O ne of today’s master communicators is Seth Godin. One profiler described this New York Times-bestselling author of several books as “America’s favorite marketer.” He is a leading proponent of what he calls the “post-TV-industrial complex” of marketing and communication. By that he means that there is no longer a cultural-advertising hegemony, where messages are sent in mass by a select few, the way there was in the days of the earth-sized RCA radio tower. Now, anyone has the power to craft a message that changes lives. In 2008, Godin wrote a small book about how leaders create movements called Tribes. It’s the kind of punchy manifesto any pastor or church leader with a passion for changing lives should read. In it Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.”
Marketing used to be about advertising… Today marketing is about engaging the tribe and delivering products and services with stories that spread.
– Seth Godin
With respect to Seth Godin, Jesus had this marketing principle down 2000 years ago.
His primary target audience were the crowds, or the “people.” To this group he taught with a specific, creative style, which I will call Wide.
Everyone could hear Wide teaching, whether they understood or not. (More on this later.)
Here are a few strategic principles on the Wide approach.
1. Wide teaching happens exclusively in parable.
Mark 4:33-34 says, “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”
When it came to mixed groups of crowds and disciples alike, Jesus taught with a heavy dose of creativity. He didn’t mix in plainly spoken principles and directives with parable teaching to this big group; he taught only, or exclusively, through the parable.
A parable is a story, in a broad sense. (There’s that “story” word again.) It is art. It paints a scene; it introduces an evocative visual element. Parables are not all stories in the sense that they contain a plot, though some are; some are simply images in a still life, such as a mustard seed. But they all contain a visual element, whether narrative or metaphorical in nature. In Greek, the word parable primarily means comparison. It reveals. Most importantly, and this is why I say they are stories, in a broad sense, a parable contains character development—either in a protagonist or in us as storyreceivers. A parable’s metaphor creates juxtaposition for the purpose of propelling the character forward. Character development is the essence of story and the essence of our work as Jesus followers. So, though metaphor and story are different, in a parable we hear and compare ourselves, and from this comparison grow.
Parables are short. The longest parable in the gospels is the story of the prodigal son in Luke, at 22 verses. Many are a single verse. Parables aren’t just entertaining, though they are always intriguing. They are designed to hook the storyreceiver by juxtaposing the familiar with the unknown. They contain a truth or truths, or as Jesus calls them secrets, to the kingdom of heaven, which are both plainly available and maddeningly hidden from view. In a parable, Jesus reveals himself and the nature of God.
Most of all, parables are meant to create a response. They provoke, as good art does; they incite feedback and dialogue. They stir the pot.
In your picture book I’m trying hard to see,
turning endless pages of this tragedy.
Sculpting every move you compose a symphony,
you plead to everyone, see the art in me.
– Jars of Clay
What’s the most important part of Jesus’ Wide strategy?
Jesus’ strategy for marketing to crowds is counter-intuitive.
Usually, people think you’re supposed to create simplified explanations for the outsiders. Jesus went the opposite direction, and made it more complex. Why? That will come later.
2. Wide Teaching Doesn’t Contain Just One “Point”
I address this in a separate post on art versus design. Many have made the mistake of assuming that within a parable is hidden a primary spiritual “point.” Parables are not merely riddles to be decoded and deconstructed. Instead, they are
… a means of disclosing new truth that cannot be reduced to non-parabolic, discursive language. Parables are not simply illustrations of truths that can be stated in other ways. Not only does a parable not have a number of points … but also it has no “point” at all that can be stated in non-parabolic language. A parable is like a musical composition, a painting, or a poem in that it is not an illustration of a prosaic point, but is itself an inseparable unity of form and meaning. To reduce a parable to a “point” is to dismiss it as parable and domesticate its message to more comfortable and manageable categories. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew 13:1-52.)
A parable is spoken word art. As such, it is not religious or secular, but both. It connects with the human condition and reaches crowds and disciples alike, invoking any variety of meanings that are, we must trust, appropriate to the storyreceiver.
We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. At least the truth that is given us to understand.
– Pablo Picasso
Parables are wide because they bring the secrets of the kingdom of heaven to a wide audience. They are wide because their impact is wide, and varying, according to the storyreceiver and across a range of life experience. (Entire books have been written on “polyvalence,” or the variety of ways in which people interpret meaning. Some express concern over the lack of control of the message when we use art. Big deal. It’s the job of the communicator to create with integrity, not control the storyreceiver’s experience. At some point we must trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.)
Many have commented on the unique ministry opportunity that the digital age creates for storytelling. I focus on this with my book Digital Storytellers. The reason we have such an opportunity is that the power of Jesus’ method is no longer confined to creative masters but is available to everyone. Now, we can all use art the way Jesus spoke in parable. We can all teach Wide.
Unfortunately, most of us foul it up.
3. Most of us mitigate and therefore miss the primary benefit of Wide teaching.
We mess up Wide teaching when we miss the point of parables, that they don’t have a “point.”
We mess it up when we do a teaching series that breaks down a Jesus parable such as the mustard seed and explain what it means.
We mess it up when we only use art as illustrations for our propositions. (Unfortunately, that’s how most of us apply creativity.)
Most leaders and communicators I’ve worked with for long periods of time have gone through a stage where they begin to associate visual art with parables, but make the mistake of presenting a biblical parable for the purpose of breaking it down. Of course, the reason for this is that it’s easier to exegete a Jesus parable. Making our own is doggone hard. This is the work of the artist. (More on this later, too.)
As discussed, and just as tragically, we also mess up Wide teaching when we engage art as “relevance” without the connection to truth that parable contains. When this happens, we’re wide but shallow. It is in these moments we reduce the message to gimmickry and sully the artistic experience.
In spite of these pitfalls, the Gospels demonstrates the power of Jesus’ marketing strategy of Wide teaching. It creates impact. It changes hearts and lives. The Bible tells us so and I’ve seen it happen.
This is part 5 of a 12 part series, Jesus Marketer.
Next, Part 6: How Jesus Marketed to Disciples.