Religion, Not-for-Profits, and those “endlessly-advertising Christians”

This week I thought a bit about social media, particularly for generation X & Y. Obviously, many of our interactions changed by moving online – but now, our online lives also affect our offline lives. For example, I’ve recently experienced awkwardness at what was once a very normal face-to-face question, “So! How have you been?”

It’s more difficult to answer when we regularly publicize personal information. To repeat a list of top recent statuses may result in a frustrated “oh. yeah, yeah, I know! What else is happening?” But, asking “umm… have you read my updates recently?” could be taken as an act of arrogance, and even set off a “Oh! I’m not into social media [rant]”. One small example of how real life interactions are changing.

It’s not only personal, but also group interactions. We’re now more likely to read the same media sources our friends read — especially when they actively share them on our timeline or tag us in a post. But conversely, I don’t know if you’ve also recently wondered “where do they get that from?” after stumbling into a conversing group from another industry, or the opposite political persuasion. Yet, everyone else is nodding along with the conversation.

Because I’m a student of Christianity (and its culture), I’m interested in the impact changes are having upon our faith commitment, and the reverse – how religious groups shape our world(s) through new media. I’m especially interested in how globalization affects the world’s margins, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Today, I read an article that discussed social media use for high profile Christians. It describes what I call “preach-tweets”. You know, a statement intended for instruction or teaching. Christians commonly receive this type of communication in a sermon. I actually don’t mind a strong “preach-tweet” from my pastors, or the theologians I follow.

But I find unsolicited “preach-tweets” hard to take. Perhaps because I don’t actually want, nor can I take advice from everyone.

The thing is, Sunday sermons once were relatively closed communication, meaning that the audience was mostly members and a few observers (often called “soon-to-be members”). It’s now the total opposite, we are broadcasting our sermons online and on YouTube to people who are not Christian (or at the very least, not attendees of our congregation).

However in the new world, the playing field is level – everyone is equal as a content creator. So there’s no easily discernible difference between a seasoned, seminary-trained pastor and an ordinary, enthusiastic lay Christian “preach-tweeting”. My atheist friends can’t even see the difference between a Westboro Baptist Church member and Miroslav Volf. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Discussion of media use for religious groups is a boom area for the academy. This is probably fueled by the fact that the Christian message has been conveyed incredibly successfully over two thousand years, with relative little attention paid to the “marketing techniques” of Christians.

You see, Christians long used mass-media to get the message of Jesus out to the world.

Apparently the mailing list kept by the leaders of the Asuza Street revival at the turn of the century is perhaps why many credit this site as the birth of Pentecostalism, despite many similar global movements. Just up the road in Pasadena, Charles E. Fuller was a simple orange farmer who pioneered an evangelistic radio show in 1937 – his name is now associated with the world’s largest evangelical seminary. Aimee Semple-McPherson broadcasted the Christian message from the 1920s through to the second world war with tours and publicity stunts. Billy Graham’s mass evangelism campaigns were unprecedented in size, and often televised. Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts… The ethos of these Christian greats continues into the late modern (or post-modern) era.

But I wonder whether a serious change in media platforms requires Christian leaders to now make serious shifts in how they communicate. Not just that, but push themselves beyond simple participation towards adopting, or forming strategies that convey their values.

I’ll explain..  in my four-year MPhil thesis undertaken at the Australian Catholic University, I outlined some marketing strategies of Australian church Hillsong as they grew exponentially between 1996-2006. The music was evangelistic, but with a twist – it was explicitly made for corporate use, in Christian communities. There is no doubt that excellent marketing of this music contributed to its success.

But most contributors I interviewed admitted they never expected the kind of success they achieved. All the people I spoke with would concede is that they consciously tried to evolve an inevitable need for publicizing their music releases (they use the word resource) into something that felt more authentic in the public space. For example, they wanted to value the key contributors but also challenge North American individualistic celebritization. They didn’t want young families to have worship leader parents on the road for forty weeks of the year, and so they slowly de-emphasized tours. They started a conference in their home town. Incredibly, Hillsong’s “marketing strategies” now are the model for the Australian church.

