Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Another good one from On Religion by Terry Mattingly

...here is the church-growth gospel according to Bailes: If churches want to reach millions of independent-minded young Americans they should learn a thing or two from craft brewers. Yes, he thinks this is true for Baptists who don’t drink beer, as well as the many Baptists who — reality alert — down a few cold ones now and then. It’s time, he said, for “craft churches” that reach niche audiences.

Terry Mattingly is one of the most thoughtful writers on the religion beat.  He never fails to deliver something worthy of your reading -- even when you disagree with his premise.  Here he has plucked an idea from a Wake Forest grad who thinks that the era of the growth of the mega-beers has peaked and that this may be saying something to those still on the mega-church bandwagon.  He offers the alternative of a niche marketing strategy in which the appeal is to specific tastes and not the broad, generic, uniformity known as the typical megacongregation.

From a marketing standpoint, the kid has a point.  We are finding a world saturated by look alikes.  Wal-Marts come in various flavors but all seem to stem from the same idea of trying to be all things to all people.  In the end this is not possible so they shoot for the broad middle.  Bailes thinks that there is something to be learned from the niche marketing of the small or craft beer brewers whose wares of more distinctive tastes and whose appeal is to a small section of the overall market.

I have long said that if you ditch the theology of it all, there is no marketing strategy to LCMS congregations trying to look like and act like and sound like the average mega church or mega wannabe church in their community.  In my own city, we have a half a dozen or so large congregations who have bought into the mega model.  They have the gamut from huge self-contained facilities to warehouse style worship centers to multi-site locations.  But what happens on Sunday morning looks very similiar in these very different congregations.  They are followed by a big tier of smaller congregations who have bought into the same marketing strategy and who try to be like the big boys as a means to becoming a big boy.  They, too, have tried to find a charismatic leader and to craft a worship service which is less like worship than it is a good entertainment venue.  What value would their be to Lutherans trying to emulate on a small scale what is already saturating the market?  How could we do on a much smaller budget what they are doing with big techology, big band, and big personality?  From a pure marketing strategy, it is foolish to be one more version of McChurch in a market already suffering from too many McChurches.

As true as that argument is, the premise is flawed.  It is not about marketing strategy.  When it becomes about marketing strategy, then it ceases to be the Church.  We are not in this for the money, the fame, or for market dominance.  We are not the Church because we want to be.  We are the Church because Christ has made us the Church.  He has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified His people to be His body, the Church, in the world.  The mission is not ours.  The mission is His.  He does not give us a sales target and then set us from to figure out how to achieve the goal.  He has given us the means of grace.  He has promised that where the cross is preached, He is there.  He has pledged to make His Word accomplish His purpose so that it never fails to return to Him that for which He has sent it.  We are there to be the voices that speak this Word to the world.  We speak not to achieve something but because faithfulness compels us to speak the Word of God that has called us from the darkness of sin and its death into the marvelous light of forgiveness and everlasting life. 

We preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ.  In season and out of season -- meaning God already knows that it is a message that will not always "sell."  As long as we are speaking this Word faithfully, it will be fruitful for His purpose.  If it is not fruitful, it may be that we are not being faithful.  If that is the case, we need to repent of our failure and amend our sinful ways by the aid of the Spirit.  If it is being unfruitful (at least to our eyes), it may be that this Word is unwelcome and rejected (as the prophets were unwelcome and rejected in the past).  We cannot afford to substitute a marketing strategy for the real witness of speaking faithfully the Word of the Cross, from preaching the Law in its full force and the Gospel in its richest sweetness.

A good marketing case can be made that far from shrinking from our Lutheran distinctiveness, we should be focusing upon that distinctiveness.  A good marketing cause could be made -- but marketing strategies are not the domain of the Church.  We do what we are called in Christ to do whether it is good marketing strategy or not.  Once we surrender the theology to the business model of success, we forsake our very purpose.

Terry has given us a lot to think about.  Perhaps it can reassure our Lutheran uncertainty about being Lutheran in modern day world but even when this marketing scheme matches where faithfulness leads us, we should never surrender one strategy for another.  Niche marketing may be the wave of the future but faithfulness to the Gospel is the way of eternity.  When we as the Church are faithful in preaching, teaching, administering the Sacraments, etc., God's Church will grow -- even if, as Pf. Kurt Marquart used to say, it must get smaller before it gets bigger!

1 comment:

Gnesio Hamartolos said...

As to what you wrote about church size, amen. The only thing left to say to those who worry about size is stop worrying. Remember the Concordia Theological Seminary motto, in English, “preach the Word.” So long as Christ’s doctrine is preached in the liturgy that Christ’s apostles and patriarchs established, let Christ, the Lord of the Church, worry about those things.

The term Lutheran "distinction" or "distinctiveness" is starting to worry me. Let me be the first to admit that before Lutheran distinction became popular I was jumping on that dime. It is not because I am smart as much as that I came from so far outside Lutheranism that I saw divine wisdom to which those born in Lutheranism are blind. However, the distinction should be a secondary topic. As you so correctly put it, Christ's message by Christ's means. When these are compared to what is being touted by "them other guys," we find areas of difference. Those differences are the Lutheran distinction. Except that they aren't Lutheran: they are Christ's that are Lutheran only because we alone are proclaiming it. This is a point at which the sub-text under everything we say about Lutheran distinction should be “soli Deo gloria.”