christian alternatives relative to the culture in some respects. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with clothing trends and musical styles in and of themselves, but none of these material transients can be substitutes for the immortal and solid Gospel message of forgiveness and grace. Christianity must not compromise the Gospel’s outreach by drowning it with bumper sticker doctrine and comic book theology.
Harold L. Senkbeil’s book, Dying to Live: the Power of Forgiveness shows that watering down Christianity to meet the needs of a society consumed with instant gratification will jeopardize the very essence of the Gospel. He writes:
"To all appearances, our world seems increasingly godless. And godlessness must be the problem, we think. If the world could be more religious, we would solve our moral crisis. However, maybe the problem isn’t the godlessness of our age, but rather the gods of our age." (15)
Society’s ill wants and felt needs will not bring people to Christ if the church is attempting to satisfy this alone. All religions attempt to satisfy emotional needs, so instead of allowing God to add to the church daily those who are saved (Acts 2:47), the CGM believes Christianity is in constant competition with these other religions to pitch the best moral framework and technique for emotional appeasement. The difference lies in that Christianity has the true Gospel message of forgiveness; it is very simple and straightforward and does not require sanctification for salvation. There must be a constant focus on the message of forgiveness, believing that Christ died on the cross for our sins so we may rest in God’s gracious pardon. God then gives the peace and security humanity seeks; it cannot be gained by our imperfect efforts, as even trying to obtain pardon on one’s own merit interferes (Koester 227). Church growth members may feel that there are too many restrictions and too many rules to salvation to be possible on their own efforts. This is especially true in churches that focus more on Christian living and moral uprightness to appeal to the masses as opposed to humanity’s sinfulness and need for a forgiving and just savior.
When the topic of faith arises in CGM churches, it is usually in the context of an unfamiliar, risky leap of faith rather than a sound acceptance of the truth through the grace that Christ has bestowed upon us. The Newsboys’ lyrics to a song entitled “Believe” can be perceived as perpetuating this faith insecurity, “I just believe it / and sometimes I don’t know why / I got to go with my gut again on this one / not just a feeling it's the reason / we know a line is crooked because we know what's straight / that little voice inside” (9-17). Here we see inferences to faith as irrational rather than a confident belief in the trustworthiness of the gospel, and also, an unscriptural belief in universal moral truth apart from scriptural law. The wrong approach to faith can be misleading to those outside the body of Christ, and despite many of the Newsboys’ other scripturally sound worship songs, lyrics such as these can be taken out of context and be made out to be commenting on a perceived blind faith in Christ.
The CGM in its growth techniques implies that the Gospel in and of itself is insufficient in dealing with the ever-changing cultures of history. By employing the social sciences in hopes of unnaturally “building a contagious church” (Willow Creek) through marketing techniques and cultural assimilation, many in the secular community who are interested in religion are developing false views regarding the role of the Gospel and the sinfulness of humanity. Increased social gatherings and beach events are not the remedy for a new believer who is struggling with the temptations of the flesh. It is not the role of the Church to cater to the superficial needs of a transient society while downplaying the true message of the Gospel. When sanctification obscures the liberating fact that Christ is our only salvation, the simple and elegant message of the Gospel becomes tainted with humanity’s desire to be in control of his own destiny; meanwhile, the secular observers stand in awe at the fundamental conflicts that arise in such an arbitrary and hypocritical system.
Conway, Susan. “Roots of the CGM”. Crossroad. 2004.
Kjos Berit. “Spirit-Led or Purpose Driven.” Crossroad. Nov 2003.
Koester, Robert J. Law and Gospel: Foundation of Lutheran Ministry. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993.
Newsboys. “Believe” Shine. Sparrow/Emd, Oct 24, 2000.
Senkbeil, Harold L. Dying to Live: the Power of Forgivness. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1994.
Sundquist, James. “The CGM vs. the Bible.” Christian Unplugged. Chris Carmichael, 2004.
Wilkin, Bob. “The Subtle Dangers of Compromising the Gospel in Order to Build Bigger Churches.” Theological Research Exchange Network, 1996.
Willow Creek Association. “How to Build a More Contagious Church.” Barington, IL: WCA, 2004.
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