The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
April 6, 2014
Easter is not your marketing tool
They were waiting for me at the intersection one morning on my drive to work. The semi-annual signs sponsored by two competing churches in the area. One announced a community “Resurrection Egg Hunt” and the other “Breakfast with the Easter Bunny.”
At Christmas, the signs advertise “Breakfast with Santa” or a chance to “get the best Christmas present ever!” or an event more cryptically called, “Follow the Star.”
I know what these are all about. They are part of the legacy of the church growth movement. And they are bait and switch tactics.
The church growth movement started in the mid-1960s but started to hit its stride 30 years later. This evangelistic movement stressed the use of quantitative research and techniques based on its results that aimed at getting people who otherwise might not attend church to do so… and hopefully to then be saved.
Churches influenced by this movement (and those planted as a result of it) stressed adding programs like preschools, daycares, marriage workshops, high-energy youth groups, sports leagues, and above all, contemporary worship with live bands, audio-visual effects and preaching on “felt needs.” Some churches also developed mission activities to draw people to participate and/or emphasized “relationship evangelism” whereby church members would consciously drop God into conversations with existing friends and cultivate new friendships for the express purpose of eventually drawing people into the church and the faith.
Let me pause here for a moment to let this sink in.
Chances are that unless you belong to an Eastern Orthodox church, your church home has been influenced at least somewhat by this movement. It’s the most obvious among evangelical Christians, but it’s also been a factor in mainline denominations. Although truth be told, mainliners are pretty clumsy and bad at it. Even the Roman Catholic Church has contemporary Mass, and it was probably ahead of the game with its parochial school system, CYO leagues, etc.
Probably a lot of the things you like about your church can be traced to this movement.
I’d argue that the church growth movement has taken over the perception of what church is like in this country. Its effects have been so pervasive that today when most people think about church, what comes to mind are these characteristics. When people are looking for a new church, you will often hear their checklist: “great” worship, “awesome” children’s and youth ministries, and a wide variety of groups available for people “like them.”
Which brings me back to the signs I drove past. One of the tenets of the church growth movement is to use the times when many people would naturally want to go to church—Christmas and Easter—to market your church. So, this is when you’d put an ad about worship times in the local paper. You’d want to have a nice pageant or special musical program and a good Christmas or Easter sermon, extra people greeting folks at the front doors, and so on.
All of this was done, and sometimes it did tug on the heartstrings of the “C&E-ers” (people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter) and visitors checking out church.
But as time went by, there were fewer and fewer C&E-ers. And for a variety of reasons, people were less inclined to think highly of the church or believe they needed church.
So the church growth movement adjusted. Now, all kinds of tactics began to be employed to get people in the door. Churches started holding special Christmas and Easter events and services, showing movies, producing plays, coming up with children’s activities that had one foot in the culture and one foot in church. Sometimes the religious content of these events was explicitly stated. But more often, it was just deceptively hinted at. Breakfast with Santa. Or the Easter Bunny. Come to “movie night.” Egg Hunt! Summer “backyard clubs.”
And once they were in the door, the church feared it had only one shot at them. So every event became time for a presentation of humanity’s sinfulness and God’s solution, in blunt terms. Always an altar call moment. Hit them while you can.
The worst I have seen is churches that roll back the clock and change Easter into Good Friday. It seems to be a fairly common thing these days to present the blunt gospel of sin and the need for a savior, the suffering of Christ and the cross, right there on Easter morning. This seems to have exploded as a tactic the year The Passion of the Christ came out, and to not have abated since then. Clips from the movie are often shown. To not actually talk about the Resurrection, but to deliver “Jesus died for YOUR sins and hung on the cross for YOU”—with no epilogue—and go straight to the altar call.
Why do we always do that, churches? Are we Easter people or are we Good Friday people?
We need to return to presenting Christmas and Easter for what they are, with distinct messages of their own. At Christmas, for example: God cares about the world and its people enough to come into it himself. And at Easter: You can’t keep God down; God’s power will break through death; Christ’s resurrection gives us hope for our own resurrection.
I believe we need to see the whole of Jesus preached in our churches. Not a Jesus whose sole purpose was to hang on the cross. We need to be told about a Jesus who taught, preached, exposed deceit and lies and corruption. A Jesus who exhorted people to his principles of simple living, who did good, who healed, who cared. Who by example and challenge showed us how to care for each other, to love our enemies. The Jesus who rose from the dead to give hope beyond death to us all.
Jesus is more than a dead guy on the cross. The Christian life is more than constantly feeling guilt and remorse. Church life and church activities—even and especially when they are directed towards those who are not yet believers—need to be about more than that too.
Bait and switch activities may have worked for a little while. But people are not stupid. They know when something’s amiss. God doesn’t need us to lie about our intentions to get people’s attention. He doesn’t need us to go for the hard sell. He would like his person and his whole message to be accurately represented, though. And not only what we say at evangelistic events, but also by who we and our churches are those other 363 days of the year.
Bait-and-switch is not the way to encourage people to believe in Christ.