Read the First Four Parts! And Here is Part 4! And Five!
To understand the Blizzard Example really comes down to a matter of effective branding. The company put itself in an effective position, promotes itself in a specific way, and then uses its marketing efforts to convince people to spend money. The essential elements and ideas of their products and services are, for all intents and purposes, very clear – a video game company that loves the people who play their games. The marketing just communicates that message as effectively as possible, and lends into their status as a major company in the video game scene.
And you might say that’s manipulative or underhanded, but I disagree. Businesses attempt to create customer value, or at least perceived value. They brand themselves in a way that communicates that value, not by psychological manipulation (that’s pretty difficult to do!) but just via clear, precise messaging. That is, the customer’s evaluation of the difference between all the benefits and costs of a marketing offer relative to those of competing offers will eventually decide what they buy. The assumption does not rest in taking your money by force – rather, they want to create something of value, hope you think it’s valuable, and then encourage you to purchase something or just simply use it/support it.
You might think this exclusive to shady business practices, but your local church or various ministry organizations advertise just as much as anybody else. Not-for-profit organizations use their donations to advertise heavily; St. Jude’s hospital spends millions on traditional avenues, celebrity endorsements, and otherwise to receive enough donations to treat kids with life-threatening illnesses for completely free. The government, even, uses money to advertise various services, from the United States Postal Service to public service announcements about the environment; they spend nearly 1.1 billion dollars a year in such avenues. All of them target certain markets that will become more likely to donate to charity, and their efforts are working; in 2013, 95.4% of all United States households gave away money, something to the tune of 350 billion dollars. I would say, quite definitely, that this does not represent a small number! That is more than any other country in the world. People give of their own volition, but marketing does make for a tiny push!
Churches do the same thing. If you doubt that churches have, in some sense, a marketing budget, you’re fooling yourself to some degree. Some person set up that ice cream social, or that Night of Worship, or figured out how to evangelize to the local community in stores and whatnot. That stuff takes money and time, and marketing by any other name doesn’t magically turn into something else. Modern evangelism in American often involves speaking the language of the people, and the free enterprise system lets Christians use those same channels to communicate our messages, to fulfill what we believe is the basic human need and want for true satisfaction in life…not just in this one (haha, I couldn’t resist!). By doing this, people who convert end up “fired up” for the Lord, and end up evangelizing their faith to all and sundry. And that’s the exact same thing that happens with normal business: people become brand evangelizing, seeking to share their love of a product/service with everybody they know.
Churches that grow quite large are, quite simply, better at branding than their colleagues. I would not say there’s an inherent right or wrong answer to how churches should brand themselves to the greater culture at large. My only concern would turn to “dumbing down” the Gospel for a wide audience (and, really, I would call it very simple in and of itself if John 3:16 tells us anything). Otherwise, you would have great difficulty undermining the effectiveness of these methods; the differences remains in what kinds of beliefs you want to foster, rather than any sin with the method itself. Even the less evangelically focused churches appeal to one targeted demographic or another, from the left-leaning mainline Protestant churches when they accept homosexual marriage to the social justice advocates who spread Jesus’ message of nonviolence and care for the earth. They all sing the same song, just with a different verse, and all end up at the same goal really (barring the occasional intra-church disagreements).
So, would you consider these methods underhanded or manipulative? The semantics behind the actual methodology does not actually change anything. The sincerity of such efforts does not give them a new and special character, either; this is simply the way things have worked for a while. There’s both an emotional and objective level to ministry. On the one hand, you must give up to God what resources you do have, and pray that he will make them work in following His will. On the other hand, you must make practical considerations for promotion, advertising, church events, and whatnot.
Logistics and money (yes, money) come into play, along with dealing with tax-exempt filing, not going beyond your means (unless God tells you to do so, and boy is that ever hard), and various other unpredictable factors can turn running a church into a full time job…which it is, for some people! Bigger congregations demand bigger solutions, and the various day-to-day problems must be analyzed purely on a business level to some degree. Can we sustain this growth? How can we expand into further avenues? Should our pastor write a book, or join a political debate, or join a promotion for some controversial organization? Surely God comes into this decision making process, but churches, from my experience, carefully craft a certain kind of image – whether to be “hip” or “Bible-believing” or whatever – to communicate the core values of their community. We just hope the end goal remains God’s, and not money.
That, I think, will cause stumbling more than any other issue. The possibility of danger and sin, along with the possible crater-like impact it creates on so many people, seems more the cause of Christian objections to the accumulation of wealth via business means. And we will get into the theology proper next time…