Could you imagine if the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah met a current marketing consultant?
“Jeremiah, listen – this whole death and destruction thing – not going over well. People respond to hope, love, prosperity. Now, I understand, ‘judgment is coming.’ Perhaps, though, we could shift the focus a bit: you know, try more ‘eat, drink and be merry’ and less ‘tomorrow we die.’”
Crazy, right? Yet, it highlights an important truth. Once one adopts a marketing model, which makes the consumer the priority, one’s message inevitably conforms to demand. For decades, church marketers have denied this phenomenon. Marketing, they say, simply helps churches overcome misperceptions and connect people to the truth. It changes the package, not the message.
Historically, though, marketing has dramatically changed the church’s message. Dr. John Hardin documents this change in his scholarly work, “Retailing Religion.” He writes that in the 1970s, Pastor Robert Shuller popularized a church marketing model that adapted method and message to fit the consumer. Among those who attended Shuller’s Institutes for Successful Church Leadership are some of today’s most prominent mega-church pastors. These pastors, Hardin says, “generate(d) a church marketing explosion in the 1990s” that propelled Shuller’s philosophy into an era of staggering influence.
Specifically, Shuller urged pastors to survey their communities; find out what people want; and then design church accordingly. He also advocated tweaking the gospel to appeal to what Hardin calls “a modern therapeutic and consumption-oriented audience.” Shuller reduced sin to “a lack of self-esteem” and God to “a means (of) temporal and material satisfaction.”
Today, researchers have a name for this gospel. It’s called “moralistic therapeutic deism” – and researchers say it’s the prevailing belief among today’s young people.
You see, following market forces leads to heresy because God’s truth is not consumer-friendly. Jeremiah was thrown into well and Jesus nailed to a cross. God calls churches to proclaim the gospel, not sell it – and to follow Him, not man.