To me, it’s clear that if your church is creating music CDs with the intention of becoming “the next Hillsong”, you’re not only the gambling type, but probably ignorant as to what that even means.

How should we strategize, as people professing faith? Should Christian people (or leaders of churches) market their teaching or music? For example, should I promote my own CD? And if so, what are the right motives for marketing it? How widely should I push it? And which avenues should I use? Biblically, and ethically, it can be very unclear.

After writing my thesis, I met a scholar (genius) friend Tom Wagner, based in London. He had a deeper grounding in communications and marketing. We talked a lot about this, and agreed that Hillsong had strategically moved from marketing to branding, which also allowed it more authenticity regarding its message. As it moved from iconic-celebrity-heads CD covers towards a name, a logo, and cover art that vaguely depicted a community, most consumers became aware that Hillsong was not Darlene Zschech’s band, but a group of Christian believers, i.e. a church. We wrote an article on this, published in The Australian Journal of Communication.

However, the question about ‘best Christian practice’ still niggles at me. Of course, it also plays into the globalization of religions. On one hand, many would like Christians to abide by a ‘no proselytizing’ rule. This is the type of rule seen in France, and apparently one third of the world’s countries. The idea is, any communication directly intended for conversion shouldn’t be broadcast into the public space (usually because the public space is seen as an extension of a person’s personal space)

This is kind of what I want to say to the men wearing chicken costumes that ask me for donations “for the environment” when I’m on my way to the car with my hands full of groceries.

On the other side of the spectrum we have die-hard telly evangelists that want to take over every radio and television channel at once to present their summary of the gospel message – because people die daily without an opportunity to receive Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. They would maybe follow a media shut down with a black screen and scrolling sinners’ prayer. Well… that’s seen as propaganda by most media people I know. It’s one thing to promote the name of Jesus briefly in Times Square, or put a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but it’s another to have this type of communication as an aspiration. For the record, I don’t know any Christian in Australia that seriously believes they have the power to make this happen. So despite all joking, it’s not a serious position.

A personal clue I’ve clung to that helped me navigate this over the years was a small comment in the margins of my MPhil thesis, written by Australian Catholic liturgist Gerard Moore. While he noted that I had successfully charted the development of Hillsong’s marketing, he wanted to know how this information connected to the spirituality of the organization. He seemed frustrated that I had spent all my time outlining a mode of communication with basic content (entry to the community), but never really getting into the feedback loop regarding Hillsong’s implicit model of a human, or evaluating the effect its music has had in forming its ideal Christian character.

You see, the problem with Christian scholars viewing the “marketing practices” of a church through a secular communication lens is that it doesn’t answer the question “what does this church/congregation/organization believe a Christian to be?”

Being or becoming Christian is a theological inquiry – but we can ask the question more precisely, “How does this [Christian person/organization/NGO]  form its people to be Christian?”

… that is a liturgical question. And one I can’t answer here in this blogpost, so I won’t even try.

Recently I’ve connected with more theologians and pastors on my facebook page, and followed them on twitter. I’ve watched as they engage public conversations. My continued interest is in the religious values that drive Christian desire to communicate their faith with other people, and evaluating whether or not the methods they choose are conducive to

a) communicating the content they desire, and

b) forming themselves and other Christians in line with the values they hold.

While the medium is the message, according to Marshall McLuhan, neither mediums nor messages are the whole picture.

I think there are a number of theologically defensible reasons as to why Christians (particularly preachers and theologians) advertise Christianity as a product. And why they appear as corporations. Some seminaries and churches loudly communicate these reasons as the key identity markers of Christianity. The most obvious is that all media produced by or that publicizes Christianity is (by extension) spreading the core Christian message of Jesus, i.e. is an act of ‘evangelism’. Presumably this is the core motivation that causes a pastor to start a television ministry, or print tracts, believing this act to be essential to their Christian faith.

