“At the end of the hospital service, we can pass out a brochure about the church.” I will never forget that moment. It was one of my first ministry jobs, and after discussing offering a worship service for people whose loved ones were in the local hospital, the conversation turned to marketing.
I will never forget it because it was the first time my skepticism was let out of its box in a church meeting. I was obviously shocked or irritated or some combination of both because someone asked me what I was thinking. With as much calm as I could muster, I said, “Don’t you think people would be offended if we tried to push our church services on them in such a difficult moment?”
My irritation was matched only by their bafflement about my comment. I had come in a little late to the meeting as college students do from time to time, and had missed the beginning of the discussion. They informed me that they were discussing ideas for how to get more people to attend the church, and had already talked about bumper stickers, a chili cook off, and now were zeroing in on an opportunity that had just come available because the rival church in town had stopped providing Sunday services at the hospital.
I totally understand how getting a really solid bowl of chili would make someone want to come to Jesus and what person hasn’t followed someone with a bumper sticker that said “Follow me to _____.” But something felt wrong about using ministry to hurting people as a marketing tool.
The reason it’s wrong is that it betrays the core purpose of worship — healing, and restoration. Worship is an opportunity which seeks to connect people with the power of the living God in order to place their souls and lives back in order. These are intimate, delicate things. They are tender moments of privilege in which God allows his people to be the conduits through which his grace is communicated. THAT is how they are to be used.
Co-opting spiritual things to make yourself or your organization look good is nothing new. In fact Jesus felt it important to give some specific instruction on that. When talking about giving to the needy, praying and fasting, he repeated phrases like, “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4b)
I can’t tell you how many people I have known over the years who have been disgusted by Christians who use devastating times or holy moments to advertise. Which brings us to the point I’ve been circling for this entire time: Apple iPod advertisements.
Apple had an incredibly successful and famous advertising campaign several years ago that featured silhouettes dancing on video or billboard. There was no talk of features, no litany of why they were better than everyone else. It was just music, a silhouette and the gleaming white iPod and earbuds in the silhouette’s hand.
They had so much confidence in their product that they said nothing. They showed the product and left you to come try it out yourself. They didn’t even tell you where it was available for sale.
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
The most disappointing thing about the hospital idea was that serving those people anonymously, caring for their souls and wiping their tears was great advertisement. It was great because it was lifting Jesus up.
Maybe those people would come to church next Sunday, but if not maybe they would come to Jesus knowing that in their time of need he sent someone to be there.