H ave you ever wished your idea had more impact?
Jesus was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts. – Matthew 7:29
Often it seems that our messages float away without reaching those who so desperately need it. We speak with passion but watch in dismay as our words scatter across the floor, burst by cell phone rings, door slams, and most importantly, competing ideas already waiting in the storyreceiver’s mental queue line.
How do you cut through and hold people’s attention, which is the first step to changing their hearts and lives?
Jesus had a marketing strategy.
This statement may cause some church leaders to have an aneurism, but it’s true.
Depending on his audience and context, Jesus employed two distinct communication styles. In every situation, he spoke strategically, and in doing so gave us a model for effective communication.
Boy, have we messed it up. Most of the time, we in the church fail miserably at understanding and following Jesus’ strategy. Instead, we go to one extreme or another.
I don’t know why I go to extremes.
– Billy Joel
Consider these two poles:
Strategic Fail #1: “Relevance.”
I once saw a non-denominational church in Dallas advertise their new sermon series, “Desperate Households,” which began on Easter Sunday. I show their ad in seminars, where liturgical church types gasp in horror.
I suppose it was an attempt to be relevant. Relevance is an abused word, a good word that has been taken in by bad guardians. Many have tried to make it wear hipster clothes. Relevant gets confused with recent. Intentions behind such work are good. The attempt to redeem cultural expression is an act of incarnational ministry. But, ironically, a misguided focus on what is recent often hurts the work of kingdom of heaven, because attempts to be relevant fail when we chase culture, a slippery devil, and eschew the call to discipleship. Many, many contemporary style churches make this accommodationist mistake.
In addition to communicating about Jesus, what if we began to communicate like Jesus?Worse, technology mostly exacerbates the problem. In twenty years as a church creative and communicator, and in spite of the rise of worship projection, the internet, and social media, we haven’t gotten better in our ability to communicate the gospel. In many cases, according to data on church attendance and the discipleship of our young, we’ve gotten worse.
We have missed and misunderstood Jesus’ marketing strategy and it has hurt our efforts to reveal the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
Tactics are symptomatic. Relevance is not about following technology or culture trends, anyway.
Here’s a fundamental truth:
To be relevant is not to be recent. It’s to resonate.
To resonate is to ring in the ears of the receiver.
This type of relevance is like the recent type but goes deeper. To be relevant is to tap into the holistic well. It’s not to abandon the life of the mind, but to create a new synthesis. It is what happens when the message connects to heart mind, and soul, in the meeting of the places where we feel and the places where we think. Messages that find their way to this deep fountain change lives.
Strategic Fail #2: “Religion.”
A rising anti-relevance movement has re-emerged, in part as a push back against misguided attempts at relevance. Maybe you heard pastor Matt Chandler’s hilarious rant against “Dallas Evangelicalism,” or big event machines with thumping music, fog, lattes, and vibrating chairs. He says, this is something, but it isn’t church. Some versions of our accommodationist attempts to reach crowds have lost the Nicean tension of fully human, fully divine. (More on this later.)
But, in response, many of us have thrown out the connection baby with the dirty bathwater. We’ve decided that the effort to be relevant is facile entertainment and devoid of scriptural truth. Some even want to return to the pre-McLuhan days, where we operate like there’s no such thing as the communication act – that if we say something, it will transmit intact as intended from our mouth to the storyreceiver’s ear. We end up removing ourselves from culture altogether.
Even in innovative environments, communicators try to remove the package. I have seen one recent screen image, advertising an upcoming sermon series, that says “Galatians” in beautiful art design. Another one shows a flock of seagulls taking off and says “True Freedom.” These approaches may seem innocuous, but behind them is some bad thinking. These approaches try to use the screen image – the medium – merely as an ornament, or a fancy way to present an idea.
And I ran, I ran so far away. I couldn’t get away.
– A Flock of Seagulls
Each is a professional quality treatment of a topic or a text. But neither has resonance. The experience of people attending those services would probably not be negatively impacted if the images weren’t there.
Or, I’ll hear pastors try to separate topical preaching and biblical preaching. They might design a sermon series using a sports metaphor followed by a series on an Old Testament book, as if they want to target different audiences.
This is a misguided strategy, as we will see. All messages should be biblical. All should resonate with the crackle of the zeitgeist, too. Some people don’t think it’s possible to do both at once. I do.
When the temple curtain ripped, Jesus broke down the barrier of sacred and secular.
As I said in part one, most of us understand that
The way we communicate is an inseparable part of what we communicate.
Relevance isn’t helping. Neither is denial. With both of these extremes, we foul it up, and we recycle our mistakes with every new communications advance.
Still with me?
It’s time we returned to the source: Jesus.
In addition to communicating about Jesus, what if we began to communicate like Jesus?
Let’s not miss this crucial principle: The Bible was clear that there was authority in his teaching. With our modern detached analysis of biblical text, we fall into a trap of thinking his disembodied words gave him authority. But if we’d been there, we see with clarity that it’s not just the words, but rather through a combination of his words, his charisma, and his communication technique.
I believe Jesus employed a craft to communicating the gospel, and we can learn from it. He modified his message according to the group with whom he was speaking. He raised questions rather than answered them, he spoke in cryptic stories, and he confined straightforward spiritual directives to a small group rather than offering them to everyone. His teaching style changed according to the audience, or as I prefer to say, the storyreceiver.
The purpose of this series is to break down this method. We can learn his methods, and in this learning achieve a level of authority and retention that is the goal of any communicator.
If you want to communicate the gospel, you need to understand how Jesus communicated the gospel.
This is part 3 of a 12 part series, Jesus Marketer.
Next, Part 4: I’m Done with Marketing