The question is, is this type of “preach-tweet” catching millenials?

All millennials now understand that with social media platforms, it’s easy to advertise a religious community’s events and products to its members. Email is a great example… Free! Facebook groups… Free! Even group smses are low cost. In regards to local evangelism, you can run off pamphlets and the Post Office will deliver them for you. All of these mediums have their drawbacks. But, by far the greatest costs incurred are in extending the message beyond your existing community to a city-wide, national or even global stage.

Today I scrolled down my facebook and twitter feeds – and found status after status advertising church events. Books. CDs. Teaching series in corporate-looking video links.

Do we really think that one-way blasts about our products satisfy the deeply-held Christian imperative of evangelism?

And this also made me ask my liturgical question: how is this use of media forming us?

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) show that Jesus had a group of small disciples with whom he spent most of his time. Most of his energy was spent in two-way communication, with a much smaller portion on mass-media type “preaching”. He didn’t seem to market himself much at all. You can imagine disciples yelling out during the beatitudes, “Mmmhmmm… that’ll tweet!” … but most of their personal development was in the context of his accessibility to them for dialogue.  This sets up a biblical value of discipleship. There’s no manual given for this in scripture, but it’s clear that conversation was an incredibly important teaching tool for Jesus.

For me, this begs the question, are we Christians placing enough importance, time and effort on two-way communication? Or are we just blasting at our friends, workmate and neighbours?

Because maybe that’s one key difference between the type of communication seen in a corporation, and that seen in the Bible …??

How do you navigate these tensions in social media?

4 thoughts on “Religion, Not-for-Profits, and those “endlessly-advertising Christians”

  1. I think one way conversations leaves a lot of room for assumptions and misinterpretation. I personally try to not post all the Bible verses and all that stuff because social media is so saturated with it and it seems now that it’s the clichéd Christian thing to do. I’ll only ever post a verse or vid if it’s really weighing on my heart. But for me personally, I much prefer the two-way dialogue. I think it opens up something more meaningful and causes you to think and respond, rather than read and scroll on.

    Because honestly, I’ll read all the wonderful quotes and scriptures and then just scroll on by.

    I’m saddened at the fact that with Christians, it’s more about selling their products rather than pushing the gospel. Now I understand as a musician and stuff, you have live, especially if you do it full-time and this is your income, but not to the point where you annoy people with it. I’ve blocked my wall on facebook because at one time it seemed as though it was everybody’s advertising board.

    Promote your product, go for it, but understand, the same way you are doing it, there are about 100 other people doing the same, so it’s annoying after a while. As far as televangelists go, well let’s just say I’ve stopped watching TBN and cable in the mornings hahaha. A 30 minute program now consists of 20 minutes of product advertising, 8 minutes of sermon and a “sinner’s prayer” at the end. No thank you!

    As far as churches being taxed, I understand your friend’s point, but at the same time, while there may be a congregation coming regularly and bringing their offering and tithes, it’s not really an income for the church per say because it’s not a payment for a service that was offered, unlike a business. So while the church might be running like a business, it’s not. If for some reason, something happens and 98% of the regular attendees stop coming, how do they pay the bills and all that? It’s not as easy as a business where you can come up with a new marketing plan or change locations to get more people coming in. So while I do understand the point of having a tax after a budget cap, at the end of the day it really isn’t a business, though it uses a business model. And to be honest, how many other churches actually have big marketing budgets?

  2. It’s hard to find well-informed people in this particular subject, however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about!
    Thanks

  3. I love this so much. Thanks for writing this.

    I wrote my MA thesis on a theologically consistent approach to ‘excellent’ Christian communication, I reckon McLuhan is brilliant. Have you seen this quote, from McLuhan:

    “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”

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