Like the French, we Americans live in, to borrow from Claude Polin, a “me-first” society. Each and every man is the measure of all things, his own arbiter of that which is beautiful, true, and of good report. Reared on the Disney principle (You can be whatever you want to be, or, Be true to yourself, or Listen to your heart—all variations on a me-first theme), we approach “culture” like a hungry shopper. And the customer is always right.
So it goes with religion. Only in America could the term church shopping be coined. What church do you go to? Oh, we’re church shopping right now. True, the amoeba-like sectarianism of American Protestantism makes the ground more fertile (If you don’t like your church, start a new one!), but this phenomenon is hardly confined to Protestantism. Idealists of all backgrounds shop till they find the perfect church—the right blend of preaching (self-help, hellfire), worship (your musical taste), and multigenerational ministry (childcare, youth ministry, Golden Agers’ Prayer Breakfast).
And we advertise: Looking for an unashamedly fundamental, King James, mission-minded church? Visit us this Sunday at . . . Or: Tired of worship that doesn’t speak to your heart? You’ll love our contemporary service! Or: Tired of video monitors and praise bands? You’ll love our traditional service!
Weary church shoppers more familiar with today’s market hunt for the best value for their dollar. If you find a service with (insert your genre preference) music, you may be willing to settle for a church with less-than-stellar Kiddie Kare or Children’s Church. Or, if a “vibrant youth ministry” for your awakening Britney or Fiona or Avril is what you have in mind, you might settle for an average praise band. The market is always changing, however, as are customer needs, and any church that sits on its hands in the “culture” department (or doesn’t realize that “lost people matter to God,” as church-growth guru Bill Hybels puts it) may lose valuable members to another ministry.
When, as a teenager, I interviewed at a very cool “men’s” clothing chain at the mall, the manager, gauging my aptitude for selling skinny ties and rayon suits, asked me, “When you walk by a store, what’s the first thing you see?” I stammered out the answer, “What’s . . . in the front?” “Yes!” he replied, as if I had just hit on the Greatest Marketing Principle Ever. “We put the latest, hottest things right in the front [genius]—at the lowest possible price—but then, you know what? We upsell! You must have the socks that go with that! Do you have a bolo tie? Our jeans are two-for-twenty-five this week, by the way!”
Get them in the door—that’s the marketing strategy aimed at today’s church shopper. Then, you upsell him with a deeper commitment: life, salvation, forgiveness—something more expensive. If you try hard enough, you can steal that shopper from his regular store, and you’ve got yourself a repeat customer.
Today, denominations are often viewed as brand names, known by what is displayed in the front window. Catholic (increasingly associated with pedophile priests, thanks to the media) means “stand up, sit down, go up front, take communion” and is often associated with the “monotony” of reading “rote” prayers (not from the heart). Baptist invites Yankees to speak in a “Southern accent” and make fun of “Pastor Billy Bob” who thinks you’ll go to “hey-yull” if you drink a beer. And Lutherans are largely known by Garrison Keillor’s Woebegonians—frumpy, melancholy, unfriendly, and acutely interested in gossip and two-cheese (both American) potato casserole.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is trying to change that image, though, through a fantastic marketing/missions campaign. President Gerald (“Jerry”) R. Kieschnick’s Ablaze!™ (speaking of “hey-yull”) program, launched in 2004, is an effort to stem the tide of declining membership in the conservative church body by “changing its culture.”
Ablaze!™—the vision of igniting a worldwide Lutheran mission movement to share the Gospel with 100 million people, including 50 million in the United States. It is a movement because it could change the culture of our church. How? By fully engaging every member in reaching the unchurched or uncommitted through the Seven Mission Responses: Go, Pray, Learn, Give, Tell, Send, and Celebrate. God wants all people to be saved and He has called His children to participate in the task!
To reach those 50 million Americans, the LCMS has provided her Ablaze!™ congregations with “Friendship Ablaze! Tools for Connecting Friends With Jesus,” which amounts to an entire marketing campaign, complete with advertising materials, lite-rock music, and video for four weeks’ worth of services. The first three weeks are designed to prepare the faithful to get their friends in the door on the fourth “Friendship Sunday.” And there are sermon resources (the full text, a mere outline, a PowerPoint presentation—you decide), including the Friendship Sunday sermon, “You Can Pick Your Friends . . . ” When I saw that title, I just had to look, and, yes, it is a reference to the middle-school proverb, “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” Under “Assimilation Resources,” we learn how to “prevent back-door losses” and to “keep the front door open”—which includes “establishing a minimum of seven new friends within the first six months.
As of this writing, the Ablaze!™ count is up to 1,652,885 “people [worldwide] with whom the Gospel has been shared and reported.” (There’s a ticker online.) Only time will tell if the “assimilation process” has been successful, though, as church shoppers can be unpredictable. By treating souls as customers, we might just be reinforcing the me-first mentality to which they are accustomed, and they might be tempted to look elsewhere for a better product—unless we keep “changing the culture.”
Aaron D. Wolf (1973-2019) was Chronicles' executive editor. His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. He was a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) and The Paul Youngblood Show (nta.fm), and has appeared on several other radio programs, including The Tom Clark Show (Wisconsin Public Radio) and Extension 720 With Milt Rosenberg (WGN).